Sight and Scent: First Steps
Ephemera catalogue text by Ian Jeffrey, 2003
Think of these pictures as making up a composite work of art. There are cross-sections and close-ups. Cross-sections are characteristic of the modernism of the 1920s, for they reveal and explain. Close-ups, in the 1840s and 1850s, demonstrated what might be achieved in photography. Much later on, from the 1970s and after, microphotography began to involve itself with protons and electrons, items with force but no substance. The Barans pictures of fallen and damaged magnolia petals recall this world of the particle accelerator. Under these terms of reference we may be able to sense how things are, but under modernist premises we could enumerate and analyse: counting the petals in a corolla and all the enclosed stamens.
The Barans pictures, under the general heading of Ephemera, make a number of references to the history of the medium, particularly to Fox Talbots microphotographs of the 1840s, as well as to some of the stellar photography which was so much in vogue in the 1890s. But their pictures are manifestly more beautiful than those of their precursors, in shades of grey, pink, lilac and puce. Most of what they represent becomes desirable to the eyes. They suggest that vision and aroma are interlinked and even transposable.
Why should they make such refined and delicate images? Because they decelerate vision in a particular way. In the modernist era, as we can access it through photography, it was perhaps enough to identify and enumerate the parts and to pass on satisfied that we had reached an understanding. In front of these images so delicately modulated seeing is more like caressing, and this means that sooner or later we come up against the edge of the field. A broken petal, for example, ends in a gash or tear; a severed stem is bruised where the cut has been made. Each image features a point of breakage, not unlike those morbid details revealed in medical pictures. What each image does, in fact, is to make us aware of the point at which objects have been removed from an original matrix or host. Any object, the pictures suggest, is only so because we have made it so.
Otherwise everything is dependent: flower, calyx, stem, root. This idea of dependency is also supported by the look of the pictures, for beautiful and seductive as they are they make us very much aware of the act of seeing as sensing, as implicated in tasting and sensing. In modernist photography, as it developed in the 1920s, the phenomenological impulse was expressed in point of view; modernists emphasised that what we saw was seen from a particular standpoint, via atmosphere and terrain. The Barans on the other hand propose synaesthesia in place of point of view; and there is a lot to be said for this postmodernist idea that this is how we now address ourselves to phenomena. It amounts to a return to the aesthetics of the belle époque when humanity was often represented in just such sensory terms, in the presence of flowers and fruit and close to sources of heat and sound. This self-image was then put aside by modernists who chose to see themselves as artisans and technicians.
Where then does the Barans photography stand in any wider scheme of things? It is very wide-ranging with respect to the history of the medium, and this means that they position contemporary aesthetics in the broadest possible context. Here, they say, are pointers to the kind of modernism which the present no longer appreciates. Under those old rules we were to some degree in control, able to manage and to manoeuvre items which were identifiable and which came to hand. Now once more we are creatures of the senses and without that transcendental dimension which is very recognisable in the vanguard photography of the 1920s and 1930s. It is symptomatic of this that many of the Barans images appear to float in a darkening atmosphere vaguely articulated by floating or falling grains of pollen. At the Creation there was a point when darkness was pervasive and when the dimensions had not yet been established, when gravity had not yet been enforced.
To some extent, and beautiful though they may be, these pictures have a reductionist side to them. It is as if their authors had set themselves the task of imagining what it might be like sometime on the first or second day, before the basics had been settled on. In this respect they are only doing what many of their contemporaries have done with arts conventional categories. In the case of the major German photographers, for example, the test has been to take a traditional format, such as portraiture, and to try for degree zero, for an image which satisfies only the minimum requirements: presence, for instance, without personality. The Barans findings are less bleak than those of their German counterparts but for all that no less elemental. They too seem to want to invoke an originating moment before the separations were made and the parts identified. With their attachment to refined colouring and to the aromas of beauty, they may not look like radical contemporaries but that is exactly what they are.
