Starting in 1898, the photographer Eugène Atget pioneered a new way of seeing. Photographers had worked in the streets before, but the details and oddments of a modern city had not been thought worthy of exclusive attention. Not so with writers; poets like Baudelaire of the early school of flânerie had sung the praises of Paris street life since the mid-19th century. 

Atget thought of himself as a tool of finer artists who would copy his details for their paintings. To the end he considered himself an amateur, not realizing that although his work didn't fall into any existing category of art, he'd created a new one.

Eugène Atget, Nr. 9, Impasse de Bearn

Although Atget was not of a privileged class in the class-conscious Paris of his day, some of his work could almost be seen as the gaze of a flaneur. Sainte-Beuve wrote that to flâner "is the very opposite of doing nothing". Balzac described flânerie as "the gastronomy of the eye". Fournel, in Ce qu’on voit dans les rues de Paris (What One Sees in the Streets of Paris, 1867), had a chapter devoted to The Art of Flânerie. For Fournel it was one way of understanding the diversity of the city. He called it "un daguerréotype mobile et passioné".  Baudelaire believed one of his formative experiences had been that of "being jostled in the street". For Baudelaire, the ragpicker was one of his favorite tropes: 
Everything that the big city threw away, everything it lost, everything it despised, everything it crushed underfoot, he catalogues and collects . . He sorts things out and makes a wise choice; he collects, like a miser guarding a treasure, the refuse which will assume the shape of useful or gratifying objects between the jaws of the Goddess of Industry.
Within photographer Ryk Ekedal's ongoing New York City Squared series are found concrete abutments, steel piers and the multiformed detritus of the factories and warehouses of a recently departed industrial age. What the 18th century Roman printmaker Giovanni Battista Piranesi saw around him were triumphal arches, amphitheaters, columns and friezes depicting gods, heroes and emperors. In Piranesi's day, these artifacts were 1700 years old, as fantastic as if a race of Titans had been found living underground. Piranesi recognized in these Roman antiquities evidence of an imperium that had ruled the known Western world for five hundred years. In Ryk Ekedal's work we seem to be clambering over the remains of a modern imperium. The flood-tide was bound to recede, and in his images we contemplate the tide-pools left behind.

Giovanni Piranesi, Descrizione e disegno dell Emissario del Lago Albano

Piranesi played a game of intentional ambiguities, using his knowledge of perspective and architecture to good effect, but making the human figures he places in his engravings one quarter of life size; curious Lilliputians pondering a world of giants. Piranesi's mixing of elements was a foreshadowing of our own postmodern age's rummaging of cultural material. Ekedal has reduced his human figures to naught and finds things mixed enough in his wanderings; he doesn't need to embellish his findings, time and the elements having accomplished that for him. 

Ryk Ekedal's most important influence was not a photographer, but an artist, Charles Meryon, whose etchings of mid-19th century Paris set a standard for the depiction of urban space as revealed by deep shadow and harsh sunlight. Meryon also fixed his gaze on the past; a medieval Paris that was daily disappearing before his eyes. He was captivated by every hollow, arch, and recessed window he observed. In the Paris of his prints, dark dramas, seemingly haunted by old crimes, play out in streets and under bridges. It was this view of life that Baudelaire, another admirer of Meryon, had pursued in his ideas of modernism; namely, that the city, and not just the countryside, was fertile ground for the artist.

Charles Meryon, La Morgue

Ekedal regards himself as a species of bricoleur, assembling what he finds on site by willfully misusing photography's technical vocabulary, deliberately underexposing, using ambiguous camera placements, forcing the viewer to consider the edge of the frame instead of the expected center. Ekedal is also a painter, and you can feel his lust for textures, forms, and colors.

Good photography doesn't represent the world, it creates a new one.  As a painter might, Ekedal plays at the edge of what a photograph can be. How dark, how few cues can one have as to subject, distance and angle. Photography about what photography is. Using his camera as a dowsing wand, he sometimes lets it indicate a field of view. Often no subject in the layman's sense of the term. His space and form organize in unusual ways, a visual Varése. As with each of us, for Ekedal shadows are a constant companion; they play an important role in almost all his images. 

