With Edward Burtynsky, Carl De Keyzer, Luc Delahaye, Armin Linke, Paul Shambroom, Jules Spinatsch, Michael von Graffenried
The exhibition PANORAMIC SCENES emphasises a photographic practice that has gathered momentum since the beginning of the 21st century: the use of the panoramic format in reportage and documentary photography, not as a means to show landscapes but to depict scenes of contemporary human life. Although this phenomenon can also be seen in art photography, from Daniel Berclaz to Sam Taylor-Wood, PANORAMIC SCENES exclusively focuses on practices that are related to political and social situations.
Panorama means “seeing everything” in ancient Greek. The panoramic format, as it was developed by Robert Barker in the late 18th century, was aiming at a 360°, total illusion effect on the viewer. One was supposed to see real nature, as opposed to painted nature. According to Walter Benjamin, David advised his students not to draw from nature but from panoramas! An outcome of Renaissance perspective, these “vision machines”, oscillating between art and technology, fascinated through the feeling of omnipotence provided to the viewers: a subjective power that made them feel that they could have it all. In his book Das Panorama (Frankfurt, 1984), Stephan Oetermann wrote that panorama was the ultimate secularisation of the divine gaze.
In Surveiller et punir, Michel Foucault relates the illusion machinery of panorama to the disciplinary construction of the Panopticon. In both cases, the viewer is at the centre of the perceptible world. In the case of the panorama, free from any monitoring system, the gaze generates a feeling of omnipotence in the gazer.
It is true that the crisis of painting in the second half of the 19th century was already related to the existence of panorama, as painting’s reaction to the discovery of the horizon. The panorama could be seen as a democratisation of perspective, and considered one of the first mass media. Remember that photography is also an offspring of panorama. In order to improve the perspective result of his painted panorama, Jacques Louis Mandé Daguerre managed to fix an optical image onto a iodised silver plate, by manipulating the camera obscura.
As years went by, domes and circular buildings that housed panoramas have gradually disappeared from our cities, while photography took over as the best way to visually reproduce tangible reality. The first panoramic cameras came out very early, amongst which Friedrich Martens’s in 1845. Its 1:3 format took over as the best frame to represent landscapes of the colonised Far West or alpine tourism, for example. Ever since, the panoramic format has been used to glorify the beauty and the greatness of landscapes.
Only since 1980 have reportage photographers started to use the panoramic format. Carl de Keyzer was one of the first, and Michael von Graffenried used it to be able to photograph the civil war in the 1990’s Algeria, in order not to lift his camera to his eye. It was also since the 1980’s that the formats of the photographic prints reached dimensions similar to historical paintings, in particular with artists who had studied with Bernd Becher. This enlarged representation field immerses the viewer in the deceptive space of the photograph. Obviously, the photographic format that best immerses the viewer is the panorama.
For ten years or so, more and more reporters and documentary makers have used the panoramic format to represent contemporary social and political scenes. Without being exhaustive, the exhibition PANORAMIC SCENES attempts to review this new practice.
Edward Burtynsky (*1955) became world-famous in 2003 with his series of photographs and his book, both entitled Manufactured Landscapes. Large prints display landscapes that are completely altered by industrial intervention, such as oil fields in California, dismantled freighters on the shores of the Indian Ocean in Bangladesh or mountains of old tyres in North America. Each image is framed to emphasise an overwhelming effect, which provokes a feeling of nausea within the viewer. The nauseating consequences of our mass-consumption societies become obvious. The same year, the photographer came up with the surprising Before The Flood, a series of photographs taken in China, in the Yangtze River valley. The Chinese government is using 60,000 workers to build the world’s largest hydroelectric dam (2 km long and 185 m high) in order to produce, starting 2009, the equivalent electricity of 18 nuclear power plants. This gigantic project is in line with the typical subject of massive concentrations that the photographer strives to capture. Designed for the first time in 1919, and more topical than ever considering the foreseeable shortage of fossil energy in future years, the Yangtse project has generated unprecedented environmental and human consequences. 1.8 million people have been displaced from the valley. The chosen photograph shows the city of Fengjie after it was razed down. Men are searching for something to rescue in the remains, vanishing into a sea of stones that will soon be flooded and drowned.
_____________________________ Luc Delahaye (*1962) worked as a reporter – more specifically as a war reporter – for a long time. Since the early 2000’s, he has kept travelling to such places, although without intent to cover the war for the media. He now works at a much slower pace and uses mid- or large format cameras, to produce only three or four photographs a year, thus attempting to sum up events and situations in a single, very large photograph. The other aspect of his practice documents places that are very difficult to access, such as the Hague’s Criminal Tribunal during Milosevic’s trial, the World Economic Forum in Davos, and meetings of the UN Security Council in New York. On the one hand, Luc Delahaye travels in order to give account of places where decisions of global significance are made, and on the other hand, he travels in the field to report the consequences of such decisions.
