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Narrative Photography, and Lost Opportunities

Last night I attended Eugenio Recuenco’s gallery opening at the respected and influential Galerie Camera Work in Berlin. The show is hanging at the CWC Galerie, their space at the Alte Mädchenschule on August Strasse. It’s a marvelous space, and an appropriate venue for Recuenco’s work. Camera Work represents some of the best-known photographic artists in the world, but also fosters a growing roster of emerging artists. I am one of these emerging artists, as is Eugenio. He is a well-known and much-loved commercial photographer, and has created some of the most memorable campaigns. Often compared to Tim Walker, I find his editorials to be less whimsical, but with a nice nod to a certain darkness, not unlike Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Delicatessen or even his City of Lost Children. Even though Eugenio Recuenco is a well-known photographer, he is only now emerging into the world of fine art photography.

Eugenio and I work in the same style. We come up with an idea, and then we stage and construct it. Sets get built, clothing is created, and make-up is matched to the story. None of the images are serendipitous shots that are stumbled upon, we create carefully composed pictures. This particular show was a sort of retrospective, a compilation of greatest hits. Although I usually prefer to see photographic art in a cohesive series, it made sense in this case; Recuenco has an incredibly large body of work to draw from.

I’m not going to pretend. When I am looking at the work of a fellow photo artist in the same genre, I cannot help but look at every aspect of the work, and critique it. This isn’t a question of being snarky or jealous. As an artist I make creative choices, and I see where a fellow artist made the same choices, or different ones.

One deserved compliment must be made for Eugenio’s overall technical excellence, especially the detail to set design and props. His images are wonderfully staged, and the colors and lighting are perfect. You can see years of editorial and commercial photography as a base. It is a powerful tool-set being wielded by competent hands.

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The gallery invited some collectors and artists to dinner afterwards, and following a truly Bacchian amount of wine the conversation invariably turned to the work. I was asked by a small group of friends what I really thought, and I must admit I had some comments. One important creative choice that I would have definitely made differently is about the presentation of the work. A lot of people look at images on the web, or in magazines, so the question of appropriate presentation never arises. If you look at these two images from his fairytale series all you see are two beautiful photographs. But when you create art to hang on a wall, certain choices can make or break a piece. You need to consider the framing, the materials, and the size. Eugenio used different ways to show his work, much of which was printed photo paper behind glass. I don’t think that works, and it does the images a disservice. The glass is too reflective, and a lot of the darker images lose their impact because the glass becomes a mirror.

A small series inspired by the sinking Titanic was printed directly onto aluminum, and those pieces worked extremely well. There’s a brushed texture to the metal that makes it almost look like canvas. But these dark images reveal their metal surface in the highlights, and it is a pleasure to see the light reflect from the models’ faces or the white caps of the waves washing around the action.

Like a painter looking at another artist’s painting, I see the brush strokes. These are creative choices, there is no wrong or right to these decisions. I am intrigued by the slight softness around the faces of the subjects. A closer look at the prints shows they are razor-sharp in certain areas, but the faces aren’t. That’s a choice I quite admire. There’s a human instinct to seek eye-contact, and by softening the faces it sends the viewer back into the image to explore the rest of it. His prints are quite large, and there is a lot to explore.

There is one fundamental difference though. I have always sought to include a narrative element in my images. Even in my early work, my series called Hopper’s Americans, my goal was to create pictures that triggered a story in the viewer. My content criticism is that many of Recuenco’s images in this show are extremely beautiful, but the chance to re-envision the story was not taken. I love the classic fairy tales, but why not add a new twist? I like the Princess on the Pea and Cinderella, these are perfect pictures… but why not go one step further? Take the characters and add to the story. It seems like such a lost opportunity. Much of the work being exhibited in this retrospective of his work shows perfect execution, but only one image that I saw made a genuine attempt at re-imagining a situation. It is a visual quotation of Vermeer’s style.

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It’s hard to tell how much of the work on display is pulled from fashion editorials and commercial campaigns. I mention it because it is unclear to me why the woman kneading the dough is wearing a couture dress and fine jewelry. Is it part of a fashion editorial, or is it an artistic choice he made for purely creative reasons? Vermeer was very specific in his depiction of the working people in his household. He was one of the first painters to show ordinary working people performing everyday activities, so seeing this well-dressed woman while a couple is having sex right behind her back leaves room for a lot of narrative interpretation. I like that. I did not have a chance to ask Eugenio why he staged the image like this. I saw the rest of the series on his website, and I love his version of the Death of Marat, though once again I don’t learn anything new about that story. It is purely a citation, not a jumping-off point.

I don’t want to criticize Eugenio Recuenco. He is a great photographer, a skilled craftsman, a colleague, and a genuinely creative person. I reflect on his work only because it makes me question my own choices. I look at this work in terms of what I might do different, and revisit my own creative decisions. His work is selling very well, which makes me happy for him, for this small genre of staged & constructed photography in which we both work, and it also makes me happy for Camera Work. People underestimate how much risk galleries take when championing an emerging artist – it would always be easier for them to show artists that already have committed collectors.

The reason I explore these differences is to point out how my work differs. My Sacred & Profane series is an on-going project. In it I explore my relationship with religion through the language of Baroque light. I try to look at it in a contemporary way, and I allow it to wander into uncomfortable territory.

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Not all the images in this series are reinterpretations of classic depictions. There are plenty of image that work purely as aesthetic exercises, so I’m not about to fault Eugenio Recuenco’s work for being simply beautiful, or for people wanting to own it. I’ve got a few images that are primarily pretty rather than narrative. But you’ll got a chance to comment on my work April 2014, I look forward to hearing what you’ll think. I’m not showing much from the new series until then.

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2 comments

  1. Askar Ibragimov said:
    2013/09/01
    10:25

    I happen to see that Vermeer-like image yesterday. And in fact did not like it. To have a story you need some implied coherence, something that make image hold together. I really loved precise set design, that every thing and every light spot in right place. Execution is high-end. But the story — well. Couple have some sex. Must be thinking reeeealy log to get to that point, so unusual (irony implied). The woman also look out of the place with her jewerly etc. There is no clue how these elements are connected. Overall to me it look like a prenetious fashion image but lack of story and “cheap” attention-drawing solution by placing some sex in scene I did not like.

  2. nico said:
    2013/09/04
    20:50

    Im enjoying the choreography and movement and abstraction of shapes

Thoughts? Comments?

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