Visual Storytelling in the Photographic Works of Cooper & Gorfer.

A book review by Edith Lázár

In the Photography Series

The destination of a journey is always a chimera:
an illusion of something final.
Petra Dokken, “This Very Moment” in
My Quiet of Gold

General assumptions take photography as an empirical proof endowed with the ability to accurately reflect what we perceive with the naked eye, an indexicality that links the image to its object. Photography is seen as a mark of something real and thus the prime medium used in documentary inquiries based on criteria of transparency and immediacy. The presumed ‘realness’ constitutes the most problematic of its features because it obscures that photography is representation. Apart from today’s multiple possibilities of intervention into the photographic material – that range from small aesthetic retouches to fantasy constructions –, there is also the largely unacknowledged question of the photographer, the person who manipulates the apparatus. Despite his insistence on the discursive and social parameters of analogue photography, Barthes admitted a connection between the image and the event [1] yet photography cannot be separated from a kind of artifice that has to do with the framing, the exposure time, light and tone levels, and so forth, that create the image. [2]

Like any other form of representation, photography is in fact a reproduction, thus trapped in cultural, historical and technological limitations, and usually framed by accompanying texts. Without the referential context, we can only imagine upon photographs. Victor Burgin stresses how understanding a photograph exceeds the self-evident stance we too freely assign them. Photography consists of a complex process that, as Burgin pleads, is interconnected with the realm of text or words: photography as reading. Photographs are traversed by language precisely because we associate the world of image with our material one through words or a kind or speech: associations of concepts and given cultural believes or norms which place the image in a ‘readable’ context. How visual images communicate meaning also pertains to conventions that concern how a representation is produced and how we respond to it, which entangles particular cultural and historical conjunctures. In this light, it is easier to consider photographs in the framework of texts, which draw an imagined world and are subjects of interpretations, thus more abstract and at the same time versatile. Like texts, and along with them, images create a space between the object and the reader/viewer which is endlessly opened to meanings, a space of intertextualities. [3] However, photography continues to carry an aura of truthfulness despite the issues raised by its illusory objectivity. So how can we still refer to photography as touching upon the ‘real’ without claiming photograph as ‘recorder’ or transparent proof?

Draugahusid, "In a House of Snow: SEEK Volume 01 / Iceland." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Gunnhildur's Hand,
Gunnhildur's Hand, "In a House of Snow: SEEK Volume 01 / Iceland." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Perspectives that challenge us to think photographs at the intersection of image and written text, of the visual and the verbal, are particularly relevant for understanding the work of the artistic collaboration between Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer. Their practice relies on the narrative properties of photography, a feature of visual arts traditionally assigned to painting, with which photography shares a long relationship. The artists construct meticulous images based on digital manipulations passed through layers, collage techniques and juxtapositions that endow them with a material-like surface. However, the narrative aspect does not reside only in the series of photographs per se. Their images are included in a larger network of written text and stories, interviews, documentary-like inquiries and journal pieces, a conjuncture that creates atmospheric touches and an almost cinematic dimension to the set of images. The association of images and texts recalls the very nature of image and the photographic medium in the way image meaning fluctuates depending on the text. But the materiality of images and the emphatic representation of bodies and textures underlines that referring to images in terms of language alone is an incomplete perspective. Seeing also comprises a visceral dimension where emotional response is an instant trigger and shapes our experience of images or other encounters. In other words, images affect us, they ‘touch’ upon us differently, and most often, they elude language. [4]

Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer presented a format of mixed media inquiries in their first publication SEEK Volume 1: Iceland, back in 2008. The book brings together nine visual stories from the far lands of Iceland speaking about solitude and beliefs, enveloped in the dim mists of the Nordic sea. The opening sets everyday stories as a point where imagination and reality can merge, as reflected through the poem of a young girl’s unfear of the world, in her love of stories and myths, their magic fascination and glimpses into where we might go “when we go the way of all flesh.” Each of the following stories is wrapped around small pieces of text or words in emotional, intimate tales that combine the natural and the supernatural. They blend facts with fiction creating dreamlike sceneries, as in the tragic love story of a woman told by her ghost or the car crash the artists were involved in and their thoughts and imagined scenery afterwards. As reflected in the book, this incident has more to do with time lapses and symbolic painterly representation of themselves than with realistic illustration. The images are darkly coated and intensely digitally processed in order to give them material texture, be it that of metal, wood, painting cracks or ink. Graphics over written drawings tie the image sets together in a dynamic motion inspired by Turner’s graphic-like paintbrush strikes. However, both text and the images are lacunary and fragmented, and hereby compound the viewer to imagine the story, to make connections and create personal versions of it. An important contribution to this act of discovery is “The Purple Book,” an integrated addenda of the artists’ hand written journals, documenting the journey with notes and sketches of their encounters, words, scenery or imagined scenes. These notes and the text scraps accompanying images act like clues in deciphering and constructing the visual storyline. The graphic effects give one a feeling of peeping into someone’s personal old journal.

Laura Black and White,
Laura Black and White, "In a House of Snow: SEEK Volume 01 / Iceland." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Tina Sol Running,
Tina Sol Running, "In a House of Snow: SEEK Volume 01 / Iceland." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Through such strategy and by using a gloomy imagery mainly inspired by old folk tales, the artists have shaped a tense atmosphere that in a way resembles Edgar Allan Poe’s sceneries of house mysteries. Unusual, bizarre happenings leave room for why or how something happened, but also the thrill of unraveling the treads of a mystery with no definite or clear ending. Yet such stories of dramatic experiences and strange characters are also reminiscent of the Icelandic tales and even family sagas that combine history with oral tales, all infused with a sense of tragic. What is most interesting about these stories is that they narrate everyday life and its relationship with nature. The fascination for nature as the great mystery to be discovered brings us back to the likes of Turner, to Romanticism, an appropriation that counts for the artists’ emphasis on emotion, different intensities between what is familiar and what is strange, and the predominance of imagination, the mysterious and the occult. However, Cooper and Gorfer’s publication on Iceland can be seen as a testing material of method, visual styles, atmosphere and experiments. In comparison to the artists’ later work, the first volume blends together too many visual styles and takes more from photographic editorials than painting representations. It is an aspect that, at times, gives the photographs a too pregnant theatrical note. The focus on mise-en-scène accentuates the process behind the works instead of the works themselves or the ability of text to play off this strategy. Yet the materiality the book reiterates and the playfulness of scrap texts make for quite an engaging ‘reading’ where the reader/viewer gets immersed in the act of discovery and, equally important, they lay the ground for the artists’ future work.

In this sense, the second volume of SEEK, My Quiet of Gold, establishes in a somewhat unified manner the stylistic reference to the painting of 18th and 19th century, the predominance of narrative and storytelling and the poetics of nostalgia, which now make the artists’ trademarks. The project saw the artists traveling again to an unusual location, this time to the far land of Kyrgyzstan, near the border with China. Approaching once more a world little known to them, with people, languages and everyday habits still governed by traditions, the artists reflected through their lenses a world where stories and myths make an important part of everyday wisdom, driving people’s behaviour – a fertile soil for storytelling and the imagination. Being a foreign land that an outsider – as the artists were – is never able to fully understand, it also makes for a place where facts and fictions can easily collide. It merges together what is seen and what we imagine we might see, namely what we filter through our own personal viewpoint and the words or stories of others about it. This strategy derived from the artists’ own experience is played throughout My Quiet of Gold in an elaborate way. The book comprises four large sections: the photographic works, a compilation of stories and interviews, the artists’ journal with sketches and thoughts, and a family-like photo album with images collected from the people they’ve encountered. However, these are not clear-cut sections but rather articulations constructing a complex net that constantly influences viewers/readers and the narrative of the book as well.

