Anarchy in The Basque Country – Text in English
FRANCISCO JAVIER SAN MARTÍN
Art embraces many dimensions; I cannot imagine an art focused exclusively on a single sphere. Many techniques, procedures, strategies, although they all start from a single premise: to look at the world. After looking – or during – the artist begins to imagine her work.
Or maybe not even that, like Firmin Quintet, who invested his best effort in not making works of art and dedicated his life to looking at many people. Born in Brittany, to a Uruguayan father and a Lithuanian Jewish mother, he traveled all over the world with the exclusive intention of capturing as many faces as possible, with the inordinate, but also thorough claim of “becoming the person who has seen the most faces in the earth”.
It is not worth dwelling on the failure of this undertaking or, at least, on the impossibility of verifying its improbable success. Some attentive chronicler has written that Firmin Quintet dedicated himself to “traveling the world, the continents, visiting the towns, crossing the suburbs, stopping at the crossroads of the big cities and dedicated a few seconds to all the faces he saw”. He was not exhausted in his task, because he had nothing to do but watch.
He never took a photo or a recording; he wrote or drew nothing: he devoted himself to others, looking at them with pity or admiration, with indifference. His job was to accumulate faces.
Far from this obsessive and quite nineteenth-century voyeur, Elba Martínez is also a face hunter, but she does not claim to be exhaustive. It has been doing this for many years, but there is no desire to archive, no greed to collect, no established system for validating faces. No hierarchy. On the contrary, Elba enjoys the difference and the unclassifiable: the people she photographs, their cheeks, hair or tattoos, their nails or their smile, are not assimilable to any taxonomy of the human or she at least does not intend it.
Outside of any classification, they are always special cases, exceptions to the rule, moments without relief that she is capable of endowing with her camera with a strange emotional turmoil.
In the center of the whirlwind
Despite the fact that it constitutes our only tangible reality, we people have serious difficulties to experience the present: we are caught between the anxiety of the future and the image without definition that we imagine, like the unbearable weight of the past and the also blurred traces that we keep in shape. of memories and photographs. It is the paradox of the moment: the only thing we really have at hand seems inaccessible.
Elba Martinez consciously or unconsciously faces this aspect of temporary unreality and strives to take snapshots or captures. In his images there is no trace of nostalgia for the past, nor of anguish for what is to come: they are a vindication, or more exactly, an enjoyment of the radical sense of the moment.
Erased-head: each moment erases the previous one, not as a loss but as a radical renewal of time. Everything happens right now, as a perpetual present, without nostalgia and without memory: the moment extends and the party of reality continues.
In photography, working with the moment, letting go of the heavy burden of time, seems interesting, but it also has its difficulties, related to an option for negativity: no prepared staging, no controlled lighting, no studied framing, no post-production of the images obtained.
No image making style. An option for the no that places his work on the edge of non-art or on the edge of pure notarial documentation. And it is true, because this art of the radical present, of the flow of life live, flirts with the idea of not being art, or at least not looking like it.
In any case, although they may have it, theirs are photographs alien to the idea of style.
The scenes that Elba portrays are radically lacking in effect, they almost seem to have happened without a photographer to document them; It is like life in the rough, brutal or tender, vulgar or indefinably sophisticated, but where the photographer seems to have disappeared inside the scene, because nothing has stopped with her snapshot but has allowed time and passion to flow, without a form to do in which they can legitimize themselves.
A photographer as unaffected and as flat as Garry Winogrand approached this field of negativity in regard to consideration as art. “I take photographs to find out what something will look like once it is made into a photograph. That is basically why I take pictures… That’s how it starts, and then we can dedicate ourselves to playing ”i.
Elba’s images have no style, but they have attitude, and this is not easy to measure with the traditional parameters of image legitimation. This attitude is measured by values of negativity, anarchic, without master or boss, without rhetoric, without complacent effects, without codes of conduct, without emphasis.
The pure documentation of the everyday does not end with the information that the image shows, but includes, like a hidden package, the questioning about the nature of photography and the aesthetic sense of the shot. Later, if necessary, we can dedicate ourselves to playing. A flat, poor aesthetic, with indefinable light, almost nothing, but full of intensity and rebellion, emotion, confusion, proximity and also pity and compassion for the spectacle of the world.
The artist is not so far from the characters and scenes she photographs, but rather in the center of the whirlwind, caught up in the whirlpool of experience.
His is a prayer that photography does not disdain anything human, not even if it is too human, not even the photographer herself who documents the catastrophe of reality.
So, devoid of style, the artist makes up for it with attitude, and also with honesty. Recall Edward Weston at the beginning of the 20th century: “Only with effort can you force the camera to lie, it is basically an honest medium.” Weston, as a person of order, takes it for granted and turns that honesty into something inherent in the photographic medium.
But it doesn’t seem that simple. For Bob Dylan, on the other hand, honesty is also a starting point, but to live the anarchy of the lawless: “If you want to live outside the law, you must be honest,” he writes in Absolutely Sweet Marie, 1966. Elba she’s with Dylan before she is with Weston.
