Dangerous Curves: Politics and Poetry in the Work of Blaise Tobia
by Joseph F. Gregory © 2003

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_ _The genius of traditional photography as a medium lies in the unique way in which it combines the artist's complex visual/intellectual decision-making process with the intrinsic passivity of the film; the entire preliminary creative interaction between artist, camera and nature finally comes down to an act of opening to receive an emanation of light from the motif. The chemical process set in motion by that exposure produces not an arbitrary but a natural sign of the motif. It is this idea of the image as a passive chemical trace which grounds the realist mythology of photography put forward with such eloquence by Roland Barthes.(3) According to this view, the photographic image is inseparably bound to the objects it records by virtue of its essential passivity. The distinctive aspect of the traditional (non-digital) photographic sign, then, notwithstanding all of the significant semiotic manipulations of the image that are inevitable, is that it is present as a mark that is, at bottom, a natural sign.

(3) The realist mythology of Roland Barthes is expressed in his essay, Camera Lucida, trans. by Richard Howard, New York, Hill and Wang, 1981, ad passim, but especially pp. 80-81, 88.

_ _Iconic signs such as figurative paintings and photographs cannot comprise a language in the fullest sense of the word, for as meaning is amplified and clarified, it necessarily becomes a construction of words. This, in fact, is why painting has long tried to overcome its natural deficit as a species of iconic sign through its iconographic alignment with verbal texts. But photography confronts us with the impoverished meaning of things detached from words in a way that traditional forms of fine art cannot. For, unlike any painting or sculpture, a photograph, insofar as it is a chemical trace, insofar as it is unmediated by the human hand (acheiropoietos), arrives innocent of discourse and untouched by subjectivity. Unlike painting where every aspect of the image represents an artistic intention (or it would not appear at all) and is thereby relevant in one way or another to the pre-existent discourses of a cultural tradition, the twin threats of randomness and meaninglessness surround and infect the motif(s) of a photograph because as a chemical trace: (1) its form is etched by the world and therefore, standing outside of culture as a kind of natural readymade, it shares in the world's aleatory, meaningless patterns (this is most evident in the randomness which engulfs whatever is posed or selected as the core motif in a photograph; for when the rectangular frame of the camera cuts into the streaming chaos of objects and events which surround us, it captures, in all but the most highly contrived cases, more than the artist can control or intend); and (2) its singularity as a spatio-temporal slice, a unique natural event, means that it belongs to the temporality of the world and is thus disconnected from historical time as a cultural construct. There is much, in other words, which exceeds both intention and culture and thus meaning in a photograph considered as a chemical trace. For the objects that seem to have imbued the image with the luminous mark of their presence will not entirely submit to our efforts to acculturate them through absorption into a semiotic system or aesthetic form. The photograph thus straddles the boundary between nature and culture like a Duchamp readymade: part natural event (non-art), part cultural artifact (art).

_ _Tobia's series entitled Signs and Wonders (2000) makes brilliant use of this intrinsic property of the photograph. Each work consists of straightforward snapshots that cut into various cultural (mostly urban) worlds with a consistent disregard for picturesque effects or psychologically charged subjects. Because these images are presented to us as art, we assume that each image is framed by intentions rooted in the ideas, assumptions, values, attitudes, and concerns of contemporary culture. But in the majority of cases, it is not immediately apparent what Tobia's specific motivation was. Many times we are presented with puzzlingly prosaic motifs - for example, a simple dress code sign planted between a pair of columns, or an Italian ice cream truck pulled off to the side of the road, or a pile of sand at an unidentified construction site, or an anonymous street corner in an all-too-familiar urban wasteland. Sometimes we are shown unusual objects such as an ordinary glass window walled off on the inside by concrete blocks, or an equally peculiar set of glass doors choked off on the inside by a bank of foliage. But why? Taken by themselves, such objects seem to be either pointlessly mundane or superficially intriguing trophies of a lost, momentary curiosity. And since there are no semantic contexts immediately available to which such images, as casual snapshots, are related (neither artistic intention, nor critical discourse, nor traditional iconography), we have no clear idea how to proceed in constructing meaning. Objects simply stare out at us in the same direct way that they do in the world. In some cases, the objects are themselves signs or symbols drawn from specific cultural sites (e.g., business signs, urban graffiti, or advertisements), and as such they already carry the burden of cultural values, ideas, attitudes, and concerns to one degree or another; but while such ingredients might invite interpretation, the photograph itself adds no guidance to the process; it merely beckons our prolonged and detailed regard of the objects presented.

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