Ekedal's urban forms, guarded by chain-link barrier reefs and gritty refuse, are sanded by time and scattered through vacant lots. Abandoned arcades, whose once-bright colors are filtered by the shadows of unknown objects, form trapezoidal segments on ground littered by cinder blocks and discarded lumber. Rust, concrete, canvas, metal, paint, water and wood are thrown into relief by perspective, vertices, angular dissonances and geometric forms; sometimes hard and mechanical, sometimes granular, sometimes threatening, sometimes inviting. A still silence seems to adhere to some of his images, a silence like that of Antonioni. For other images, the sound track could perhaps be a Cage piece consisting of three radios tuned to different stations.

In Ekedal's photographs we behold discontent without it's civilization; archeological collections of the cast-off, topographical condensations and hyper-ghettoes of the rejected, inventories of economic ventures that have failed, the mechanical angular noises of not-quite-reliable machines, fugue states and chromatic scales, quotations and pseudo-quotations, diatoms and diatonic, signifiers and signified. His objects can't go back where they came from, since the places they left don't want them back.

Ekedal's subjects are neither settled nor on the move, neither sedentary nor nomadic. They're Derrida's undecideables made flesh. In a world filled with imagined communities, they're the unimaginables. Their only permanence is transitoriness; an ongoing state of temporariness, a duration patched together of conditional moments, none of which is lived through as an element of, let alone a contribution to, perpetuity. 

The prospect of long-term sequels is not part of the experience. Ekedal's settings are like Garreau's "nowherevilles", peripheral space without a place. They exist by themselves in filmic hues or black and white, an uninhabited land resentful of humans and seldom visited by them; dim mid-regions floating down the photographic stream without the anchor of a social role. 

We have no way of understanding the world except through signs, language and codes. Ekedal brings back signs that are dis-organized by obtuse procedures; by a painter who, like the first humans, perceives the world as a field of color and form. They're for us to actively read for ourselves. Each of us will receive a different message, but that's intended. If we had individual words to represent every particularity, every reality, we would have an infinite number of them, but words eventually must come to an end. 


Interview with Mr. Ekedal follows

Click on images for larger view

Let's start before the beginning. Where did your people come from?

My father's parents emigrated to America from near Hardanger, Norway, around 1910. They began farming in north-central Iowa, surrounded by other recent emigrants of Scandinavian origin. My mother's parents came to the United States from the Czech region of what was then the Austro-Hungarian Empire, also in the years before World War I. My dad hated the prospect of following in his father's footsteps and instead became an aviator, soloing in 1935. 

My parents met in a dance hall in Fort Dodge, Iowa, which was the "big city" for kids who grew up in the neighboring farm towns. They were married in 1939. After a few years as a professional flight instructor, and shortly after the war broke out, he enlisted so that he could receive an officer's commission (already being a certified flight instructor) in the Army Air Corps. Stationed at the basic flight-training center at Kelley Field, Texas, he trained the fresh enlistees, decided which were good enough to go on to fighter pilot training, and which to send to bomber training.
My mother lived in the base housing  during this time, along with the other instructor's wives, waiting for evening when they all got together to drink beer and listen to the latest big band records and dance. My older brother was also born during this time, and seems to have slept through all those parties.

After World War II my father became a commercial airline pilot for a freight airline, moving the family to the San Francisco Bay Area a few years before I was born. I grew up in the shadow of World War II and everything related to aviation. My father, being a commercial pilot, was entitled to take the family on various passenger airlines at big discounts, so we did some traveling. I remember Bangkok in the late 60s, and Beirut before it was later destroyed by civil war. 

What were your early cultural inspirations?

Reading, for one, has always been an important inspiration. In fourth grade our class was introduced to Edgar Allen Poe's stories, which certainly opened up my head by way of his meticulous, visually oriented prose style. In addition, I was always attracted to German literature and poetry. But instead of learning German, I had to settle on being compelled to study French or Spanish in junior high-school. It was easy to choose French as  it would then be possible to read Mallarme or Rimbaud in the original, or so I thought. Meanwhile, I was reading Thomas Mann's Buddenbrooks in translation.

My older brother was a big influence from early on. I spent many a weekend during 1964-65 at his apartment in San Francisco, near the Surf Theatre where he worked. It was the only "art cinema" in San Francisco. I'd go to work with him and sit up in the projectionist's booth while he tended to the lobby and ticket booth. Anyway, I was able to see Antonioni, Fellini, Bergman, and others, along with the weekly avant-garde shorts programs when those films were still new. I remember Antonioni's films most vividly, especially L'Avventura, for its prolonged silences, long shots, elemental landscapes, and paucity of dialogue. I think that his films have had a lasting influence on the way that I compose photographs, and on how I articulate, or give form, to the feeling of space in my work. 