When I suggest that Elba Martinez tends to move away from art, in the sense of taking care of form, color or the specific technique of documentary photography, I am not implying that it is due to neglect, disinterest, ignorance, but precisely because the component The emotion and immediacy of his photographs occupies all his interest and leaves no room for anything else. The intensity of the shot occupies everything.
It is not easy to be a photographer involved with what she sees in the viewfinder and at the same time obsessed with the “good form” of the result. Sometimes you have to choose, really, always.
And Elba chooses to be on the side of the catastrophe, to feed the fire, so that everything burns without leaving ashes. As Valentine Penrose – the wife of a famous man but a poet forgotten among the forgotten – she prefers to be “a conscious servant of fire rather than queen of ash.” The ashes are taken care of by the street sweepers; the artist takes care of the fire that never goes out.
Family Album Photos
Elba’s photographs seem to follow some aspects of the model of documentation of the marginal that made Nan Golding famous in the 1980s. But the American photographer operates with her models with one foot inside the environment and the other outside, with empathy, but without mercy, involved but not mixed with the disorder of life. In other images you can get closer to the British Martin Parr, an artist fascinated by the shocking, but who seems to have both feet outside the environments he photographs.
A relevant fact: Parr photographs strangers with whom he does not have any kind of relationship; Elba does not take photos of people with whom she has not talked or drunk or kissed: a contact, in any case a touch that generates heat. And in his images he does not limit himself to describing scenes, but seems to be sinking into the labyrinth they describe.
Faced with the careful measurement of distances in documentary photography, in Elba Martinez there is zero distance, either physical, since the same photographer seems to be among those photographed and touch her characters with the palm of her hand, or also psychological, since the camera’s eye seems to share with them joys and sorrows, action and relaxation, euphoria and despondency.
Lisette Model in the fifties or right now Valérie Jouve, seem closer to Elba than Golding or Parr: neither drug and sex melodrama nor desolate beach party: in their photographs, as in Elba’s, there is pity for men and women that populate this world.
Many of the photographs that are presented in this book are close to the aesthetics of the “family photo”, that massive and transversal genre, despised or simply ignored among the parameters of “great art”. But be careful, it is not an aesthetic question what Elba is asking with these photos. It is not beauty or ugliness, it is not clean or dirty, interesting or banal what is at stake here, but the ability to read faces between the lines, interpret postures and gestures, smiles or boredom, underlining or erasure, light accents and dark areas.
The same emotion for a face or for a cake on a plate, for high-heeled ankle boots or sunburned skin.
Let’s not forget that in the family photo for the Album, the photographer — anonymous — is herself part of the group she has photographed. Linked by kinship. Perhaps the aesthetic result is mediocre or even worse, but the emotional temperature in many cases is insurmountable.
In those celebratory photos, that unknown author bets everything on the crude documentation of that intersection between the intimate and the public: births, baptisms, birthdays, weddings, vacations; crucial stages in people’s lives. Between the interior of the house, the terrace or the church or the restaurant.
Obviously, Elba Martinez does not take these types of photos, but there is in hers a lingering aroma of this celebration of the exceptional in the everyday setting. As in them, in his photos there are many children and also grandmothers. And toys.
When Elba photographs others, she is also recounting her own life, the places she visits, the people she meets; and by showing it to the viewer, he discovers that perhaps his life is not as exceptional as he imagined.
It is the effect of the family photo: they are all alike, the spaces are similar, the rituals are repeated, the figures are interchangeable. But we must insist: Elba takes some of her conventions from the family photo, her everyday rhetoric, but she puts it to the limit, takes it to a vanishing point in which the domestic, in the sense of security and protection, acquires a haunting look.
They are images that portray what is close but enter the depths of that affective space, sometimes even its darkest corners. As at the beginning of Ana Karenina: “All happy families resemble each other, but each unhappy family is in its own way.”
In this “family album” that Elba Martinez now publishes, grandmothers and nephews, kitchens and bedrooms, gardens and garages, sofas and bottles, dogs and Cola-Cao boats appear, but the candid smile of the photos of relatives has mutated into real gestures , too human.
They are very real places, but the artist flees from specific locations to focus on an anonymity of space parallel to that of the characters: they are anywhere, nowhere and all at once, literally ubiquitous. Many of them are stark, but in the place and time of the shot, in front of her characters, the artist is eager for tenderness and also eager to document the anarchy of situations.
Within the very scene that she photographs, Elba seems capable of being both tender and wild, skeptical and passionate, of becoming something and her opposite — participant observer — blending in with the environment she documents. And from there, not from the Family Album, the intensity of the photographic shot arises: I ONLY DREAM WITH CRIMES.
These photographs document some rituals of the present, seeking meaning in what seems casual, random or banal. Elba does not hunt for the exceptional, but rather seeks the exceptionality of that which seems incapable of harboring it.
