PRINT February 1992


NOTICE HOW THE SEEMINGLY neutral observation that the photographic image retains a trace of something real has evolved in the course of the century into an exquisite thanatology. No sooner is the brevity of this real physical contingency evoked than reality is given up for dead and buried, withdrawn into a vanished past, irretrievable. The mourning and melancholia of Roland Barthes’ Camera Lucida is only the most sustained, perhaps delirious, example of an understanding of photography as the experience of mutability. It is as if the ideals of Modernism and a radical epistemological pessimism had so divorced us from reality that a flash of the world necessarily set into motion a passing bell.

How do we escape from this infernal preterit, the tense that Barthes so convincingly ascribed to photography? More intricate time relations become apparent as soon as the medium is regarded as a reproductive process. For the imprint, the negative trace, already selective and reactive in what it retains and preserves of refracted light, determines a point of departure for a potentially endless propagation, not in dumb duplication but in a forward movement, through a multiplicity of possibilities, toward an unpredictable singularity: the photographic image. Henri Bergson’s idea of “duration” has returned with a particularly contemporary resonance in the proliferative configurations of molecular biology and chaos theory. But it can be read with equal justification both in the ongoing photographic procedure and in all photographic images, in their incessancy, their dilation of the present moment to encompass an enduring past and a virtual future. Some photographs, however, possess a unique capacity to force a confrontation with duration and, in this way, become entirely emblematic.

In Patrick Faigenbaum’s photographs of today’s Italian nobility at home in their ancestral Renaissance and Baroque palaces, many might be tempted to see only the voyeuristic pleasure of the voyager-esthete, given to Jamesian ruminations and the worst kind of nostalgia. A dubious pleasure from which none of us is exempt. But something in Faigenbaum’s estrangement from all traditional or commercial principles of portraiture should alert us to a more ambitious aspiration. While it would be absurd to compare him to Nadar or August Sander, for neither characterization nor typology is his intent, he shares with these giants of photography a fearlessness both of the incremental oeuvre and of the long run. His portraits from Naples (1990–91), following those from Florence (1983–84) and from Rome (1985–87), mark only an estimated midpoint in an open-ended course that will extend to Palermo, Syracuse, Noto, and, finally, Venice, where the project was first conceived. Far from the instantaneous and the incidental, Faigenbaum’s itinerary injects a temporal dimension into the tracing of a social phenomenon: a rarefied class, its cities, its families, its family members. Suddenly the photographic series parallels and supports an enumeration, an inventory, a census, an index, in “figure” work never meant to totalize but only to locate the specimen, collect the sample.

What is exceptional in this enterprise is not just the way it recalls the missions, the documentation, the archives that constitute so much of the wealth of 19th-century photography, but its overt defiance of the notion of the pastness or the passing of the past. For Faigenbaum has taken as his subject precisely those preeminent symbols of the past that are still there and not about to disappear. The extant, not the extinct. The lasting, not the last. In edifices built for eternity and the queer genetic persistence of the families that built them, he has found the most potent and poignant evidence of endurance. The endurance of the past in the genetic trace. Like the endurance of the past in the photographic trace.

Much of what startles in these photographs resides in the quality of an encounter. The experience of the pose, so legible in the exactitude of the pictorial organization, lingers in a remarkable face à face. To say that Faigenbaum’s implicit presence provides an overwhelming counterweight to the image in no way does justice to his thorough subjugation of his subjects. Rarely has a photographer displayed such Velázquez-like temerity, rarely has he exacted such unequivocal attention. The irony of this call to order from outside the frame derives not just from our contemporary acceptance of the artist as.the only authentic aristocrat, but, much more forcefully, from Faigenbaum’s real identity. Born in 1954, French, Jewish, of modest origins, this uninvited outsider has assumed the role of demiurge and effected a necessary and welcome reversal in the social order. For his fascination with these people bypasses glamorizing and goes straight to the strangeness of what they represent: vestiges, witnesses, traces.