I began drawing at an early age, and took to exploiting the large quantities of poster paint that were available to me in grade school. I often made painted murals or large maps for the class, working at the back of the room during class. In high-school, I painted friends' drumheads, as that was cool back then - similar to the painted bass drums that Ginger Baker had. The first paintings that excited me, in reproduction, were by Franz Kline and Jackson Pollock; that seemed to be what painting should be about. I spent the summer of 1966 in Berkeley, living with my brother and his wife, while I took an art class at the California College of Arts and Crafts. The UC Berkeley Art Museum had some of Kline's paintings and a Pollock or two. But its extensive collection of Hans Hoffman's paintings really astounded me. I'm not so sure that I feel that way now about Hoffmann, but it was a revelation at the time.

San Francisco in the late 1960s must've been interesting  

I would not be the person I am today if I had not experienced those times in the best place to experience them, and in the most sublime fashion. Lessons in perception and the nature of consciousness at an early age certainly shape one's outlook. And I always had good experiences, and didn't ingest psychedelic chemicals merely to get loaded as so many I knew did---most of whom are no longer among the living. Leary's dictum that everyone should have the right to alter their own consciousness, by whatever means, I took seriously as a way towards self-knowledge, not towards mindlessness.

I think that the 60s, for me, were also about learning to use all of one's sensory inputs, often in unusual ways, as tools of understanding and knowledge. Psychedelic chemicals, for example, sometimes induced states not unlike synaesthesia---hearing colors, or tasting sounds. Along with that, I came to realize that experiencing the world in a state of heightened sensation suggested ways to allow that world to reveal itself through the making of things---painting, drawing, and eventually photography in my case. I understood that a process of making, of giving back something of what I'd discovered, could be another way to alter not only my own perception and consciousness, but maybe of others as well. Though I cannot say that I have such lofty intentions when I go out to photograph, I can say that the surprise I experience when finding something in an image that I did not see when making the exposure, certainly feels like my brain receives a shot of serotonin---or something similar.

Do you like sharing your work on social media photo sites? 

Sure, I like to have people see my work. That's why I post the photographs. But I don't think about that when I make them. And that's not why I do it. It's just what I do, have always done. I work hard no matter what---what else can I do? When I please myself, others inevitably are pleased as well. Doing is enough. 

That I can do it at all, have the time to do it---for that I am thankful. If the work has any value, it will eventually find an audience. Whether any of it is art or not, isn't for me to say. Others can make that judgement. I've found that when one does the work as intensely as possible, keeps it moving and unfolding, opportunities tend to open up, usually unexpectedly. As a teacher once said to me, "You don't show your work, the works shows itself".

Do you have a conceptual framework for your work?

No, I don't think so. If I have a specific location in mind, I might make a point of going there at a particular time-of-day. What is most important to me is  to be open to whatever comes my way--which could loosely be called "conceptual", I suppose. Or maybe you're asking if there is some sort theoretical construct behind the work? I would  also answer "no" to the question.  Theories are often formulated by those who are not practitioners. And to formulate a theory for the work would no doubt become a constraint on the imaginative process that photography depends on.

Habits of seeing, which inform how people look at photographs, have a lot to do with cultural conditioning. This is also true of color perception. I try to make photographs that question how the viewer should go about looking at a given image. Another way to say it is that in the process of looking, the photograph can "instruct" the viewer how to go about seeing what is there to be seen.  

It seems that if I think of your work in terms of figure and ground, a triangle shape often comes to mind. Do you have a Pythagorean thing going on?

No, I don't think that Pythagoras is looking over my shoulder. But triangles and triangular relationships between objects have been appearing in my work for as long as I can remember. I find number theory interesting, but more as it relates to music than to images.

When I began to photograph around the city, the prevalence of architectural and structural material produced instant diagonals---which naturally generate triangular shapes. The perspective illusion on/in the picture plane depends on it. And my tendency to shoot from oblique camera positions makes the diagonal construction even more prominent: Add to that my habit of seeking out late afternoon light where the long shadows add their angular shapes to the composition.

I'm interested in movement, not stasis. Not necessarily literal movement, but as a way to construct an image in which the eye is free to wander through the pictorial space without a pre-conceived hierarchy of most-to-least important. At the same time, I don't want the work to be primarily "subject" oriented, covertly dictating how the image should be viewed. I try to make an image that is more like the "act of seeing with ones own eyes" (to use the filmmaker, Stan Brakhage's phrase), to maybe find a way to see, not merely to look at a picture. I believe that is the manner in which one usually scans a scene---always looking around, often randomly---as one goes along. Not that some kind of formal sense is absent in the making, but just enough to hold the thing together as a composition. 