_____________________________ Carl de Keyzer (*1958) has worked with the panoramic format since 1983, travelling to areas that are far from our consciousness, such as the Krasnoyarsk region in Siberia (where the Soviet gulag used to be), or Trinity, Nevada, where the first atomic tests were carried out. Elsewhere, he shoots in the panoramic format what he calls “war pictures”, i.e. traces of conflict on daily life: Kabul’s destroyed palace, the charred remains of a burned village in Congo, bullet-pierced buildings in Angola, a large, wrecked Russian plane in Kabul’s airport. The two photographs that have been chosen for PANORAMIC SCENES depict political and religious circles in American society. They remind us, amongst other things, that religious issues have been part of everyday politics long before George W. Bush. In both pictures, the photographer uses the film-like inner cut technique. He uses the panoramic format to include two different scenes, foreground and background, within one single frame; by enlarging the visual field, the photographer produced a scene of dialectic motion.
_____________________________ For about ten years, Armin Linke (*1966) has put together a photographic archive that lists places of primary importance in contemporary geopolitics, whether the selected criteria are demography-, energy- or strategy-related. Armin Linke thus documents such places as an oilrig in the Arctic Sea, a crowded market in Calcutta, and a space base at the furthermost bounds of Siberia. He more often photographs cities under construction on all continents: Hong Kong, Tokyo, Beijing, Pyongyang, Sao Paolo, Berlin, Moscow, etc. Acting as a chronicler of globalisation, he is interested in how global capitalism is shaping the planet. Armin Linke is very concerned about the way his works are presented, witness the Venice Biennale 2001, where he published an online book on a website that is still available ( HYPERLINK "http://www.arminlinke.com" www.arminlinke.com). PANORAMIC SCENES has selected a large-format photograph that gives a general idea of population density in an African megalopolis.
_____________________________ In his work, Paul Shambroon (*1956) mostly focuses on American-specific subjects. As such, he took advantage of the end of the Cold War to access nuclear military zones in his country, considering his work a civic duty. Since September 11th 2001, this series has been interrupted due to forbidden access to those sites. Extracts of the series are now on show at the Red Cross and Crescent Museum in Geneva, representing commando sites that are used for the launching of nuclear missiles. His series Meeting, which he has started working on in 2001, three photographs of which are shown in PANORAMIC SCENES, feeds on a similar concern for democracy in the United States. Whereas the first series sought transparency, Meeting is a rather bitter acknowledgement of the Americans’ lack of interest in local politics. The photographer attended local assemblies in villages of less than 2000 people to photograph the sitting local council. As Richard B. Woodward wrote about Shambroom’s photographs, “everything leads us to believe that the attendees were neither numerous, nor enthusiastic. The shameful secret of American political life does not lie within power relationships behind closed doors, but within the voters’ deep disinterest. Paul Shambroom praises unknown people who heroically take up responsibilities that we shy away from. Under the neon lights, their worn-out faces leaves no room for Franck Capra-style enthusiasm.
_____________________________ Jules Spinatch (*1964) has already shown his first panoramic work at the Centre de la photographie Genève in 2003. Temporary Discomfort – Chapter IV PULVER GUT was a view of snow-covered Davos, packed with fences, gates and all sorts of anti-riot devices, during a ten-day period. By hacking the webcams that were supposed to display skiing conditions, the photographer succeeded in showing how an alpine village can turn into a high-security place under siege. Since then, Jules Spinatch has applied his system of methodical scanning of a given place to other situations, whether during a qualification football game for the World Cup 2006 between Switzerland and France, or the meeting of Toulouse city council on 30th June 2006, which is presented in PANORAMIC SCENES. The artist’s practice is double-edged indeed. While we are fascinated by the huge amount of information available to us, including the tiniest details that can be seen in large-scale blow-ups – such as the hand-written message left on a deputy’s desk, which gave the work its title Fabre n’est pas venu (Fabre didn’t turn up), the technique that Spinatch uses can also turn into a fearsome, all-controlling weapon. There is a fine line between the panorama and the Panopticum.
_____________________________ Michael von Graffenried (*1957) has made a name for himself thanks to several ironic series about the Swiss, such as Swiss Image in 1989. The use of the panoramic format, which he masters brilliantly, was an almost obvious choice during the second civil war in Algeria. He has been using it since 1991. Taking photographs in Muslim countries is not well accepted, all the more so in a country torn by fratricidal war, which involves great risks. For that reason, Michael von Graffenried walked around with a Widelux camera that was hung around his neck at chest level, so that he could use it without looking through the viewfinder, covering a 160° angle. As the spiral of violence grew stronger, Michael von Graffenried was one of the few photographers who still travelled to Algeria. After travelling there more than 30 times during the “leaden years”, he made, amongst other things, a film that was written with film director Mohammed Soudani, which recounts his travels in order to find trace of the people he had photographed on his previous trips. In PANORAMIC SCENES, the Centre de la photographie Genève is showing for the first time photographs that were taken during his artist residency in Cairo in 2007. Since he could neither print them, nor show them in the planned gallery – as the local people in charge feared police intervention – the photographer finally showed them for one day on Cairo’s rooftops, where the Bawab populations live – the most poverty-stricken people in the Egyptian capital city. Each of these two photographies are associated to mini video screens, showing moving pictures, capted by the artist on you tube during his journey in Cairo; the first one is linked to the photography School's out of girls in Ard EL Lewa, Cairo, and shows us a video representing youngsters singing to seduce young girls whereas in the other video linked to Riot Police is closing access to Al Azahr Mosque on friday, february 9, 2007, you can see a policeman torturing a prisoner by slapping his face.