Three different projects dealing with presence, absence and the passage of time.
The first one is straight photography: no tricks. Irina Werning’s Back to the Future features adults posing as their childhood selves in replicas of old pictures that they sent in ahead of time. At first glance, another exercise in the knowing, ironic nostalgia that is one of the aesthetic markers of our age.
Pancho 1983 & 2010, Buenos Aires. More images on the project’s website.
There is craft and playfulness in the photographs in the series. In one of the image pairs, a little girl wearing comically oversized boots is replaced by a young woman who fits the boots just fine. These gags aside, however, the images are emotionally opaque: the mimicry of infantile expressions by the adult subjects negates the reaching of maturity. It’s often the case, in the retronaut genre, that time is compressed into a saturating, everlasting present. Everything is a now that can be digitised, even interior states of being.
The second project, Imagine Finding Me by Chino Otsuka, is bolder. This time the childhood pictures are of Otsuka herself, who appears in them also as an adult. ‘I become a tourist in my own history,’ she explains, except one who appears to be invisible to the country into which she has travelled. Her younger self cannot see her. They stand together, but make no contact.
The effect is a mounting, unsettling tension, as if placing the two differently-aged Chinos within the same picture had increased the distance between them. Internet time nears breaking point, threatens to collapse upon itself. But there is no resolution, and we are left instead to admire the craft again. The perfect blending of tones and colours, of contours, of styles. We are so good at this.
There is a particular genre of internet photography, one that is focused on the bridging across time not of people, but of places. Take a photo of a busy metropolitan street in 1900 and then reproduce the shot from the same angle and with the same lens; then place them not side by side, but within the same frame. A street in Paris then and now. Or New York, or Glasgow. I call it internet photography because it’s a genre that has flourished on the web and circulates most intensely through the channels of social media. It usually leaves me fairly cold, in the particular way that these meticulous exercises do: as much as anything, in fact, because of their meticulousness, always seeking to efface itself through the effortless digital perfection of the product. A modern sprezzatura.
It usually leaves me cold, save for this one instance. A set on Leningrad then and now, in which ‘then’ was during the blockade. One image above all: of two women – one young, one old – dragging a shrouded corpse on a blanket, out in the open, on the pavement (Leningrad then); while just metres away, pedestrians walk alongside a modern tram (Leningrad now). Then and now are cut off from each other, like in those pictures by Chino Otsuka, except to a much more dramatic effect: the indifference of the present for the past is intolerable (won’t anyone help those women?). However, there is another level at which we are forced to interpret the picture. That is, as the side by side representation of two quotidian experiences: one, of residents walking and using public transport, confident, unhurried; the other, of women dragging a lifeless body, possibly not their first, onto the pavement. Both are pictures of daily life, on the same piece of Earth, at but a few decades remove. It is the work of history to reconcile them.
That wasn’t the third photographic project I had in mind, however, but rather a link into it. Gustavo Germano’s Ausencias (‘absences’) begins with a picture of four young brothers. Gustavo (the youngest), Guillermo, Diego and Eduardo. Then a second one, of the brothers as grown men, but with an empty space where Eduardo ought to be. He was kidnapped in 1976 by the military, aged 18, and now figures as a victim of the guerra sucia, Argentina’s dirty war. In another, Orlando René Mendez and Leticia Margarita Oliva are sitting in the sun on the shore at ‘La Tortuga Alegre’, Rio Uruguay. In the next picture, taken on the same location in 2006, Orlando and Leticia are gone.
Like Irina Werning, Germano does not resort to photographic manipulation, yet his image galleries – unlike hers – are all about marking history and the passage of time, along with the loss of innocence and life. Germano has no interest in reproducing the exact perspective or style of the original images. He’ll often switch to colour when the ‘before’ picture was in black and white. What counts is those captions. In this place, at this time, who is there, and who is not.
How the person, or persons, came to disappear, is not revealed to us, and is likely not known, adding a further layer to Germano’s remarkable catalogue of pain and loss. This isn’t photography that seeks to assert itself over the social real, bringing people together across impossible distances of time or space. On the contrary, it is photography that measures the irreducible gap in our knowledge and points to the places we cannot go. In the age of the retronauts, it’s a sobering, timely reminder that the past will always be a foreign territory.
With many thanks to Kathy Korcheck for helping me find again Gustavo Germano’s work.
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