Barbara & Zafer Baran: Ephemera
Richard Pinsent, The Art Newspaper, March 2003
As the exhibition title, ‘Ephemera’, implies, these camera-less photographs deal essentially with such core concepts as creation, beyond and alongside an intricately post-Modern raft of references to the whole history of photography ... In gorgeously sensual, delicately crafted close-ups, cross sections, composites and arrangements of cut flowers, corollas, petals, pistils, pollen and stems; in subtle shades of colour, from white, through yellow, orange, red, violet to vivid blues and greens, set off by deepest black, their ‘Ephemera’ visualise the cyclical nature of life that governs every species. Fragile flora serve to articulate sex, birth, growth, decay, death and regeneration, the fundamental notions that underpin our perceptions of existence, whether through art, philosophy, natural and applied science or religion. The exhibition catalogue contains a thoughtful text by curator and photo historian Ian Jeffrey, 'Sight and Scent: First Steps'.
The Garden of Earthly Delights
Catalogue text by Anne-Marie Eze (Assistant Curator of Photographs, Victoria and Albert Museum, London), 2005
The passage of time, and particularly the transformation and decay that it engenders, is the main thematic thread running through the collaborative work of Barbara and Zafer Baran. The couple met in London in the early 1980s while studying at Goldsmiths Colllege and have worked as photographers, both separately and together, ever since. There is a deceptive eclecticism in the variety of the work that they have produced during their long career. The visual difference between their last project exhibited at the Borusan Art Gallery and their latest display in the same space is a case in point. Atlas, which was part of the group show Roundtrip Istanbul III in 2000, featured monumental and earthy images of rocks and stones in both their natural setting and the studio. The inherent density of the subject matter contrasts greatly with the other-worldly fragility of the flowers pictured in Ephemera. The two series however seem to converge and reconcile themselves in Toxic Forest, the Barans' most recent collaborative effort, which is shown for the first time alongside Ephemera. The Garden of Earthly Delights is the Barans' first solo exhibition at the Borusan Art Gallery.
Strikingly beautiful and luminescent images of botanical specimens set against a black background make up Ephemera. As its title suggests, the series is primarily concerned with issues of change and degeneration and is thus very much in keeping with the Barans’ previous work. In fact, the couple consider Ephemera to be an expansion of the questions of “transience and permanence as relating to the natural world, and our own place within it” explored in Atlas. The major source of inspiration for both series came from work they produced for Royal Mail. In 1998 they were commissioned by the postal company to create a stamp celebrating the invention of photography as part of its millennial theme: Inventors’ Tales. The project enabled them to examine William Henry Fox Talbot’s ‘photogenic drawings’, the cameraless photographs of small objects, such as flowers, leaves and lace, that led to his important discovery of the negative–positive process in the late 1830s. Ephemera’s floral motif and ethereal quality are clearly in the spirit of Fox Talbot’s ghostly impressions, but they also make reference to the cyanotypes of Anna Atkins, his contemporary, whose experiments in photography also stemmed from a passion for botany. The Barans’ vibrantly hued specimens looming out of a primordial darkness recall Atkins’ silhouettes of algae, flowers and ferns floating in a sea of brilliant Prussian blue.
The making of Ephemera was also informed by the techniques of early photography, as it was done without the use of a camera. Although digital and exploiting modern imaging tools, the Barans’ cameraless work adhered to the basic principles of photography and was akin to the photogram invented by Fox Talbot. The couple follow in the tradition of reviving this technique which began with Fox Talbot and Atkins in the 1830s, was rediscovered in 1918 by Christian Schad, to be carried on into the 1920s by Man Ray and László Moholy-Nagy and resumed in the late 1980s by a group of British photographers including Garry Fabian Miller, Susan Derges and Adam Fuss. The Barans’ use of digital technology is a modern extension of the photogram technique. Yet the fundamental presence of light, visible in the inner luminosity and hyper-reality of the flowers, binds Ephemera to the simple origins of the photographic medium.
