Inessential views of art and photography.
From the distance, the tricks close-up magicians perform seem to be always the same. However, there is much variation from one to another and from one generation to another. Charlotte Cotton suggests that the knowledge of previous generations is acknowledged and partially integrated into modifications of tricks and sequences. Such a process is customary in visual arts practices as well as in the scholarly community. Another common thread that Cotton highlights is the relationship between cognition, repetition an imagination. Magicians use our economical perception to their advantage. Photographers do so to. The good ones guide our eyes and tell us a story from their very own perspective without giving it away. The collective imaginary and memory are tools both practitioners store in their bag of tricks.
In Photography is Magic, Cotton approaches close-up magic as a medium and the craft of making magic becomes thereby comparable to the craft of producing mesmerizing, enchanting lens-based images. The number of artist featured in the exhibition and the catalogue are considerable and quite diverse, however they all have something in common: the work always pushes the boundaries of the medium in one way or another. All featured artists develop complicity with the viewers, demand engagement from the audience and acknowledge a long tradition of visual makers.
Originally, there was an exclamation point in the title—Photography is Magic!—but as the book began to take form, we felt that the imagery included did the work of the exclamation point. Of course, the title refers to actual, secular performance of magic—and I write about that in the essay. In particular, I was interested in the idea of a close circle of magicians paying attention to the skill, craft, and innovations in the magic being made by their peers. That feels like an important aspect of contemporary art photography, and relates to the literal and intellectual connections between practitioners at a global level.
The preoccupation with the impact of digitization upon the photographic medium is embedded in Cotton’s essay, the call for work and every single piece featured in the catalogue and exhibition. In a time of technical chaos, creativity has surely sparked and photographers have embraced the borders of photographic representation and presentation.
Although Cotton’s comparison between magic and photography is playful, appealing and well argued, the core ideas behind her essay seem to strongly build onto the work of Carol Squiers, Geoffrey Batchen, George Baker and Hito Steyerl and the 2014 exhibition “What is a Photograph?”. The main difference is the temporal scope: while the ICP exhibition featured pieces dated back to the 1970s, Cotton chose to showcase work made since 2010 only. Young work. Old ideas. Often, the pieces are unique, not reproducible and sculptural. A second tangible difference is the aim of the work showcased in Photography is Magic. The artists consciously play with our conceptions of imagination, memory and the common.
Photography can be magic when it is perfectly time for its close-up audience, taking into account our ordinary interactions with image culture, even as that culture continues to manifest and change. Contemporary art photograph, as attested by the artists represented here, derives its magical charge from its capacity both to articulate and to participate in our collective image environment.
Charlotte Cotton, Photography is Magic, p. 18
Hungry for more? The next post will feature more of Ana Mendieta’s work.