I'm as influenced by filmmakers such as Brakhage, Hollis Frampton, and Ernie Gehr, as I am by still photographers. So that the idea of movement might seem contradictory as applied to my pictures. But as I noted above, the sort of movement I'm referring to involves the active participation of the viewer, and not the passive reception that occurs while sitting in front of a motion-picture screen. In other words, something similar to the prolonged stare-in-time required to get "inside" a painting.

Do you have any use for three dimensional illusion in your photography?

I accept the flatness of the picture plane. Even if you revel in illusion, it is still flat, flat, flat. Nevertheless, I make images that emphasize the 2-dimensional divisions of the picture plane, and others that allow an entry into a deep-space illusion, I like it best when both sensations are available to the viewer simultaneously. I'm very conscious of how the cues of perspective which create spatial illusions interlace with the divisions of the picture plane/photographic frame. 

When everything works, an image results that elicits the sensation of being at a particular place at a particular time. The places I prefer to work do not have much in the way of the usual urban street furniture or commercial distractions. If that kind of stuff appears, it is usually decrepit, wrecked, or beyond any apparent usefulness---with no purpose other than to populate a photograph as mute actors, possibly engaged in silent conversation. The resulting image is essentially an imaginary thing to look at, without the intention of a narrative, or with any attempt to brand itself as realism. What the viewer takes away from the experience may be something entirely different. But I don't have any control over that, which is how it should be. 

I sense that we are approaching a confrontation with the "A" word, namely, "abstraction". I'll simply say that I do not endorse the careless use of the term "abstract", particularly in relation to photographs. I think it is highly misleading to do so. It is a convenient way to categorize images that are not portraits, nudes, landscapes, still-lifes, architecture and all the rest of the usual subjects, made from a distance that instantly registers as one of these subjects. If the same subjects are framed very close-up, so as to slow down seeing or make recognition difficult, even impossible, these actualities suddenly become "abstract", in common parlance. Isn't this mode of imagining really a way to accord emphasis to the formal elements of the material at hand? For example, to find light as shape and vacancy as solid, or to render surfaces, isolated from their context, as moving from the visual towards the tactile.

Foregrounding the process of perception, rather than merely illustrating appearances tends to cancel the viewer's expectations. And there is no guarantee that what they see is what they expect to see. I think that I am always on the lookout to engage as many sensory experiences as possible: A language of the sensations is a way to describe it. What I am after might even be described as an attempt to activate a process of synaesthesis in which the visual material can also be experienced as sounds, odors, flavors, or tactile sensations. The viewer can decide if this sort of sensual/perceptual play is worthwhile. I know that the kind of work I make isn't for everybody. I've been told that some of the images are "too abstract". My reply to that is that the work is probably too "actual", while also being a total manipulation, thus imaginary---a contradiction too laden with inner, psychological tension to be acceptable to many viewers.

In this connection, I will mention the work of Lewis Baltz, essentially an abstractionist in the true sense, who photographed places that most viewers had never seen photographed, let alone believed were photographable at all. And in the process of viewing such images---the industrial facades, forlorn expanses, stuccoed walls---the viewer enters the realm of idea, of abstraction, and thereby forced to question the worth of those images as records of mere appearance. In this case, the viewer may expect less, but actually receive more than they might have bargained for.

Which other photographers interest you the most? 

From the mid 19th century, Henry Fox-Talbot's calotypes of his immediate surroundings, which seem to mimic the appearance of drawings, inaugurated a kind of seeing that fixes the passage of time into an instant---a very long instant at first. This is completely unlike a drawing or a painting which collect thousands of moments, seen over many hours or days, into an artificial, composite construction. Many thought that the camera signaled the death of painting. However, photography re-invigorated the practice of painting in profound ways. Both Degas and Vuillard, among others, used the camera as a sort of research tool which called into question many of the conventions of the painter's language. For example, the oddly cropped compositions of Degas interiors owe a huge debt to photographic seeing. Though the camera lucida had been employed by artists such as Vermeer during the previous 200 years, the photographic object unleashed a new set of criteria and possibilities for picture-making. And unlike the camera lucida, the photograph became something independent from the practice of painting and drawing---and not merely a clever device to aid the artist in the laborious process of copying from nature.