In Ephemera, the hybrid of art and science photography produces a type of florilegium for the twenty-first century. Florilegia or ‘flower books’ emerged in the seventeenth century when it first became fashionable for flowering plants to be grown for their decorative rather than medicinal or alimentary qualities. The florilegium mainly consisted of plates of detailed, multi-coloured floral engravings, distinguishing it from its predecessor, the ‘herbal’, in which schematic, monochrome botanical drawings illustrated texts on the practical uses for plants. The prints of flora served as substitutes for plants unable to survive removal from their original habitat. Ephemera’s images of cross-sections, close-ups and composites of cut flowers are reminiscent of the formal plant portraiture found in florilegia but, as many are in a state of decay, they differ from the perfect specimens depicted in that genre. In addition, the series’ pervasive focus on the flowers’ sexual parts seems to be influenced by the binomial system of plant classification that was established by the eighteenth-century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus and “depended on the flower and an enumeration of the stamens and pistils, and their relation to one another”. The Barans’ more classic floral images make reference to “sex, birth, growth, decay, death and regeneration”. These issues are not only at the heart of Ephemera but also recall the original purpose of the florilegium.
In the 1960s Zafer’s family lived in Izmir, Turkey where his father, then an engineer in the Turkish navy, had designed and constructed the dome for a new observatory for the Department of Astronomy at the Aegean University. As a child Zafer visited the observatory many times, sometimes passing the night there. He still remembers the quietness of its mountain-top location, its pendulum, an incredible sighting of Saturn, and the Milky Way spread over the entire night sky. Ephemera’s other, more abstract images appear to be views of the cosmos seen through the telescope, bacteria through a microscope, or even both. The circular images are like the galaxy reflected in a Petri dish. The Barans feel that it is in these pieces “that the universality of all life and matter is best expressed”
The principal thematic link within their oeuvre continues to manifest itself in the Barans’ latest body of collaborative work that was inspired by their flower collecting for Ephemera. Strictly speaking, a forest is “an extensive tract of land covered with trees and undergrowth, sometimes intermingled with pasture”. So it is telling that the Barans entitled the new series Toxic Forest, even though they created these unsettling images of tangled undergrowth in a park. The distinguishing characteristics of parks are generally their ornamental layout, enclosure in a town or attachment to a country house, as well as their use for public or private recreation. It might seem pedantic to point out such semantic niceties but language used often implies an individual’s intentions or betrays their perceptions. In this case, the Barans’ choice of title assumes particular significance when one considers the fact that the word ‘forest’ is cognate with ‘foreign’ since they are both derived from foris, the Latin for ‘out of doors’. The presence of a foreign body in parkland inspired the series and perhaps is the reason for the transformation of the actual park into the imagined forest of its title.
The Barans live in the proximity of Richmond Park, the largest of London’s Royal Parks, and have been visiting it for many years. Toxic Forest stemmed from their interest in and subsequent familiarity with a species of rhododendron that they encountered while walking in the park’s plantations. The Rhododendron ponticum is a tall shrub native to South-East Europe and Western Asia that was introduced to Britain in the nineteenth century by explorers carrying home exotic plants with which to enliven the English country garden. A shrub that grows well in the shade and on almost any type of soil – quickly producing a verdant screen suitable for game cover and clusters of pretty flowers in the spring – it easily beguiled these plant collectors. Having been the darling of ornamental planting in the Victorian era, it eventually took its captor captive and earned the reputation for being the gardeners’ best friend but foresters’ worst enemy.
Today the Rhododendron ponticum is considered by many to be a weed, the attributes for which it was originally prized having proved noxious to British flora and fauna. Its capacity to adapt to most soil conditions, aided by its ability to regenerate both vegetatively and by seed dispersal, has enabled it to spread from country estates and invade large areas of the British countryside. The cover provided by its dense canopy literally puts native plants in the shade, inhibiting their growth. Once shed, its leaves, which are also toxic and unpalatable to herbivores, create an acidic mulch that increases the inhospitableness of the ground for competing plants. The nectar from its flowers produces a honey that, if ingested by humans, causes ‘Mad Honey Disease’. Fortunately for Zafer’s father, whom curiosity once dared to taste the plant’s sweet poison, the intoxication tends to last for less than twenty-four hours, inducing symptoms such as vomiting, excessive perspiration, dizziness, shock and low blood pressure – but rarely fatalities.