This is one of the most solid values of his art, of his vision of our life. Diane Arbus, whose genealogy Elba follows to a certain extent, wrote in 1963 a text to apply for a scholarship, in which she proposed to “save” urban rituals because “what is ritual, curious and banal, will soon become part of the legend” ii.
Elba Martinez documents flowers and toys, people laughing or eating, T-shirts with text and bikinis, but also injuries and dirt, collapsed sofas and runny mascara.
It was said in her time, at the beginning of the eighties, that Nan Golding photographed without shame, and perhaps then to many this seemed a compliment. But four decades later this system of penetration into intimacy has collapsed: there is no intimacy of the people in which to penetrate because they themselves voluntarily show it to us.
So that lack of modesty that was claimed at the time as a transgression, should perhaps today be re-read as interference and violence between equals.
Fortunately, the tone has changed. If in some of her first photographs Elba entered extreme environments, the center of the party or the desolation that followed, now her photos maintain the incisive, direct and honest language, but they have opened up to other scenarios of what we have agreed to call reality. And, of course, with as much sincerity as modesty.
This narrative needs choppy rhythms, outside of the languid sequence of predictable events in the Album. The way in which the artist has decided to show the images in this book, in vertical lines of hundreds of interlaced snapshots, brings her closer to the idea of a sequence of frames.
But the scenes and environments change, the lighting and the framing, the people and the objects, so it would be a frenzied movie of 24 different images per second, impossible to see due to an excess of concentrated reality. But in book form, the images stop and allow the viewer to sneak inside this dislocated shoot. Like in a silent movie, some images show text in the form of written notes, tattoos, or T-shirts.
In short, the possibility of taking the temperature of the human as text, which Elba shows in the form of photographed poems, like posters of a cinema without sound but with text: I HATE MY BRIDE, I CAN’T SUPPORT THE LACK OF SPLENDOR, CRY NOW ANA TORROJA, I ASK TO EAT.
The sequences of images in this book are slightly displaced to the left or right, in some cases slightly overlapping, like a poorly projected movie, giving rhythm and emphasis to the individual images. The slow or fast turning of the pages, from front to back or vice versa, speeds up or slows down, orders or messes up this compressed cinematic narrative.
The large number of photographs, around 500, is also important, precisely because it diminishes the prominence of the particular shots and gives it to the whole, to the accumulation. Carefully interspersing individual and group portraits, he nurtures the rhythm of subjectivities and moments of human interaction.
The woman in the crowd
“It doesn’t matter what one writes, you can never say everything,” Michel Leiris noted in his diary almost a century ago: the powerlessness of the text for complete communication. But what about photographing? Does it also matter what a photograph takes because it is impossible to communicate everything with images?
I think of the three seconds or three minutes before a shot of Elba: a whirlwind of disparate, fragmentary, contradictory, elusive ideas passes through the artist’s head; they appear and disappear almost instantaneously, they blend or fade, he changes his mind, takes another photo, deletes it, takes one more and decides not to continue photographing, he tries again …
But the desire to be there with the camera is stronger than the supposed incommunicability of all this whirlwind of decisions. “Only one thing belongs to me: my wish,” wrote Jacques Rigaut shortly before he died iii. Little more can be added. The photo, at last, has been taken: to document a situation, but above all to feed that desire and also to open up to the world. During a time of hardship and emotional instability, Garry Winogrand declared in an interview: “Photographing is always there: it is a way of getting out of yourself” iv.
Charles Baudelaire went ahead a century and a half in describing these photographs that Elba Martinez now shows. We could not find fairer words to place them in their space of social desire. The French poet borrowed the concept of The Man in the Crowd from his beloved Allan Poe, to imagine his modern artist in the city. And in his Modern Life Painter he describes this new figure: he is a wanderer, a walker who is away from home but is capable of feeling in any place as in it. It can be shown to the world but also remain hidden. He is a lover of life who makes the world his family. Walk through the crowd and you can compare yourself to a mirror as immense as that crowd or to a kaleidoscope endowed with consciousness. “It is an insatiable self of the not self, which at every moment restores it and manifests it in images more vivid than life itself, always unstable and fugitive” v.
i Cited in Garry Winogrand, The game of photography, catalog of the exhibition on Canal de Isabel II, November-December 2001, TF editores, Madrid, 2001, p. 38.
ii Diane Arbus, Revelation, exhibition catalog at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, October 2003 – February 2004, Schrimer-Mosel, Munich, p. 57.
iii “On n’a qu’une chose à soi, c’est son desir”, Jacques Rigaut, Écrits, edited by Martin Kay, Gallimard, Paris, 1970.
iv Tod Papageorge, Public Relations, catalog of the exhibition at MoMA, New York, 1977, collected in Garry Winogrand, The Game of Photography, catalog cited, p. 12.
v Charles Baudelaire, “le peintre de la vie moderne”, in Écrits esthétiques, Union Générale d’Éditions, Paris, 1986, pp. 369-370.