In this minirevolulion a freedom is born to fashion a portraiture that entirely rejects our ordinary assumptions about photography’s unique suitability to convey a probing likeness. Refusing proximity, Faigenbaum breaks with the fetishism of physiognomy, posture, and gesture. Personalities, individuating characteristics of all kinds, seem to yield to a conception of the human figure in its stark self-evidence. The rare exceptions—a young woman’s bowlegs, an oddly crooked smile, an ill-lilting suit—emphasize only the body’s recalcitrance, its refusal to obey the laws of an ideal vacuity. Such a harrowing expressionlessness recalls nothing so much as the films of Robert Bresson. Like Bresson. Faigenbaum will use the body’s status as a cipher in intricate permutations with its surroundings. Like Bresson, again, he will insist on this divestiture as a way of carrying the figure to a plane (is it higher or lower?) both far nobler and more generic: the human, the purely human, with its endless, impenetrable pathos.

Faigenbaum transfers the myth of human interiority to the domestic interior. A hallucinatory, transtemporal humanity inhabits these extraordinary spaces, in which the human figure stands as only one more point of refraction. Why do we feel so compelled to call these photographs “theatrical”? Yes, the photographic frame doubles as proscenium, the architectural perspective defines a stage, and decoration provides significant props. But these conversation pieces renounce narration or calculated relationships, and isolate the human figure. Here Diderot’s “paradox on the actor”—who is unavoidably himself while “playing” the character—shifts meaningfully into the paradox of self-representation. In the staging of what may look to some like incipient drama, Faigenbaum has acknowledged a debt to Giorgio Morandi, and his scenography indeed evokes not so much the tableau vivant as the still WC, the philosopher’s genre, according to Diderot, a representation of the disparate in an infinitely complex relay of relations. If this is theater, it is the theater of Brechtian distantiation: a leveler of social hierarchy, a subverter of the dramatic, offering inventories of material conditions and promoting our estrangement from them. Something fundamental about photography is being advanced here. For the “stop action” so evident in these images amounts to nothing more and nothing less than an interruption of the pose.

AT THE VERY HEART of the matter in the photographs of Florence and Rome is Faigenbaum’s obsession less with the people than the places. While portraiture in a setting may bring to mind Bill Brandt or even Emmet Gowin, the overwhelming preponderance in Faigenbaum’s work of spaces laden with connotations critical for the history of art forces us to recognize a more powerful premise: the camera’s confrontation with Baroque space. Had such decors not existed, Faigenbaum, like many contemporary photographers, might have had to invent them. In their endurance. these interiors transport across time the historical determinants of a certain idea of the “pictorial” that the photographer can “find,” embedded in real material circumstances.

Not that this choice of decor represents an escape from photographic formalism simply through an appropriation of older artistic canons. Faigenbaum isn’t trying to be Baroque. The placidity, the frontality, the orthoscopic classicism of his images, their apparent “straightness,” refutes any such hypothesis. But in his obvious effort to harness immensity, to emphasize recession, to underscore backlighting, frame frames, and play with the dissolving of form into shadow, he locates the vital elements for a demonstration of the clarifying effect specific to photography, the medium’s optical otherness from the ideal geometric conventions of the camera obscura, so often mistaken for the camera’s forebear. Faigenbaum’s insistent inclusion of illusionistic painting inside the photographic image takes on special interest, not as a reminder of ancestral proprietary prerogatives or a recapitulation of the scene, but as a point of demarcation between utterly different registers. His photographs absorb the paintings, their sometimes inordinate dimensions and the immensities they depict (a neat conceit), translating them into the new, abstract “organicism” of black-and-white tonal gradation. What the Baroque offers Faigenbaum that is absolutely modern, however, is the charged environment, the abundance of detail, that refuses easy allegorizing but imbues the imprinting with the evidential compulsion of pure multiplicity. It is this profusion that permits him to convert portraiture into a synoptic, transgeneric genre, a compendium of portraits, architectural photographs, reproductions of works of art (he has done a series of Roman busts), estate inventories, still lifes (he often enlarges details), and. in Naples, implicit landscapes.