The presence in the domestic landscape of a foreign body, which the Barans knew to be toxic and damaging to its adopted environment, led them to see a “dark beauty” in the undergrowth of the rhododendron plantings. Their awareness of the species’ aggression, a manifestation of the superior force of nature – as well as a general metaphor for cultural and environmental issues – offers an explanation for their equation of the seemingly benign parkland with the sinister forest that has long disturbed the collective imagination. The Barans follow the popular view that the ubiquity of the theme of the malevolent and bewildering forest in fairy tales is symbolic of an aspect of the human psyche: namely, the examination of the unknown and feared elements of one’s own character. For many their photographic expression will immediately recall familiar folkloristic and literary traditions. One of the tales that speaks to them, and in particular Jean Cocteau’s 1946 haunting cinematic adaptation of it, is Beauty and the Beast. The stereotypical forest that hides the Beast’s castle heightens the atmosphere of the story and enhances its message of the deceptiveness of appearances, a theme that has resonance with the seductive yet poisonous qualities of the Rhododendron ponticum.
The Barans describe twilight as “the interface between day and night, neither one thing nor the other, where things are only ever half-seen, where subconscious, primeval fears emerge as darkness grows”. To make Toxic Forest, they rejected using a traditional large-format camera with film and a tripod, having found that shooting at twilight with a small hand-held digital camera enabled them to create blurred images that suitably conveyed “a sense of oppression, mystery and claustrophobia”. They faulted the former method for producing images that were “too sharp, too clear, too detailed – nothing to do with the way the eye perceives a landscape in those light conditions”. In order to further enhance the impressionistic qualities of their work, they enlarged the images beyond the conventional capabilities of their simple, 4-megapixel digital files. The resulting images are close to what the Barans had seen, or rather had half-seen, in the dusk.
Different sources of light were crucial to the making of Toxic Forest. Twilight served to flatten the sculptural forms of the rhododendron plantings and obfuscate their colours, making it difficult for viewers to judge distance in the photographs of the dark undergrowth, thus increasing their sense of fear and unease. While broad daylight, the springtime sun acting as a backlight, enabled the Barans to produce the close-ups of illuminated rhododendron flowers that make up the DVD projection accompanying the Toxic Forest landscapes in the gallery. In these slowly flashing images there is an almost pornographic use of soft-focus on the exposed sexual organs of the plant, which was created by the lens being pushed right into the heart of the flower. The sensuality of the projected, vibrantly coloured petals contrasts greatly with the sombre autumnal landscapes in the prints. Their juxtaposition recalls the duplicitous nature of the species, reminding us of the cliché that looks can deceive. We are beguiled by the Rhododendron ponticum’s seductive bloom and yet are in danger of being poisoned by its toxic honey. This duality is best described by the subtle nuances of the Ancient Greek word farmakon that means either medicine or poison depending on the dosage administered. You can imagine that being thus intoxicated might impair one’s vision and cause one to see the world as the Barans half-saw it in the twilight.
The general title of the exhibition The Garden of Earthly Delights refers loosely to the early sixteenth-century painting by the Netherlandish artist Hieronymus Bosch. The decaying flowers of Ephemera and deceptive blooms of Toxic Forest seem to share some of the symbolism of that triptych, which in an early inventory was also called The Vanity of the World. Like the Dutch still-life vanitas paintings of the seventeenth century, they reflect “the fragility of man and his world of desires and pleasures in the face of the inevitable and finality of death”, showing not only beauty but also the reverse of that seductive coin.
Roundtrip Istanbul III: The Barans’ Journey
Atlas text, published in Arredamento magazine, November 2000
The present work forms part of an ongoing photographic project entitled Atlas, dating back three years and drawing on our travels in England, where we live and work, and Turkey, which we regularly visit. These travels can be seen to be metaphorical as much as actual. Beral Madra, curator of the Borusan exhibition, describes the project as being “an intricate work of collecting and displaying ‘memory’ and of going into the roots of ‘landscape’”; a work “dealing with perpetuity, continuation, eternity”.
There are two phases to this act of collecting and displaying: field work initially, followed by investigations in the studio.
Our field ‘expeditions’ usually involve locations with a layered history spanning many centuries of human habitation (the area of Hadrian’s Wall, for instance; or the ancient city of Myndos on the Bodrum Peninsula), but they also include modest sites with a more recent past. Although the settlements whose remains we visit have their own importance, our interest in the context of this project lies solely with the ignored and anonymous site ‘incidentals’: the stones and rocks common to every location.
