Madrid

Elina Brotherus

Real Jardín Botánico

Can a photograph reflect reality? The Paris-based Finnish photographer Elina Brotherus, whose work was shown here under the aegis of the annual PHotoEspaña photography festival, seems to give her answer to that question in Le Miroir (The mirror), 2000. Each of five images is dominated by a bathroom mirror that sits at a slight angle to the picture plane and occupies most of the frame; there is just enough incongruity between the two surfaces to call attention to their discrepancy. In the first image, the mirror is so steamy that the photographer's reflection can barely be made out. But by the end of the sequence you can see her pretty well, though the condensation on the reflective surface still calls attention to the surface as such. In other words, Brotherus credits her medium with a limited ability to reflect reality—qualified by the fact that it can do so via an essentially formalist attention to its own character.

No wonder the larger series of which Le Miroir is part takes its playful name from a friend's observation that “photography is the new painting.” The kind of painting Brotherus has in mind in “The New Painting,” 2000–, is clearly modernist and reflexive, if not abstract. This despite the fact that, in comparison with two earlier series shown here, “Das Mãdchen sprach von Liebe” (The girl spoke of love), 1997–99, and “Suites Françaises 2,”1999, both the subjects and their treatment are far more evocative of the classical pictorial tradition. La Femme trompée (The deceived woman), 2001, is a scene that might have been taken from Greuze; Les Baigneurs (The bathers), woo, echoes Eakins; and Femme à sa toilette (Woman at her toilet), 2000, updates Degas with a blow-dryer.

If the fixation on language shown by “Suites françaises 2” is any indication, Brotherus believes that photography must also be conceptual. In these images, which take off from the idea of trying to teach oneself French, everything has been tagged with a yellow Post-It note of its name: la chaise, les oranges, la pone, les sandales, even un défaut de la tête. Reading a photograph always has something to do with naming the things in it, but la chaise (chair) may have a different emotional and cognitive valence than its Finnish counterpart—how much more an existential quandary like contente en fin?

False Memories I and II, both 1999 (from the series “Das Mädchen sprach von Liebe”), show a woman dressed in white and beige going through some kind of emotional scene with a man dressed in navy blue as they lie or sit on a mattress on the floor. In one, the cover of a Miles Davis CD can be glimpsed in the foreground. We hardly need the title to know that these are not veracious documents. Even the camera's trip wire trailing toward the woman's unseen hand—the artist herself, as usual in all three series—is a more obvious clue than necessary that this is photography in the directorial mode. The tension is not between the photograph and what it pictures, or between what it pictures and the pictured object's name, but between the staged emotion within the picture and the “real” one it either recalls or means to produce. Photography, according to Brotherus, reflects reality not through what it shows but through the tension between what it shows and what it is.

Barry Schwabsky