For some, photography is the realm of amateurs who take occasional snapshots. However, it is a medium that major artists exploit. Joseph Agius talks to veteran photographer MARCUS FLORES about this art form and its idiosyncrasies.
JA: In your words: “Photography is the instant recognition of beauty of design and form, a revelling in nature’s grandeur, the recovery of the child’s innocent joy of observation and discovery coupled with the insights and the experience of a mature mind.” Do you feel that the medium is more conducive than other media in capturing faithfulness and spirit of the moment, while in the meantime also allowing for the artist to input his own soul?
MF: It all depends on the subject matter. Let me clarify; we use the word “photogenic” to mean the wrong thing. Truth is that any subject that is admirably suited to photographic rendition is photogenic. Some subjects are better rendered by painting, others by photography. Painting does not really capture; it encapsulates.
Before the modern camera and fast films came online, everything was painted, even pictures of battles, popular uprisings, revolutions; often with imagination, and not reality, holding major sway, because many were painted in the studio, possibly with the help of quick sketches for a memory-aid.
In photography, the camera must be pointed at the subject matter, at the moment of exposure of the subject-matter in-the-flesh. And imagination comes into play only in the form in which content is displayed and interpreted, by a photographer who is also an artist.
But we must no longer compare painting with photography, or we will miss photography’s unique trust, which painting lacks: the ability to capture the essence in milliseconds. When photography really kicked in, there were pictures of dejected painters over the title “from today, painting is dead!” The reason for this plaintive lament and the consequent dejection was caused by the fact that, during the rise of photography, most artists were engaged in the pursuit of verisimilitude.
Since the painter now no longer needed to “imitate” nature, this resulted in an unleashing of the creative forces as never before: fauvism, expressionism, cubism, purism, orphism, futurism, vorticism, dada and surrealism, suprematism, de stijl, constructivism, abstract expressionism, kinetic art, pop art, op art, minimalism, conceptual art, and so on.
And the camera is better than the brush for any content that requires spontaneity of form, and for discoveries in the realm of vision. It is important to note that both in photography and in painting, composition is quintessential. The so-called “rules” of composition were not what taught artists to compose beautifully but were compiled and formulated from that leitmotiv running through all great works of art. Just as grammar books are not meant to teach the natives how to speak correctly but are drawn from the repetitive speech-patterns of native speakers.
Photographers, in the view of many semi-literates, have been derogated to ‘illustrators’ instead of ‘interpreters’, to snap-shooters. Since photography is the most democratic of all mediums, this is true in the hands of the aesthetically-uninitiated, the aesthetically-illiterate, the collection of memories for the family album. In the hands of the aesthetically-literate, and the aesthetically eloquent, the opposite is true.
“Can the artist input his own soul?” If a given subject matter is painted or photographed by 12 different true artists, the result will be 12 different pictures of the same subject. Additionally, I have books which illustrated what 20 different photographers produced when asked to print the same negative. A good photo-image also contains both denotative and connotative aspects.
What makes for a good and emotive picture? Canadian documentary filmmaker Arthur Hammond wrote long ago: “A picture may be considered a photographic record if people say, on seeing it: “Oh, yes, that’s the Grand Canal in Venice,” or “That’s in Honolulu, we stopped there on our trip around the world last year, and that’s the very place where we had lunch”.
“However, if they say: ‘Isn’t that just typical of Venice?’ or ‘that picture of Honolulu makes me almost feel the blazing sunlight of Hawaii’, then the picture is pictorial because it suggests an emotion, and conveys an impression, instead of merely imparting local information.”
JA: Your late father, Wilfrid Flores, whose work has been recently exhibited, had produced an oeuvre that he seemed to prefer to keep under wraps as he only sporadically exhibited. Do you think that this reluctance to exhibit originated maybe from his viewpoint that photography in Malta in those days wasn’t regarded as an art form in its own right? Or do you think it was due to other factors?
MF: I have some photo-annuals in which my dad’s pictures are featured. Dad also did many portraits of celebrity painters, jazz singers, like, for example, Cleo Laine, which he gave to the Marquis Scicluna.
Why dad did not bother to do things on a grand scale in Malta was due to other things; he was for many consecutive years always on the MPS judging panel, he always exhibited a couple every time in the section allotted to the judges. He gave away many pictures to friends and to me.
JA: This reluctance to exhibit in galleries seems to have been passed on from father to son. Why this diffidence?
MF: Not really. The operative or key word in your question is “seems”. Mounting an exhibition takes money, frames, glass, eats and drinks, waiters, what-have-you.....
Since 2008, I had been using Facebook as my platform, and, for my upcoming book, I was being helped to choose the most eloquent and most emotive, atmosphere-replete, storytelling, soul-capturing pictures of all as a limit has to be set for financial reasons.
Sadly, I do not have copies of all I wrote as my original account is still locked, though Facebook knows it is I who is trying to log in exactly as they instructed.
Over the years since 2008, I notched up some 4,500 friends, mostly artists in many mediums. Since I do not have a formal mind, I do not say media or millennia, but mediums and millenniums.
I receive plenty of hate mail from unknown souls, but I take it in my stride. During a written debate with a university professor, some 10 years ago, when I locked him into a corner, he retorted: “You dirty old man!” I reparteed that “it is good that dogs have fleas, as otherwise, they will think they are human. And I am thankful for the lice and nits in my hair, as otherwise, I may start to think that I am a god like you think of your imagined Olympic self!”