The Crash Profiles,
The Crash Profiles, "In a House of Snow: SEEK Volume 01 / Iceland." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

The photographic work beautifully pulls together portraits, landscape, nudes, animal personifications or diffused, imagined scenes. The images are processed in a congruent visual style where different graphic modulations seem to merge organically, traced along by an exquisitely well-chosen chromatic. The photographic approach visibly incorporates elements of Pre-Raphaelite aesthetics in their attention to sumptuous details and the decorative attributes of an image. It gives life to objects and human characters through the lavish textures of materials, strange light and a bright palette of colours that make compositions to resemble collages while retaining a certain flatness. Cooper and Gorfer’s exuberant aesthetics is infiltrated by less represented problematic social issues such as the Kyrgyz tradition of kidnapping women for marriage or the Russian genocide of Kyrgyz people during World War I. The artists avoid direct illustration or technical presentations relying on archive photography or photo-montage, to instead propose visual metaphors. They insert symbolic elements in the scenes that seem taken out of fantastic or mythological stories, thus subtly and silently subverting the images. Different intensities of the colour red traverse the photographic series blending love, death and violence, and do so by asserting its poeticness.

The extensive use of juxtapositions and metaphors is part of the artists’ manner of approaching social issues through a kind of photography that wishes to resist representing people in the role of victims. Through poetic scenes, metaphors, personification and mise-en-scène, Cooper and Gorfer have traced connections between the local stories and the Kyrgyz people they’ve met. Thus the artists bring stories to life in a way that at times is able to illustrate more complex representations of people, like in the case of Shola. In one of the most powerful and moving personal stories, Shola’s own narration discusses in a simple and straightforward manner about love, domestic violence, and the problematic Kyrgyz tradition of kidnapping women into marriage. Even if she has to face a lifetime burden of intense and persistent social condemnation for leaving her abusive husband, Cooper and Gorfer have nevertheless chosen to model her as Jangyl Murza, a character in-between history and legend illustrating the courage and sadness of a woman meant to be different. Jangyl Murza saves her clan in numberless battles yet she sees herself compelled to marry the powerful khan of the Kalmati clan in order to maintain the peace. Her loneliness and longingness for the people she loves determine her to run away and return to them, only to see herself banished for fears of a war. In the world dominated by tradition in which Shola lives, hers was also an act of courage which resulted in her being socially isolated. This kind of banishment also reflects in people’s disapproval of Shola wearing different garments for the photo shoot, garments that do not fit her social status and the position as an outcast in her community. Speaking about the Kyrgyz tradition of kidnapping, the words of an elderly woman, Kalbübü, have a deep and powerful resonance, filled with criticism, sadness and fatidic nuances: “Sometimes they fall in love later, sometimes not. Sometimes the woman kills herself.”

Red Shola,
Red Shola, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
Age As Gold,
Age As Gold, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

I have spoken mainly about Shola’s story perhaps due to the extensive part it plays in the book, and part of the impact it had on me. All the stories included have actually something tragic in them, even when the stories do not have an abrupt ending for the main characters, like The Girl Who Never Smiles or The Three Brothers. However, they confront us with aspects of war and human violence, an element deeply routed in the Kyrgyz struggle for their own land. The images allude to what the texts relate more detailed, recounting some of the most violent experiences of the Kyrgyz, among which the problematic relationship with Russian and Chinese military forces. 1916 and the story of Mankurt are particular illustrations of such issues, referring to the painful histories of innocents killed during the genocide Russians carried out when the Kyrgyz refused to be recruited in their army, or the dreadful methods used by the Chinese in order to subjugate young men and erase their sense of the self, transforming them in completely obedient soldiers. The story of Mankurt is encountered in much of the Central Asian countries and the word literally means ‘unthinking slave.’

