The 90’s by Alejandro Castellote

I have heard more than one wine expert say “the finest wine is the one that you like best”, which requires us to acknowledge the inherent subjectivity of human evaluation. By implication, it also implies that it is impossible for one to think entirely objectively, based solely on rational parameters. That is to say, it is impossible that one is not contaminated by their own emotional experience.

When we talk about art, or about listing the most important artists of a particular period, the arguments of the wine experts are equally applicable. Making lists is a popular Anglo-Saxon custom, and it’s great fun too. One only needs to remember the film High Fidelity or take a look on the internet to check this out; we have all, undoubtedly, made our own lists on occasion. However, it is a very different thing to hope that such lists will be paragons of objectivity, no matter who wrote them. This is my list of the most significant photographers of the 90s. But within a few years, or months, or perhaps even by next week, the members of my list could change. 

Genius is a term that is rarely used within the field of contemporary art criticism. Since the emergence of conceptual art back in the 1960s, other criteria have dominated. Since then, we curators have increasingly chosen works of art and not artists, allowing us to illustrate and endorse a certain theme or, as we say nowadays, a certain story. I have often defined Chema Madoz’s work as one of an island photographer, difficult to contextualise in a concrete time, tricky to classify within an artistic trend… (perhaps Yamamoto Masao shares a similar insularity). In my opinion, the question should not be, “where do we include him?” but, “is it necessary to do so?” Chema Madoz possesses a kind of magic; taking us on a journey into another realm, he encourages us to see certain objects in an entirely different way. He introduces a kind of perceptual duality that is inherent to the objects, something which is not dissimilar from the concept of duality taught within Zen Buddhism. His objects are like a glove that can be turned inside out; the interior and exterior coexist in the same, single form. 

I’ve rarely seen artwork that is able to cross so many frontiers in the way that it speaks to its audiences. Whether in Sidney, in Seoul, in Houston, in Tokyo or in Madrid, his photos are read in the same way. A few years ago I visited a photography workshop for children in one of the most precarious areas of Lima, the so-called pueblos jóvenes (shanty towns); there, a good friend of mine had spent more than a decade teaching kids how to create images without cameras. They made stills, using only light and photographic paper. The streets of this population settlement are unpaved and often get covered in mud. When I arrived, the kids had prepared a small path with stones for me, so that I wouldn’t ruin my shoes. The attention they paid me was somewhat overwhelming. “It’s because I told them you were a friend of Chema Madoz”, my friend confessed to me, giggling. For them Chema is a genius; someone who can collect but a few stones and transform them into a thousand other things. Thanks to him, those kids know that all the power of creation is in one’s head, not in the media available to them. This extraordinary connection with people is felt throughout his exhibitions across the world. And that is something that only a very few artists can hope to achieve. In 2015, the editor of the History of European Photography (1900 to 2000), from Bratislava, suggested I write about the last stretch of Spanish photography in the 20th century (from 1970 to 2000). He wanted the cover of the final volume from that period to be Chema Madoz’s staircase, and he asked for my opinion. Chema and I, without knowing it, grew up in neighbouring boroughs and we are almost contemporaries, a complete coincidence that I sometimes think colours my admiration for him and makes me lose sight of any objectivity about his work. However, those concerns disappear when I step into Chema’s “universality”, I see that I am not blind. 