The turn-of-the-century Parisian photographer, Eugene Atget, who essentially invented a highly personal variety of urban photo documentation, is someone whose work  I return to again and again. The sense of stillness inherent to the long exposures he made with his large view camera initially attracted me to his work. The more one looks at his images, the more one sees, while each photograph is a lesson in composition and camera placement. His ability to transform seemingly mundane subject matter into something strange and beautiful is one of the most miraculous achievements in the history of photography

Among the living and still-active, I look at Ray K. Metzker's work quite a bit. Why Metzker's work is so little-known and under-appreciated compared to other photographers of his generation is a major mystery. Recently I've been looking at Olafur Eliasson's work, much of it serial in nature, that catalogs, in a sense, the volcanic landscape of Iceland. And here in New York, I know some exceptional photographers with whom I sometimes wander the obscure corners of the city. Other photographers, from more distant parts of the world, I've come to know through the internet. Links to their work, and to my New York comrades will be put at the end of this interview.

I have to admit  that I probably look at non-photographic images more than anything else. In particular, the eccentric French printmaker, Charles Meryon, made a set of etchings that were composed from drawings that he made at various sites around Paris (often with the aid of a camera lucida), in the first half of the 1850s. It was during the time that Baron Haussmann was overseeing the demolition of large sections of the city in preparation for the extensive  replacement of the medieval streets with the wide boulevards that essentially re-mapped the city. Meryon wanted to document the vanishing cityscape that he knew so well before it disappeared, transformed by one of the earliest examples of modern city planning. A similar process is now occurring in New York where the industrial neighborhoods, so rich with photographic opportunities, are being razed, replaced by residential towers and shopping malls. Meryon has certainly influenced how I approach light and shadow and spatial relationships---as well as his peculiar feeling for the "air" that surrounds objects in space. Maybe I am engaged in a project not unlike Meryon's when I wander the post-industrial backwaters of New York City's outer boroughs. 

Why do you use film?

When I started to make photographs, film cameras were the tools in use. Though I occasionally use a digital camera, film continues to be my preferred medium. To compare photography to electronic image making (digital) is a bit like comparing apples to oranges. It is true that both modes of image making use the same optics to gather the light, but the means of recording the resulting image is radically different. I would go so far as to say that a digital "photograph" is not a photograph at all, but nothing more than a number file---an electronic "analogue" file---to be precise. The film emulsion, however, is a direct, light-gathering system, and not analogous to anything. 

There's something magical about the transparent strip that supports the light-sensitive emulsion, transformed into an image via the lens and chemical reactions. It becomes a thing-in-itself---a light-drawing, a photo-graph. The allure of film includes the variety of emulsions available. For example, each color film has an individual, identifiable palette, allowing the photographer to choose a film according to the situation at hand. And the monochromatic tone-colors rendered by some black-and-white films exceed in subtlety anything a digital camera might produce. Though it is very sad to see that most slide films are no longer made, I believe that black-and-white film will survive the digital onslaught. 

The most attractive aspect of film from my point-of-view is that the manner in which the photographer reveals his or her understanding of the materials unique to the medium offers the possibility to add something personal and characteristic to their images. Among the many variables involved in the making of an exposure, the choice of lens is perhaps the most important: With it, ones light-drawing  also can become a unique hand-writing.

Do you feel there's an emotional context to your work?

Not that an image cannot elicit some sort of emotional response in a viewer, which is fine, but that is the personal property of the viewer and not inherent to the object under scrutiny. I know a painter in Paris, Shirley Jaffe, who was a pal of Joan Mitchell when they were both living and painting there in the early 1950s. Mitchell told her that she was painting  pure "emotion", as that was what painting was all about

Shirley responded by saying that one cannot paint emotion, but only an idea about emotion. I agree with this position and also apply it to the way that I make paintings---and photographs for that matter. But to answer your question, it might be true that an image I make has a subtle attribute that triggers an emotional memory. But this occurs only afterwards, when I look at the negative or the scan, not when I made the exposure. I'm looking for other stuff when I go out: The unconscious mind as supreme commander. 

There are exceptions, however.  For example, when I stare at a cliff face in which are embedded the fossils and remnants of an ancient sea bed, I do feel something sublime and strange. That frozen record of deep time reminds me of my actual place in the larger scheme of things. The entire span of human history, placed into the context of geologic time, feels trivial.


. © Jack Bailey 2013