In this sense, the texts and poems – ending the photographic set, or better said, extending it – revisit images and reveal multiple layers of signification. Similar to local stories and interviews, and intertwined with them, the literary excerpts taken from Pablo Neruda, Adelaide Crapsey, Haruki Murakami, John Joseph, or Daniel Robb and Aaron Anderson, both inspired by Kyrgyz stories, hold a kind of lingering sadness. Most importantly, such writings carry with them something of the sensorial intensities found in the Pre-Raphaelite and Romantic styles where poems reflected powerful visual images using just words filled with emotions and feelings, while images resembled more to poetry, by ways of metaphors and symbols. Aaron Anderson’s story takes from the story of Mankurt the idea of deprived memory, namely the importance memories and places have for one’s identity. Nevertheless, he translates it into contemporary times, hinting to our nomad mobility, our loss of roots and local culture. In this sense the author explores the process of forgetting and remembering and the tranquility when accepting one’s own fate. His story, mysterious and atmospheric, creates a painterly vision that corresponds to the chromatic envelope of images, also giving the book’s title: My Quiet of Gold. Thus, the mix of images and literature fragments construct outstanding portraits and come to reflect powerful human characters that could easily be reflected in Western everyday life as personal, human struggles, creating a tension that is hard to pin down.

The way the photographs are processed is also of crucial importance in their relationship to meaning construction. In contrast with most digital manipulations and collage techniques that seek to make viewers believe images are faithful representations of the real, as it happens with photographic retouches today, Cooper and Gorfer accentuate the interventions made upon the images. In this way, they succeed in subtracting images from the presumed assumption of ‘reality’ recording. Photography is placed as representation and, in this sense, the images the artists create function similarly to painting: they are visions of the world passed through a personal filter and modified by imagination. The interventions that digital photography allows brings photography much closer to drawing or painting as process of creating an image. In digital photography, the artist makes use of techniques that allow her to keep a part of the photograph’s initial real rendering and modify the rest in different measures. Such techniques can be traced back to the Renaissance, when artists made use of technologies and apparatuses helping them to render more accurately the material world in painting. In My Quiet of Gold, texts intersect and create new significances for the image while the pictorial influences in photographic construction contribute to the undermining of photography as a neutral documentary recording, allowing the artists to illustrate people and places in a much more nuanced manner.

1916: Where The Children Fell,
1916: Where The Children Fell, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
The Girl Who Never Laughs Or Smiles,
The Girl Who Never Laughs Or Smiles, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Apart from aesthetics and narrative constructions, Cooper and Gorfer’s practice is also reminiscent of Romanticism, where artists perceived art and its workings not in terms of pre-established rules of beaux arts stating what techniques, subjects and construction forms the artist should approach, but instead valued the sensibility of the individual and the personal touch, brought forward by sketches and the personal handling of materials. The curator Dragana Vujanovic underlines in the book’s introduction that the photographic sets work like a kind of portrait or reflection of the artists themselves in the way sketches are made, pictures are edited, or stories are selected – all of which reflect the artists’ sensibility, interest and preferences.

There is nevertheless a pregnant narrative element in both images and throughout the book itself. It is interesting to see this relationship towards photography, especially since narrativity was and continues to be mostly associated with painting. On the one hand, narrativity in photography underlines old considerations of photography and painting as two ways of visualisation always competing with one another. On the other hand, it shows how the revival of narrativity has found more subtle ways to involve the viewer, like in the artistic practice of Cooper and Gorfer. As Eleanor Heartney says when discussing art and narrative as postmodern storytelling, “narrative has returned with a postmodern difference. Just as representation in contemporary art is now full of knowing allusions to its own artificiality, so too have artistic narratives become self-conscious, subtly signalling the viewer that the stories they tell may be biased, incomplete, or completely fictional.” [5]

Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer too concentrate on peripheral characters or marginal people belonging to distance places, with increased attention to background details and a fragmentary approach. “Artists today continue to engage with narrative,” says Heartney, “for storytelling will always be a powerful engine for human expression. But contemporary narrative artists […] are free to concentrate on peripheral characters and background details and to follow the lead of great novelists, bearing in mind that the important thing is not so much the tale itself but how it is told. […] In sum, today’s narrative artists might create stories out of personal experience, history, past art and literature, popular culture, fantasy, or anything else they might dream up.” [6] Even if their subjects are taken from mythological or historical events, through fragmentation and visual experiments stories are distorted into creating a whole alternative universe, a transposed no man’s land that bears elements of the real and fantastic imagination. As the introduction to their first volume states, the artists’ practice seeks to give rise to “a place for many places” that converges multiple layers of signification. The fusion between words and images is visible in the way the proposed texts imagine stories starting from other stories and re-narrate images. In this sense, texts do not function as completion for images; they ignite an issue of reception and interpretation, as forms of imagination that arise at the intersection of images and texts, and get to subvert the initial perception of beauty and the outer world.

The Heirloom,
The Heirloom, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.
White Shola Under The Tree,
White Shola Under The Tree, "My Quiet of Gold: SEEK Volume 02 / Kyrgyzstan." Image © Cooper & Gorfer. Used here by kind permission. All rights reserved.

Precisely on the relationship between texts and images, the book could further be said to operate between what is visible and the power of signification, the effect it has upon us. It explores the relationship between the expectations the visuals create and how they are to be met through the palimpsest of collage, interviews, literature, journal and sketches. According to the French philosopher Jacques Rancière, photography has gained the status of art not by imitating painting but by “making the faces of anonymous people speak” based on a double poesis. This is a ‘making of form’ that brings together two composites: the codes of history (cultural, social norms) outpouring faces and objects, and the opening visibility photography offers. In this sense, “the face of anonymous people speaks twice: as a silent witness and a possessor of a secret we shall never know.” [7] Photography has the potential to disrupt the hierarchies governing the visual world and place us in a more engaging relationship especially with the other, but also with the conditions that made such other visible. It opens debates concerning time, space, memory and identity. As I already underlined, Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer’s work gives voice, literary and imagistic, to people out of reach, to people who are not usually taken into account or who are marginalised in different ways. What’s most important, the images do not reduce people to cut-clear identities or stereotypes. Instead, they stir tension and create a sense of uncertainty towards what is perceived through images, their material correlations and our articulation of what we perceive through texts. They are most powerful because they works towards an emotional response and make the viewer acknowledge the existence of multiple points of view. The artists employ myths and legends in storytelling, they do not transform the Kyrgyz land into some kind of mystic ‘lost paradise’ for westerns to awe, but rather confront us with everyday issues which might as well be our own. This is a way to shift once more the people and the places between history and mystery, as Rancière discusses.

The question however is: whose are the lenses that intermediate those who speak, what are the norms that outline them? The series of photographs from My Quiet of Gold open up another world, but they do so through the eyes of the artists and the western representations they employ. The artists’ work reflects an attraction for exoticness, unexplored lands and cultures, as well as an assumed use of western portraiture. It accounts for how cultural approaches work as conditions for visibility and the construction of representations – but this also involves the risk of seeing cultural contexts and the other through mediated western perspectives in a way that homogenises cultural differences. Sarah Cooper and Nina Gorfer have woven together anthropology and storytelling in a very emphatic and complex work, and it is through this that the book reveals the issue of otherness in more subtle and personal ways. It traces lines of history with different personal perspectives, be it in the words of raconteurs, the artists or the writers. My Quiet of Gold is an intense experience for the reader/viewer because it succeeds in creating a strong collision with the people on the other side of the book and the world, through the mix of facts and fictions the artists create. Reminiscent of Pre-Raphaelite works, they use aesthetics as a means of subversion, playfully distorting a first ‘beautiful’ impression into a realistic and socially endowed nuances.

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