There are photographers that carry out their work liberated from the ambition to one day hang it on museum walls. Seydou Keïta (Bamako, Mali 1921-2001) is one of those; from 1948 he ran a modest portrait studio in Bamako, the capital of Mali, which ended up being one of the most important studios in the city. It was during the 1990s that André Magnin introduced Europe to Keïta’s photography. Everyone talked of his “discovery”, although Keïta was already famous in his own country. The truth is that this new-found artistic appreciation of his professional photographs, something that had, at the time, already occurred for Karl Blossfeldt, Martín Chambi and Eugène Atget, opened the door to an unstoppable flow of international artists with the same profile, whose photographs were now being seen through different eyes. When a photograph (or any other work of art) is separated from the cultural context in which it originated, the work is opened up to the possibility of new meaning, something that Walter Benjamin already advanced on in The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, in 1936. After him, we were also introduced to J.D. Okhai Ojeikere and, in particular, Malick Sidibé, the latter of whom had been trained in Keïta’s studio. We exhibited both artists in PHotoEspaña 1999 and invited them to come to Madrid. The magnificent elegance of their traditional Malian boubou (dress) caught the attention of passersby wherever they went, but what surprised me the most was the respect that Malick Sidibé unfailingly showed for his teacher at all times; he never interrupted him when he spoke and would always sit himself discreetly in the background, redirecting any questions to Keïta. One of the photographs that was shown in the Telefónica Foundation, the portrait that is pictured here, is one of my favourite photographs. I’ve kept the press copy ever since and it has accompanied me almost as if it belonged to my family album. When I look at it I feel a sudden burst of optimism, it irradiates happiness. It’s just a little piece of plastic paper, without any real value, but it changes my mood every time I see it. 

Seydou Keïta has rapidly become a symbol of African photography. One of the most recognised artists on the continent, Samuel Fosso, paid tribute to him in his self-portrait series African Spirits in which he adopts the guises of some of the most renowned icons of his race (among them Mandela, Haïlé Sélassié, Martin Luther King, Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali and Malcom X). It is thrilling to see the stature that his portraits have given him, perhaps because they capture the dignity of a people enjoying emancipation from the French colonial period. Perhaps because dignity is achieved through self-representation.

Okwui Enwezor said that his work was comparable to the portraits of Rembrandt. Strangely enough, Martín Chambi, the great master of Peruvian photography, who managed the most important photography studio in Cuzco throughout the first half of the 20th century, publicised his portraits in magazines with the following slogan: “Photographed in the style of Rembrandt”. The quality of artists from the periphery of the West tends to be enhanced by their aesthetic proximity to a European or North American master. When many people first studied the work of Japanese artist Yasumasa Morimura, they said, “it looks like Cindy Sherman!” The truth is that his work is contemporary to that of the North American artist, but far from developing any kind of competitive animosity, the two artists admire one another mutually. In fact, Sherman’s piece Untitled # 96 was lovingly honoured by Morimura in To my Little Sister: for Cindy Sherman, 1998. Across all his work, Morimura is dedicated to tackling the subject of identity from different perspectives, calling upon masters of Western painting and icons of popular music, cinema and politics. He even adopts female roles himself, following the tradition of Japanese Kabuki theatre, where female characters are played by men. In his most important and extensive series The History of Art, he employs irony to question the omnipresence of Western works in the “official” art histories, and he does so by giving the historical icons of painting asian features. He then reinforces his point with his own presence —by way of performance— in all of his reinterpretations. Morimura is himself a revered icon in Asia. In 2010 I had the opportunity to meet him when he was participating in an art fair in Seoul: the queue to greet him or to have him sign a book, postcard, brochure or anything of the sort stretched for tens of metres. Korea venerating a Japanese artist. That’s how wonderful the empathetic effect of art is.

One of the most obvious characteristics of the 90s is staging, a practice which has extended into the first decade of the 2000s. Some examples are Marcos López (Argentina), Gregory Crewdson (U.S.A.), Erwin Olaf (Netherlands), Wang Qingsong (China), Nelson Garrido (Venezuela), Gilbert&George (UK), Pierre et Gilles (France), Azadeh Akhlaghi (Iran), Greg Semu (New Zealand), Kudzanai Chiurai (Zimbabwe), Michael Cook (Australia)… and, of course, Cindy Sherman, from the 80s, and the Canadian Jeff Wall. Hundreds of photographers and artists from all over the world have created their images using references from painting, advertising and cinema, as well as employing resources from theatre, collage and digital photomontage. My choice of Jeff Wall has to do with the additional theoretical contribution that he has developed in parallel to his work. Wall literally constructs his images with fragments which he then groups together on the computer: a technique which conceals the joins and evens out the levels. This newly created image allows him to activate the “second shutter”. This term, which has clear photographic resonance, illustrates the desire to repeat the capture in other ways. Putting it more simply, one could say that there are photographers who go out onto the streets with the hope that their reality will provide them with situations in keeping with the particular subject that they wish to reflect on, and, if luck is on their side, that those situations will occur right in front of their camera. Others have opted for assembling their content using digital photomontage, activating that other shutter when the internal organisation of the image responds to what they want to communicate. José Luis Brea also reflected on this topic in 1996 in his essay The optical unconscious and the second shutter. Photography in the era of its computerisation.

