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Resilient Images: Linda Fregni Nagler

Linda Fregni Nagler interviewed by Chiara Moioli

 

Artist Linda Fregni Nagler talks about Hana to Yama, her latest solo show at Vistamare, Pescara. Nagler presents a series of works directly linked to the tradition of the archival photography of the Japanese school of Yokohama, expressing her interest in collecting, archiving, serializing, redistributing and recreating images, their stories and paths in time. Through her practice of appropriation, the artist seeks to disguise herself by embodying different authors, deliberately blurring the concept of authorship while also gaining a stylistic freedom that makes her work consciously less “recognizable” or referable to a specific “style.”

 

Chiara Moioli: Could you talk about how your interest in archival photography, in that of the Yokohama school in particular, came about?

Linda Fregni Nagler: For nearly two decades I have been collecting anonymous photographs, concentrating in particular on the decades immediately following the discovery of photography, through the first half of the twentieth century. The material that I collect is of a very diverse nature: scientific, didactic, ethnographic, journalistic, that of travels… I am particularly interested in the professional, commercial or amateur, non-artistic use of photography, in the particular delineated trajectories from specific uses of this medium, in its internal mechanisms, its grammar, and I seek to study it as if I were studying a language, or rather, the various dialects of one language.
The photographs from the Yokohama school are perhaps the most “artistic” in my collection, in the sense that they represent a perfect synthesis between  the visual language of photography, documented testimony, and the traditional iconography of the age-old culture of a people, in the second half of the nineteenth century, still little known in the West.
The images of the Yokohama Shashin respect a very precise and traditional iconography, that of the ukiyo-ewoodcut. Every image is made according to rigorous requirements, it doesn’t matter who the master (foreign or Japanese) or author is. The photographs were hand colored by painters specialized in flesh, plants, the sky, and the coloration of a good photograph took at least one day. The processes were so long in the atelier that they established a mounting chain that had a precise hierarchic production and followed the inclinations and degree of skill of each colorist. The negative plates are still difficult to identify today since they were commercial exchange objects that moved between various photographers.
Not because of anything programmatic on the part of the photographers, this moment in Japanese history certainly reunites an extraordinary series of conceptual aspects of this medium: the artificial staging of a world headed for extinction; the recovery, through photography, of an iconographic manual tradition; a certain educational and commercial characteristic of the images; manual intervention in a technique of mechanical reproduction, and last but not least, the anonymity or the difficulty in attributing authorship to each photograph. And it’s thanks to the incredible concentration of these diverse aspects that I developed such a passion for this genre of photography.

CM: Could you give an account of the processes of collecting, choosing and producing your analogical works?

LFN: My research follows parallel threads. Photography isn’t only image or technique, but also support materials, objects. To describe this difference, English speakers distinguish with the two terms “image” and “picture”. For me, possessing the picture is important because the support is always a harbinger for a great deal of information. The collection, study and archiving of visual materials often takes a long time. This sedimentation allows for reflection about what the best way will be to translate and render visible what I see, what I choose. When I’ve reached a certain critical mass of images, I begin to work. Sometimes it isn’t necessary to transform the material, since the photographs, once gathered and assembled, change; they become works in and of themselves, like in the case of The Hidden Mother, the work that I presented at the Venice Biennale in 2013, made up of 997 original photographs.
For other projects, still based on existing photographs, I reconstruct entire sets and create new photographs. For yet other projects, like in the case of this recent show at Vistamare in Pescara, the work of composition, analogue reproduction, leveling out the print was necessary, and in this case there was also manual coloration—a practice I had never tried before—which opened new possibilities for me to work with the ambiguous nature of the images.
I spend a lot of time in the darkroom, I like to print and to follow the production process from beginning to end. The time spent in the darkroom is a moment to test the “resilience” of the images. When you spend a long time on a subject and after many attempts and trials and that subject still has the power of attraction, that’s when it means that you are dealing with an image that is good to start working with.
Every category of images invites particular care, a unique kind of elaboration; it would be clumsy and insensitive to treat journalistic American photographs from the 1920s like daguerreotypes from the nineteenth century. Identifying the form of the correct tradition of the images is the inventive part of my work. The possibilities are infinite.