Distantiation demands an expansive time for reflection. So does deep focus. The long exposure—necessary when the lens is maximally closed for greatest depth of field—sections off a region, not of space, but of time, an extensive here and now. This continuum is what the eye explores in the photographic images incessancy, as it is routed and rerouted through unidentifiable interacting planes, nonlocalizable connections. What Walter Benjamin saw as the aura of the light-dark continuum takes on its full significance in this temporal density. Time spreads across a room in Faigenbaum’s photographs. hangs there. with almost palpable materiality. That the human figure should seem devoured by its surroundings results less from real
architectural disproportion than from an incorporation into this dimension. A throbbing, a vibration, runs through the figures, the art, the architecture, the furnishings, denying any distinction between animate and inanimate. An ornate lamp, a sofa’s velvet cushions. a piece of sculpture. appear as portentous as those temporary tenants of the premises, caught in a genetic mystery. The time continuum, in the way that it elicits both retrospection and prospection, forces us to conclude, as anyone who has ever walked through a palazzo must, that the camera is a camera: an astonishing repository of centuries of traces, held there in an immutable simultaneity. The rightness of Faigenbaum’s conception lies in the metaphoric singularity of this space.

A GOOD DEAL of the conception of Faigcnbaum’s photographs rests in the laborious extraction of a singular configuration of relative tonal values from the information stored in the negative. Just as any genetic inheritance holds a range of possibilities before producing a singularity, everything depends here on the future of the trace. Curiously, just this experience of the negative seems visualizable in the extreme darkness of the Florentine and Roman photographs. As if stressing photography’s necessary conversion of rigid matter into light-shapes, and the fragility of modulating their luminosity, Faigenbaum plays it close to the edge, nearest the recession of form back into obscurity. Sources of light within the image, however highlighted, seem unable to radiate, unable to penetrate the overall penumbra. Yet an eerie distinctness cuts through even the most shadowy zones. A potent dose of artistry is to be found in the sumptuousness of these prints. What happened in Naples really happened only much later, in Faigenbaum’s Paris studio. By 1990, most of the Neapolitan aristocracy, much to Faigenbaum’s surprise, had long since abandoned their cavernous reception rooms for far humbler quarters. Something in the new, unavoidable proximity of these smaller spaces loosens Faigenbaum’s iron grip on his subjects. The poses become more natural. Under Michael Fried’s influence, he attempts to detach their gazes from his own vantage point, occasionally encouraging them to withdraw into a pensiveness, even to stare out of the frame. But the irony of influence resides in its unpredictable course. For Faigenbaum’s interest in “’distance” and “time” must, inevitably, surface in a powerful visual form. And it does: in an ”absorbent“ surface. Between the spectator and the trace of the real world falls a veil a scrim, a ”film.“ It is as if the numerous open windows in this series were admitting not only the southern light, but sand, stone, and volcanic ash, traces of the ongoing erosion of the coast line. An undifferentiated gray pulverization, of indeterminate depth, floats in the foreground of the image. The density of depth, so striking an emblem of time in the photographs of Florence and Rome, has been displaced, condensed in a depth of density. It is the spectator now who must take some distance in order to retrieve a scene in which the figures have acquired a kind of sculptural, hyperreal relief. To say that there is a groping here for some photographic equivalent of painterly surface seems grossly inadequate. What we are looking at resembles nothing so much as the negative’s granular light-sensitive chemical substance in its uncertain, unstable interaction with refracted light. We are, so to speak, inside the camera, witnesses to the dissolving of the physical object into the physical trace. Photography’s principle is figured here, in the tension between a “being there” and ”not being there,“ in the oscillation between some clear, transparent vision and an ”absorbing” of the most distant planes. The milky diffusion of light in the photographs of Naples comes down, in the end, to an afterglow in the darkroom: a pushing of the film, a mat, veiled paper, an extra painted dot to enhance relief, and a third, crucial exposure of the print to ambient light. Between the first exposure and the print. Faigenbaum makes absolute claims on a time-consuming hiatus. What ”has been,” the parcel of reality that launched the whole affair, turns out to have been unknowable, indiscernible, inconsistent, all along, waiting to be revealed, at last, in the photographic image, as what “will have been.” If photography’s generative power has a tense, it is the future perfect.

Lauren Sedofsky is a writer living in Paris.