Jeff Wall works with an icon of classical painting as his starting point. Conceptually we could say that that first step acts as the canvas on which he elaborates a contemporary story: using the content of the painting to comment on the present. He uses large formats that recall those used by painters, but he adds a formal characteristic that provides a temporal key: he displays his work in large light boxes, an imitation of cinema screens. In a way, he demands the same involvement that spectators achieve with cinematographic fiction in which plausibility replaces truthfulness (what Coleridge called “the willing suspension of disbelief” in relation to novels in 1817). Seen in perspective, Jeff Wall was anticipating the omnipresence of screens as the hegemonic medium of communication.

Andreas Gursky is one of the best-known representatives of the so-called Dusseldorf School, a collective that was consolidated in the context of the reunification of Germany. A historical turning point in which the country was not only putting itself forward as leader of the European economy, but also aspiring to become both an artistic and cultural reference point. Gurksy focuses on the visual representation of global society. He portrays the multitudinous nature of that society in all its forms, prioritising the symbolism that arises from the images; an iconographic spectrum in which the sophisticated elegance of big brand stores coexists with the proliferation of supermarkets. His representations range from the beehive buildings of the working-class neighbourhoods and the factories, to the headquarters of capitalism —the Stock Exchanges— or the stadiums, the skyscrapers, the libraries… The monumental is presented as the zeitgeist of our time. The format and size of his works are also monumental, they subtly parody the paintings of great battles of centuries past. They are a kind of hyper-realistic diorama that relies on the objectivity historically associated with photography. Compared with the visual purity of Cándida Höffer, who limits herself to recreating spaces of power without any formal Mannerism —what you see is what you get —, Gurksy is less iconoclastic and he even allows himself to use digital manipulations that give his representations greater impact. In a way, he shares Jeff Wall’s desire to create images that are in tune with the aesthetic of his time, that which is being shaped and spectacularised by technology.

I believe it was Walter Binder, the founder of the Swiss Foundation for Photography in Zurich and good friend of Robert Frank, who took me to meet Walter Keller in 1997 in his bookshop, SCALO, in Zurich. The headquarters of Keller’s publishing house had a small showroom that at the time was literally covered with colour photocopies of Nobuyoshi Araki. I later met the two Walters again when Robert Frank was presented with the Hasselblad award in Gothenburg. The rigid protocol of the ceremony —the prize was given by the Swedish princess— provoked a comment from Binder, which was, in my opinion, classic; distancing himself from the coldness of the Swedes, he spoke of “we the southern Europeans”, which in the mouth of a Swiss greatly astonished me. The truth is that Walter Binder’s human warmth honourably placed him within our territory. Keller, who prematurely died in 2014, was the editor of SCALO, the publishing reference of the 90s. He published Keïta and Malick Sidibé’s first books (1997) and he edited the works of Robert Frank, Nan Goldin, Paul Graham, Jurgen Teller and many more, among which was the histrionic Araki and the unclassifiable Boris Mikhailov. In 1998 he published Mikhailov’s Unfinished Dissertation or discussions with oneself; by then, Mikhailov had already been living in Berlin for a year and had received the Albert Renger-Patzsch Prize. But Mikhailov’s true “discovery” in Europe was brought about by Case History (1999), a series of heartbreaking portraits of the characters that the recently disappeared Soviet Union had left in cruel marginalisation, belonging to an unrecognised social group, or one that was at least invisible in the territory of the USSR (lest we forget the famine —the Holodomor— which Stalin subjected Ukraine to during the process of collectivisation of the land, between 1932 and 1934, leaving millions dead in the country and in the rest of the Soviet Union). All those disinherited by the new capitalist oligarchy who sat for Mikhailov between 1997 and 1998 lived, if you can really call it living, in their hometown: Kharkiv, Ukraine. Walter Keller had spoken to me about Mikhailov but I was not aware of the scope of his work until I saw Case History. The book does not make Mannerist concessions in the page layout; his 400 photographs, almost always displayed across joined diptychs, hit you one by one, ensuring that the absorption of the whole ensemble of photos is prolonged over time. I don’t believe that I have ever felt so overwhelmed by photographs as I did then. The enormous impact of Case History paved the way for the discovery of Mikhailov’s previous series, cementing his reputation as a passionate photographer and life radical. 

