Fernand Léger once claimed to have tricked a cinema audience with an extreme close-up. The audience ‘thought that they recognized a photograph of some planetary surface’. After they had spent some time discussing the image, the artist told them that it was in fact the thumbnail of the lady next to him, magnified ‘a hundred times’. Imagery of objects enlarged to the point of defamiliarization is the basis for an exhibition of photography and film at the Fruitmarket Gallery in Edinburgh. Nineteenth-century microscopy, camera-less film and photography, body-mapping (inside and out), Surrealism and Conceptualism make strange bedfellows, conjoined by the subject of close observation in science and art. ‘Close-Up’ makes rare connections between material, both contemporary and historical, identifying scientific or pseudo-scientific strategies at play in the formulation of imagery by artists in print and on screen.
The exhibition finds its locus in the early photographic and cinematic experiments of the avant-garde. Microphotography, botanical studies and 1920s’ natural history documentaries are assimilated into the irreverent couplings made by Georges Bataille in the journal Documents (1929–30). Unlikely parallels are drawn with Bataille’s project to declassify the content of naturalist photography and the more formal treatment of László Moholy-Nagy’s Bauhaus publication Painting, Photography, Film (1925). Similarly, Moholy-Nagy’s technical experiments with the raw materials of light and film are compared to Man Ray’s Surrealist, automatic techniques for exposing photograms and footage for Le Retour à la raison (The Return to Reason, 1923) with 0objects placed directly on photographic paper or film.
Simon Starling’s slide projection piece Inventar-Nr. 8573 (Man Ray), 4m-400nm (2006) cuts a path from fact to distortion. Eighty black and white slides record a process of photographing Ray’s Geological Fold (c. 1930) at increasing magnification. Images showing the photograph in storage are succeeded by a microscopic exploration into the surface of the print. Context disappears as the investigation bores deeper, and the increasing abstraction runs counter to the effort to excavate information from the object.
Stan Brakhage’s film Mothlight (1963), printed from fragments of dead moths and plants that the filmmaker fixed between Mylar editing tape, is traced within a popular tradition of scientific illustration. Brakhage’s minute objects enlarged through cinematic projection are given a technical antecedent in slides from magic lantern displays. Similarly, details of the wings, petals and grasses find parity with the close photography of Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt, whose straight treatment of similar matter was heralded in 1920s’ Germany as ‘New Objectivity’. Other associations are made between Brakhage’s film collage, Brassaï’s photograph Papillon à la bougie (Butterfly and Candle, c. 1933) and the uncanny Death’s Head Hawk Moth sequence in Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí’s film Un Chien andalou (An Andalusian Dog, 1929).
Attempts to describe strategies of defamiliarization in the camera’s scrutiny of the human body prove less successful. The sticky intimacy of Mona Hatoum’s video installation Testimony (1995–2002) and Carolee Schneemann’s photographic Portrait Partials (1970) fail to be ambiguous within the wider proliferation of close-up imagery in circulation via television and the Internet. Presented alongside other works of a disrobed, corporeal nature, the subject matter loses its edge and nose-dives into an essay on the abject.
The highs and lows of ‘Close-Up’ are marks of its distinctly academic rigour and the background noise of specialist knowledge brought by its art-historian curators, Dawn Ades and Simon Baker. True to form, Léger’s fingernail anecdote finds its way into one of the catalogue essays and resurfaces in a discussion of Mike Kelley’s photographs of fluff, Untitled (Dust) (1994). Kelley’s work shares its minute subject matter with a more compelling image by Ray, Dust Breeding (1920). Etched within the fleece of particles pictured in the photograph is a cryptic, geometric circuit of line and curve. The image was originally published in the Dada journal Littérature in 1922, described within the caption as ‘the domain of Rrose Sélavy’. Ray’s fantastic plane was later identified to be Marcel Duchamp’s sculpture The Bride Stripped Bare by her Bachelors, Even (The Large Glass) (1915–23) gathering dust in the artist’s studio, an act of distortion that required not so much art as genuine neglect.
Ray’s photograph is encoded with the double-bind of ‘objective fact’ and illusion that Léger and his contemporaries sought in cinema and its tools. The fingernail experiment was one of a number Léger conducted around the time that he was working on the film Ballet Mécanique (1924). The artist would gather local workers and people from the neighbourhood to test out the rushes so that the film could be edited to achieve the desired impact. By his own account, the audience left feeling angry that day, annoyed that they had fallen for his close-up trick. Léger could barely conceal his pride. He concluded that he had proved to them that ‘the subject or the object is nothing; it’s the effect that counts’.
First published in Issue 120