CM: For the two series of works shown at Vistamare, that of the flower vendors and the one depicting Mount Fujiyama, you gathered photographs in which the shooting space is almost identical. What is it that fascinates you, and is there anything you wish to reveal by showing this seriality?

LFN: Seriality is a very important factor in my collection criteria: if of two very similar images I can find a third variant, a recurrence is already triggered, and then a reasoning on the conventions of a certain photographic strand. I reason in very simple terms: here are very similar artifacts, someone has produced them for a reason, and they are certainly part of a larger system. Sometimes it is about finding variants within the identical.
The photographers of Yokohama produced photographic “models,” subjects that return, emulating the composition created by a competing studio. The border between copying and plagiarism (another theme that is dear to me) is very subtle. My collection focuses on the accumulation of different examples of the same model, for example the “woman facing the wind and rain,” the “whispering geishas,” the “broom sellers,” and of course the two subjects on which I focused for this exhibition: the street vendors selling flowers and the views of Mount Fuji.
The flower peddlers attracted the attention of Western tourists because of the small portable structures with which they carried the flowers. There is a wonderful book compiled by Francis Brinkley in 1897, in ten volumes, illustrated with albumen photographs hand-glued on the pages, entitled Japan: described and illustrated by the Japanese. The flower sellers are described as follows: “They are veritable walking bouquets, and add to the picturesque street life, like a kaleidoscope, abounds in movement and color.” In the photographs of the Yokohama Shashin, the flower sellers pose in photographers’ studios, aware of being looked at, in front of a neutral backdrop, assuming proud and imposing poses. Their figures and structures always occupy the same space within the frame. I reproduced and then printed some of these images in large format, painting them by hand to enhance the sculptural and artificial nature of these figures.
As for Mount Fuji, I was interested in investigating how the sacred mountain, always present in the Japanese pictorial tradition and, in particular, in woodcuts, was represented in photography by the masters of Yokohama. Initially I wanted to take on the thirty-six views of Fuji by Hokusai, proposing a work that included 36 photographic views of Fuji taken by the photographers of Yokohama (about thirty years after Hokusai). I collected more than a hundred, and I realized that very often Fujiyama was immortalized by several photographers from the same privileged points of view to admire the mountain. So I started to create various “sub-collections” of the collection, composed precisely of the places from which Fuji was photographed. In those images, I was interested in understanding the relationship between the time and space of the frame. There is a clear and transparent relationship regarding space: the framing is often identical among the various authors, with Fuji always in the background, or otherwise barely visible. But the temporal component is enigmatic, or rather indecipherable: which photograph was taken before, and what is the time difference that accompanies four, six or ten almost identical views of the sacred mountain, taken by different photographers? Are they taken at different times of the same day, or are there months or even years between shots? Taking advantage of these groupings, polyptychs were created for the exhibition, of which the most representative is undoubtedly Fuji from Otometoge, made up of ten views of Fuji from the same place. After having re-photographed the originals on the photographic plate, I printed them while trying to harmonise the bright atmospheres, then I colored them giving them the same daylight, while inserting stripes of “foreign” color: these pink stripes evoke the defects in the winding on of a photographic film roll.

CM: The discourse around image reproduction is part of the tradition of Picture Generations with artists like Sherrie Levine, Richard Prince, and, even earlier, Elaine Sturtevant. What interests you in the act of appropriation per se?