The Finnish Elina Brotherus came to Chalon-sur-Saône in 1999 for an artistic residency at the Nicéphore-Niépce Museum. She didn’t know a single word in French, and so busied herself by sticking post-its all over the studio where she lived in order to associate the objects which surrounded her with French words. Quickly those small yellow squares became an additional layer for her self-portraits, an escape route for the expression of her feelings. The photograph titled The nose of Monsieur Cheval is ironically dedicated to the director of the museum at that time: François Cheval who, as well as renovating the space which had been dedicated to the memory of Niépce, spent his time developing and making copies of all the rolls of film that Antoine D’Agata sent him from different parts of the world. It was a period in which Antoine decided to leave his house in Paris to live, for several years, on permanent holiday. But that’s another story. 

By the beginning of the 21st century, Elina Brotherus was the most visible face (obviously) of what was known as the School of Helsinki. A collective of students from the University of Fine Arts, led by Timothy Persons, which became a benchmark for young European photography due to the risky and spectacular, formal and chromatic experimentations of its members, and because of the deeply self-referential nature of many of their works. Elina succeeded in making her naked body timeless, stripping it of the sexualised male gaze in order to take us by the hand and lead us into her particular universe, full of introspections, fragilities and assertions. She used and often uses two recurring scenes: private interiors and the natural landscape, sometimes paying tribute to the romantic painter Caspar David Friedrich, and his piece, Wanderer above the Sea of Fog, and others whom she considers her teachers. Arno Rafael Minkinen, for example, another of the great photographers of the 70s and 80s who many of us believed to have disappeared but who’s work, fortunately, has been once again recovered, so that we may enjoy his intense and prolific relationship with nature. This rich relationship with nature, shared by almost all Finns, is developed in Minkinen’s work as he subjects his body to endless, fascinating, performance-art mimicry. It could be said that Elina Brotherus also drew inspiration from Francesca Woodman, who was a powerful reference for so many photographers, but in Elina’s case, she abandons the mythical-tragic component that is so associated with the work of the Italian-American.

Throughout the 90s, photography continued to be a male-dominated field, but people could already sense that what would be the favourable emergence of women was just on the horizon. Sophie Calle, Nan Goldin, Annete Messager, Ana Mendieta, Sara Moon, Candida Höffer, Rineke Dijkstra, Sally Mann, Susan Meiselas, Cristina García Rodero, Graciela Iturbide, Adriana Lestido, Paz Errázuriz, Claudia Andujar and Rosângela Rennó, to name but a few, were already on the rise, just like the tip of an iceberg that would fully reveal itself in the 21st century. 

The emergence of the use of archives as one of the most important trends of contemporary art in recent decades has, in my opinion, been spearheaded by Rosângela Rennó and Christian Boltanski. The Brazilian Rennó revisits private and public archives, reassigning meanings to photographs that stem from her inherent relationship with memory in order to, as she likes to say, “work more with forgetfulness and amnesia”. She tackles two fragilities: that of photography and that of memory which she analyses and questions from the perspective of post-colonialism, politics, identity and history, resolving her hypotheses with a specific formalisation for each series. Her works acquire an eloquence which is intimately linked to her chosen medium and the devices that powerfully support the concept of her works. The meticulous symbiosis that she builds between the visual materials and devices brings to light the narrative potential of images when they abandon the artistic status that modernity has granted them. Rosângela Rennó uses sculpture, the immateriality of projections and optic devices, ensuring that the viewer engages in active dialogue with her works. They’re not easy to reproduce in a catalogue; it is necessary, despite the hackneyed expression, to experiment them for yourselves. 