The field work (the first phase) consists of documenting some of the larger pieces present, and also collecting a few small samples from the site. The studio work (the second phase) uses these samples as the basis for further study and experimentation.
The documentary side of this work is closely related to some of our previous land-based projects, particularly a series from the early 1980s, first shown at The Photographers’ Gallery and depicting people encountered on our journeys in Turkey. Here, within a semi-formal framework, the subjects were portrayed as individuals firmly rooted in their own time and space, with clues to their histories and identities around them. The rocks encountered in the course of our field work are similarly rooted (and similarly portrayed), although the time-frame they inhabit is clearly of a completely different order. Nevertheless they exhibit comparable qualities, of stillness as well as tension, longevity as well as impermanence, continuity as well as flux.
The studio-based images hint in many ways at the visual language of science: topographical maps; planetary and lunar surveys; microscope photographs; deep-space telescopy. But this is merely a side-effect. What matters more is the process of transformation and decontextualization that the subject matter undergoes in the course of the work, the alterations of scale, the shifting of meanings. Through these transformations the material is rendered ambiguous, inviting a wider reading from the viewer.
1) The main elements of each title consist of the geographical co-ordinates of the stones, determined at the time of collection or photography.
2) While the field work relies entirely on film-based photography, the studio work uses both film-based and digital technologies.
Turner's View: Synthetic Cloud Series I
Prix Pictet text, 2016
The series Turner’s View: Synthetic Cloud Series I is based almost entirely on man-made, artificial clouds. Although the cloud formations in our skyscapes appear natural, they are composed largely of aircraft condensation trails – including those that have evolved into cirrus and other cloud forms.
Turner’s View owes much to the environmental journalist Marek Mayer (Barbara’s brother), editor of ENDS magazine, who before his untimely death in 2005 wrote movingly of the deceptive beauty of contrail-covered skies. The project touches on a number of themes: the relationship between humans and the environment, and between science and art; the nature of beauty and the romantic ideal; the work of the English artist J.M.W. Turner, ‘painter of light’; and the depiction of landscape in photography.
The main body of the Turner’s View work consists of large-scale, unmanipulated cloud and contrail panoramas assembled from several separate photographs, in the manner of satellite mosaics. All these photographs were taken from Richmond Hill, a famous viewpoint whose environs Turner painted over a period of many years. Richmond Hill faces towards Heathrow Airport, and, although the view otherwise appears very much as it did in Turner’s day, it is greatly affected by the contrails, or vapour trails, left by the large numbers of aircraft as they pass high overhead. Initially in the form of long, straight tracks, these trails gradually mix with the atmosphere, often diffusing into large sheets of cirrus clouds that spread across the whole sky and, at close of day, reflect the light of the fading sun.
The impact of these artificial clouds has both aesthetic and environmental dimensions. Contrails – visual indicators of population movements, aircraft emissions and air pollution – often enhance our sunsets (while cluttering daytime skies), but they also have an effect on the atmosphere, playing their own part in global dimming and warming. A comparison may be drawn here with the volcanic eruptions of the 1800s (Tambora in 1815, Babuyan in 1831 and Cosiguina in 1835), which made a profound impression on the global atmosphere, while also dramatically enhancing the sunsets of the day: an effect recorded in the work of Turner and other painters, and the subject of an interesting volcanic study published by a team of global warming experts in 2007.
The Contrail Education Project at NASA notes that “contrails, especially persistent contrails, represent a human-caused increase in high thin clouds in the Earth’s atmosphere, and are likely to be affecting climate and ultimately our natural resources.”
No clearer illustration of the extent to which contrails now litter the atmosphere could have been provided than the contrast of their sudden absence in 2010, when air traffic was brought to a grinding halt following a series of volcanic eruptions in Iceland. For a few, brief days, clear skies provoked wonder: transient reminders of a more pristine world.
Our photographic records of the skies from Richmond Hill combine aesthetics with information-gathering: offering not just apparent visions of beauty, in the spirit of the romantic age, but providing meteorological, environmental and social data of a sort as well. A kind of beauty with footnotes, if you will; a collection of sunsets for the post-modern era.
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