LFN: You mentioned some of my heroes in your question. Of these authors (namely those of the Pictures Generation, or Warhol even earlier) I admire the conceptual breadth, and the intelligence of making the semantic mechanisms of photography and art visible. But even if I consider the practice of appropriation a conceptual achievement, when I work it is not so much the appropriation itself that interests me, but the idea of ​​being able to reactivate a material that is in itself “extinct,” to give voice and visibility, through different forms of  “translation,” to peripheral or marginal events in the history of images. A more Warburgian attitude perhaps, in the sense that I am interested in the cyclicity of forms: Warburg calls them pathosformeln. His theory, even if I seem to simplify it, is certainly applicable also to the history of photography, if understood, in a broad sense, as a history of taste (or rather as a representation of the history of taste) or as a (mechanical) representation of the human being.

CM: Through the analysis, recovery and re-contextualization of pre-existing images, mostly anonymous, you add a new layer of investigation and also a new chapter in the history of the image itself. Can you expand on the concept of authorship that impregnates your reasoning?

LFN: In the history of art, and in particular in that of photography, visual models are drawn upon. This happens through different influences: the technological unconscious of the machine, an artistic subject that acts as a model (who has not at least once reproduced the pose of the Wanderer above the Sea of Fogby Friedrich, in a photograph?)…
Vernacular photographs also reveals a series of historical-anthropological indications about the suitability or the social legitimacy of representing certain subjects: I refer, for example, to the photographs of indigenous colonies, or how to keep children in front of the camera in the 19th century, or even the way of photographing animals up to thirty years ago, inconceivable today. In Thinking Photography, Victor Burgin, an artist and theoretician whom I greatly admire, writes: “The reception of photographs as a place of work, a structured and structuring space within which the reader deploys, and is deployed, by whatever codes he or she is familiar with in order to make sense.”
In my work, I try to make the expressive conventions of a certain society at a precise moment in history visible. It is a historical but also a political observation of a visual cosmology. I try to make visible what first strikes me when I research, collect and study. But I do it as an artist, not as a historian, nor as a theorist: the language with which I reconstitute my reflections is visual, non-verbal, so I take all possible liberties, always respecting the material I have in my hands. Visual arts are one of the very few disciplines in which looking is a profession in its own right.
I enjoy embodying different authors; I do not like the idea that my work is recognizable, that it has “a style.” I like those who look at my work to wonder—perhaps just for a moment—what my role as an author was. In short, I like making myself invisible. Perhaps in this sense the role of artist, in my practice, sometimes overlaps with that of the curator (I remember once, at the end of a performance, a projection for magic lanterns staged at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm, that people went up to shake hands and compliment the actor who voiced the work, believing that he was the author: this amused me very much!). It is obvious that if another person worked on the same set of photographs, he would identify a completely different way to express or translate what he sees. In the practice of artists who, like me, work with pre-existing materials, the concept of authorship only seems to be blurry; in actual fact it is not blurry at all—it is only hidden, and sometimes as in my case, it is done deliberately.

 

Linda Fregni Nagler (Stockholm, 1976) lives and works in Milan. She graduated from Milan’s Brera Academy of Fine Arts in 2000. In 2004 she completed a diploma in Visual Arts at the Fondazione Ratti, in Como, with Jimmie Durham. In 2006 she frequented the Cinematographic Photography course at the Escuele International de Cine y Television in San Antonio de Los Baños, Cuba. In 2013 she was invited to the 55th Venice BiennaleThe Encyclopedic Palace, curated by Massimiliano Gioni. In 2015 she enacted her performance Things That Death Cannot Destroy (part 7), at Moderna Museet in Stockholm. In 2007 she won the New York Prize. In 2008 she was awarded a residency at the Dena Foundation in Paris, followed, in 2014, by a residency at IASPIS in Stockholm. In 2016 she was awarded the Premio Acacia. In 2017, together with Cristiano Raimondi, she curated Hercule Florence – Le Nouveau Robinsonat the Nouveau Musée National de Monaco.

 

at Vistamare, Pescara
until 26 October 2018

 

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