In general terms, the character of this decade is defined by a broadening of the field in which photography had traditionally developed throughout the 20th century. Not only does it incorporate the crucial use that conceptual artists assign it, it also begins to break down its two-dimensionality, and instead opens itself up to physical and conceptual artistic interventions that enrich its reading. Photography ceases to be simply a discipline and instead becomes a complex structure where memory, creation, history, cultural and artistic heritage, individual introspection and the analysis of the collective can coexist and interconnect. 

The work of Guatemalan Luis González Palma is a good example of this formal and conceptual broadening of the medium of photography, especially in Latin America, where photography had been closely tied to social commitment, that is to say, that photography was used as a tool to shine a light on political and economic inequalities and injustices. Many Latin American artists addressed these issues while also adding other more introspective matters to their thematic catalogue, questioning, for example, the semantic hegemony of photographs and their autonomy as an artistic medium, and incorporating mestizo language through a hybrid of different techniques. 

For Luis González Palma, our way of seeing is determined by our social and cultural experience: “every gaze is political and all artistic production must be subject to that opinion. The power of the gaze.” To that end, with his eclecticism, he has produced images which have been progressively nourished by an extensive repertoire of visual materials and archives belonging to the collective memory of his country. In them, mentions of history and the mechanisms of exclusion that we initiate with every gaze are shown in the way in which the nineteenth-century, Positivist anthropometry stereotyped the indigenous people. Other themes that Palma touches on in his work are introspection, intimacy, power and the representation of the unseen: “what is not seen when one looks, what is not said when one speaks”. His works feed off elements borrowed from Catholic imagery and the theatre, with echoes of Baroque, Pre-Raphaelite and religious painting, to which he adds cinematographic codes and resources that come from architecture, dance, music and the ancient techniques of photography.

Hiroshi Sugimoto’s series Seascapes is based on two essential elements: air and water. In his photographs, he arranges the horizon exactly in the middle of the frame, ensuring a maximum degree of minimalism. The setting is the sea. A subject which has been dealt with ad nauseum across all artistic expressions throughout history. When I first saw Sugimoto’s seas, I thought, “that’s it, this can’t be topped”. In those landscapes, the entire spirituality of the sea is contained, its permanent changeability, its hypnotic immensity. It’s impossible not to remind you of Rothko. 
The exquisite black and white of his photographs dismiss, like never before, any suggestion of the trivial. Only Sugimoto himself could add a final twist to such emphatic work. And he did so in an installation which took place inside a chapel during the 2013 Arles Encounters. Moving through that space in darkness and silence invited nothing short of meditation. It was undeniably reminiscent of Jun’ichiro Tanizaki’s In Praise of Shadows. And yes, Sugimoto had spun the skyline round, destabilising that immaculate balance that the photographs, taken in the 80s and 90s, had once offered, and interrupting the horizon line with the foothills of the coastal landscape. You have to be very brave to undertake the challenge of revisiting your very first seas. And you have to be very audacious to use some of Talbot’s original calotype paper negatives and contact print them to see what Talbot himself never got to see. Sugimoto dares to do so because he is pushed forward by his own fascination for photography, for the essence of the procedure, for its mystique, for the intangible presence of time and for his own need to change. His photographs are not spectacular, it is the sheer depth of his work that forces us to properly open our eyes to the spectacle and really see. Sugimoto says, “every time I view the sea, I feel a calming sense of security, as if visiting my ancestral home; I embark on a voyage of seeing.”

Alejandro Castellote

24 March 2021

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