Both in art matters or in general debates, no one has ever demolished my words or my works; instead, they open fire on the gentle parasites who’ve made my head their playground, and whom I know intimately and personally, the whole lot of them, just like good companions and trustworthy friends who never act out-of-character.
JA: According to an article featured in The Times of Malta of May 23, 1979, you had a solo exhibition which obviously featured non-digital work. Can you elaborate on the themes and techniques that you embarked upon in those days?
MF: I had portraits, nudes and photo-phantasy. In my portraits, I searched for the sitter’s inner soul, possibly at the expense of topographical veracity. In my nudes, I searched for the beauty of the female form without any deliberate attempts to portray erotic content. Yet even a beautiful well-intentioned and moral nude-study has an inherent amount of erotic attraction. For this reason, I never ram these pictures down people’s throats on social media.
We must no longer compare painting with photography, or we will miss photography’s unique trust- Marcus Flores
In my nudes, I play straight lines (linee di forza) against curved lines (linee di dolcezza) whenever possible. In my photo-phantasy work, I printed from multiple negatives with the same prowess and ease of a Photoshop-guru, which I never was and still am not. I have often printed a picture from many different negatives of conceptually-related subjects to create a new conceptual artwork of my own devising.
JA: Digital photography often gets the wrong end of the stick from purists as its ease in execution, coupled with the aid of technology and Photoshop, has done away with the excitement of capturing images on rolls of film and using the darkroom to eventually get to the end result, disappointing or gratifying as it may be. The sanctity and the shrine-like rather spiritual quality of the darkroom has been taken out of the equation. What are your views on this?
MF: I never was a purist, and never will be. Certain analogue photographers, whose names I will not mention, because of the subject matter they employed without any respect for the sixth and ninth commandments, did much more without Photoshop than Photoshop users do today.
Photoshop can deceive its aficionados who, if they are not good picture-makers, will end up with pictures which are just stunts. That having been said, I believe that both should be mastered by every passionate photographer of today. The two, analogue and digital combined, might reveal the Nijinsky of photography, its Picasso, its Michelangelo.
Recently a great but immoral photographer, whose books were the epitome of fine-printing, had his latest edition digitally-remastered some 50 years after his original and first edition came online. I have always believed that, in matters of human behaviour, the Machiavellian opinion is wrong and immoral: in life, the end does not justify the means, if the means are a transgression of the moral law.
But in picture-making, anything is justified that will enhance the final image, even handwork, provided it is not visible, not noticeable, to even the most hawk-eyed expert-viewer, no matter how the picture is turned around in different angles to the incident-light, for the hopefully, usually all-revealing light to show its presence.
Handwork must never sit atop the emulsion but must sink into it and become one with it and be hidden from all who attempt to find it, to subsequently denigrate the photographer, and run him down for using his hands if handwork is visible, then it’s no longer a photograph but a cheap painting.
In fact, the late, great American photographer Philippe Halsmann, once said: “Le immagini create sono piu’ brave di quelle trovate!” (Created images are superior to found ones).
As I have always told my students, when you build up the image, say, a studio still life or a nude-study in the studio, you’re responsible for the placement of the slightest object, be it a small leaf, or even a strand of hair.
Outdoors, of course, the painter addresses himself to ‘kaos’, to empty space. But the photographer too must put order into chaos. Nature is not as orderly as many think. Hammond described photography as: “Selection, emphasis, and elimination!” I see nothing sacred about peddling with wet chemicals in semi-darkness. Even the preparation of the chemical mixtures is drudgery and laborious, but it has to be done. Then one can slip the negative into the enlarger and play it really well with extreme enjoyment to one’s heart’s delight. Nothing is more beautiful and professionally satisfying.
Ansel Adams once said that darkroom expressive refinements are a playing of the piano, whereas printing straight is like sitting on the piano’s keyboard. Once the digital image is printed (and not left on a computer file), both digital and analogue prints (not the duds) are beautiful but slightly different. I would willingly use both, as desired, as the spirit moves me. Finally, I have never claimed, and I still do not claim, to a mystical phony involvement with the muses.
JA: Which photographers do you regard as your creative soulmates?
MF: Soulmates is a strong and pithy word. There are some very competent Maltese and foreign photographers. I enjoy their work. But I grew up with my father, the late Wilfrid Flores, and our attitude to photography is very different from that of others. For us, composition, lighting, perfection-of-placement of positive and negative picture-areas, interpretation ‒ and what the late poet, educator and critic Eli Siegel called picture-opposites, plus beauty: the harmonious symbiosis of disparate elements, as St Thomas Aquinas described it ‒ are paramount pictorial imperatives as far as we are concerned. Both dad and I burnt the midnight oil in our formative years. My uncle, the late Justice Joseph Flores, called me an artist and craftsman, born and bred.
I also met and learnt much from China’s Professor Xia Dewu, who lived in my flat for over a year, from his wife and artist, Liu Xiaoxia, and from other Chinese art professors. An artist who shuns the great literary works like Dante, Manzoni and others can never boast a strong and prolific imagination, as nothing comes out of us that has not first entered us and got mixed in the sum-total of all our multi-sensory experiences.
The only true soulmate, with an incredibly perceptive seeing eye, and a diamond-sharp intelligence, was the late Michael Stroud.
A great photographer once entered a dining hall where artist celebrities were enjoying a meal. At the entrance, he was told that his pictures were so beautiful, he must have an extremely good camera.
On the way out, he said “it was the best meal I ever tasted. You must have a very good stove.”
“A buon intenditor, poche parole....”