Barbara and Zafer Baran are collaborative artists working mainly with photography. They have exhibited in Britain, France, USA, Turkey and Israel. Public collections holding their work include the Victoria & Albert Museum; the National Media Museum, Bradford; the Royal Horticultural Society; and Tel Aviv Museum of Art.
Text © England & Co.
Barbara & Zafer Baran: Ephemera
Richard Pinsent, The Art Newspaper, March 2003
As the exhibition title, Ephemera, implies, these camera-less photographs (19 March–12 April) deal essentially with such core concepts as creation beyond and alongside an intricately post-Modern raft of references to the whole history of photography. They have been created by Barbara and Zafer Baran who have been working, separately and together, since meeting at Goldsmiths in the early 1980s. Ephemera and Atlas, their most recent, ongoing projects, go back to 1998, when they were commissioned by the Royal Mail to create a Millennium stamp celebrating the invention of photography. It enabled them to examine Fox Talbot’s fragile ‘photogenic drawings’ at first hand, raising questions of transience and permanence in relation to the natural world and their own place within it, which both projects attempt to answer. In gorgeously sensual, delicately crafted close-ups, cross sections, composites and arrangements of cut flowers, corollas, petals, pistils, pollen and stems; in subtle shades of colour, from white, through yellow, orange, red, violet to vivid blues and greens, set off by deepest black, their Ephemera visualise the cyclical nature of life that governs every species. Fragile flora serve to articulate sex, birth, growth, decay, death and regeneration, the fundamental notions that underpin our perceptions of existence, whether through art, philosophy, natural and applied science or religion. The exhibition catalogue contains a thoughtful text by curator and photo historian Ian Jeffrey, ’Sight and Scent: First Steps’. Prints in editions of five (with two artists’ proofs).
Sight and Scent: First Steps
Ephemera catalogue text by Ian Jeffrey, 2003
Think of these pictures as making up a composite work of art. There are cross-sections and close-ups. Cross-sections are characteristic of the modernism of the 1920s, for they reveal and explain. Close-ups, in the 1840s and 1850s, demonstrated what might be achieved in photography. Much later on, from the 1970s and after, microphotography began to involve itself with protons and electrons, items with force but no substance. The Barans’ pictures of fallen and damaged magnolia petals recall this world of the particle accelerator. Under these terms of reference we may be able to sense how things are, but under modernist premises we could enumerate and analyse: counting the petals in a corolla and all the enclosed stamens.
The Barans’ pictures, under the general heading of Ephemera, make a number of references to the history of the medium, particularly to Fox Talbot’s microphotographs of the 1840s, as well as to some of the stellar photography which was so much in vogue in the 1890s. But their pictures are manifestly more beautiful than those of their precursors, in shades of grey, pink, lilac and puce. Most of what they represent becomes desirable to the eyes. They suggest that vision and aroma are interlinked and even transposable.
Why should they make such refined and delicate images? Because they decelerate vision in a particular way. In the modernist era, as we can access it through photography, it was perhaps enough to identify and enumerate the parts and to pass on satisfied that we had reached an understanding. In front of these images so delicately modulated seeing is more like caressing, and this means that sooner or later we come up against the edge of the field. A broken petal, for example, ends in a gash or tear; a severed stem is bruised where the cut has been made. Each image features a point of breakage, not unlike those morbid details revealed in medical pictures. What each image does, in fact, is to make us aware of the point at which objects have been removed from an original matrix or host. Any object, the pictures suggest, is only so because we have made it so.
Otherwise everything is dependent: flower, calyx, stem, root. This idea of dependency is also supported by the look of the pictures, for beautiful and seductive as they are they make us very much aware of the act of seeing as sensing, as implicated in tasting and sensing. In modernist photography, as it developed in the 1920s, the phenomenological impulse was expressed in point of view; modernists emphasised that what we saw was seen from a particular standpoint, via atmosphere and terrain. The Barans on the other hand propose synaesthesia in place of point of view; and there is a lot to be said for this postmodernist idea that this is how we now address ourselves to phenomena. It amounts to a return to the aesthetics of the belle époque when humanity was often represented in just such sensory terms, in the presence of flowers and fruit and close to sources of heat and sound. This self-image was then put aside by modernists who chose to see themselves as artisans and technicians.
Where then does the Barans’ photography stand in any wider scheme of things? It is very wide-ranging with respect to the history of the medium, and this means that they position contemporary aesthetics in the broadest possible context. Here, they say, are pointers to the kind of modernism which the present no longer appreciates. Under those old rules we were to some degree in control, able to manage and to manoeuvre items which were identifiable and which came to hand. Now once more we are creatures of the senses and without that transcendental dimension which is very recognisable in the vanguard photography of the 1920s and 1930s. It is symptomatic of this that many of the Barans’ images appear to float in a darkening atmosphere vaguely articulated by floating or falling grains of pollen. At the Creation there was a point when darkness was pervasive and when the dimensions had not yet been established, when gravity had not yet been enforced.
To some extent, and beautiful though they may be, these pictures have a reductionist side to them. It is as if their authors had set themselves the task of imagining what it might be like sometime on the first or second day, before the basics had been settled on. In this respect they are only doing what many of their contemporaries have done with art’s conventional categories. In the case of the major German photographers, for example, the test has been to take a traditional format, such as portraiture, and to try for degree zero, for an image which satisfies only the minimum requirements: presence, for instance, without personality. The Barans’ findings are less bleak than those of their German counterparts but for all that no less elemental. They too seem to want to invoke an originating moment before the separations were made and the parts identified. With their attachment to refined colouring and to the aromas of beauty, they may not look like radical contemporaries but that is exactly what they are.
Text copyright © 2003 Ian Jeffrey