30 May 2016

The Blank Screen

Jason Shulman - 2001: A Space Odyssey

The above image is a time elapse photo of Stanley Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey. It takes a familiar medium, film, and renders it unintelligible. There are objects within the image, but holding them for long becomes tenuous.

English photographer Jason Shulman has been getting a lot of press lately for these images. It began, as far as I could tell, with a piece in Wired on May 9th. From there, the story has been 'picked up' by various reblog sites. This trend of posting another sources news to your own website as if you came up with it is an odd internet for of the Associated Press that I'm both ok and really wary of. But that's another discussion.

J.M.W. Turner -
Rain, Wind, and Speed - The Great Western Railway (1844)
The images are beautiful. They recall the works of J.M.W. Turner, I have professed my love before.

In some of the photos you can make out distinct images from the movies. The above 2001 image, for instance clearly showcases the red light of Hal at the center of the frame.

And while they most strongly resemble Turner or more abstract painters like Rothko or even Pollack, I was immediately struck by an omission from the discussion.

From the Wired article:
Shulman lives and works in London, and typically creates sculptures. During the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics he decided to test an idea he had about photography, which basically involved shooting the Games without going to Russia. He trained a camera on his television and took long exposure photos of athletes in motion. Most of the events he recorded were brief, leading him to wonder what might happen if he shot longer stretches of action.
And I don't doubt that this is the inspiration that Shulman's idea originated from but...

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Akron Civic Theater, Ohio (1980)

This is a photo by Hiroshi Sugimoto taken in 1980. It is a long exposure of a movie screen playing a movie. As a result of the black and white film and long exposure the screen becomes a clean white omnipresent eye hovering over the audience that appear, albeit as nearly unrecognizable smears in their seats. He started this series in 1978. His description:
Different movies give different brightnesses. If it's an optimistic story, I usually end up with a bright screen; if it's a sad story, it's a dark screen. Occult movie? Very dark.
The Guardian ran a great gallery of this series on March 1 of this year.

Interestingly both the National and Tate galleries in London have Sugimoto pieces in their permanent collection. And there was a full exhibit of his work in 2004 at the Serpentine Gallery. Also in London. Where Shulman lives.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Lightening Fields 128 (2008)
Now. I'm not calling this stealing. I'm not even going to really blast Shulman because artists can and should find inspiration where it lies and I don't think this is malicious or intentional.

Inspiration comes odd, when it comes. And it's not always clear even to the creator where the seed idea came from. And that's what I'm guessing occurred here.

Shulman can be excused for not knowing a photographer since he works mainly in sculpture. I don't know every writer, so I'm going to give him a pass.

The people writing articles about him on the other hand. These are people paid to look into topics. A quick search online brings up Sugimoto's work. And that work was featured in Wired in 2014. Sugimoto's work has been in Wired at least 5 times, the most recent one in January of this year. So I don't blame Shulman. I blame bad reporting.

Because Sugimoto's work is really well-known. His experiments in photography are diverse and well-documented. He spent a few years shooting electricity at photo-sensitive panels. He photographs wax figures in a way to make them look like living people. He's an odd dude.

Hiroshi Sugimoto - Fidel Castro (1999)
And that's the problem.

In all of this press about Shulman and his movie photos there is not one mention of Sugimoto. A Japanese man who has spent the better part of 60 years innovating and experimenting in his genre.

Let me be clear. Both works can, and should, be praised. They are working towards different ends. Shulman seems interested purely in what each film looks like filmed this way, in the aesthetic of the result. Sugimoto is interested in everything but the movie. He is interested in the rooms, the people, the eeriness of sitting in a room staring at nothingness for a few hours. He is interested in the time it took to film it, what it says about that time.

And this is where I will say something bad about Shulman. One of these artists is creating works that ask us to inspect ourselves and out space. The other is making a pretty picture.