TSELEM VE-TSILUM exhibition views, Museum at Judenplatz, Vienna, 2013. Photos: Paul Petritsch
Working with Doubt
One of the perennial successes of photography has been “its strategy of turning living beings into things, things into living beings.”  Photography’s ability to bring the past to life in images and to freeze or fix life, so to speak, is indeed one of the ambivalent qualities that characterize the medium in such diverse ways. It unites art and technology, documentation and presentation, it is objective and subjective, at once image and likeness.
The mounted birds that Tatiana Lecomte has photographed for her installation Tselem ve-Tsilum (Photography and likeness) force this tension between vivification and mortification in a powerful way. Lecomte found her subjects in the bird galleries of the Naturhistorisches Museum in Vienna, whose collection of more than 2,500 bird specimens is one of the most extensive in the world. Conceived as method for preparing objects for study and presentation in a museum, taxidermy employs highly complex steps and various chemicals to reconstruct formerly living animals and preserve them for posterity. The particular art of taxidermy lies in the accurate reproduction of the eyes and of the texture of the feathers. The specimens are arranged for display in such a way that all their morphological features are clearly visible and the viewer can get an approximate sense of the bird’s habit. They sit on tree branches, spread their wings, or are, in some museums, placed in artificial habitats. The birds are posed for posterity in ways similar to the stylized poses in portrait photography. It is a strange atmosphere: the feeling of icy cold, of space and time frozen, paired with the uncanny presence and diversity of closely arranged samples. Like photographic reproductions, mounted animals are silent witnesses and yet suggest the very opposite. What would it sound like if hundreds of birds were singing and cawing simultaneously? The media of photography and taxidermy resemble each other in their play with the illusion of live and the imitation of reality. The staging of naturalness is intended to counter the artificiality of the object. But what happens when photograph and taxidermy meet when a specimen is photographed? The photographing of mounted birds multiplies the impression of lifelessness. Or at least that is what one would initially think. But that is not the case. Thanks to Lecomte’s conceptual approach and subtle interventions, something completely new evolves.
Image, Name, Color
Each of her large-format black-and-white photographs portrays a bird setting on a branch against a white, neutral background. The reduction that goes hand in hand with black-and-white photography draws the eye to the wealth of shades of gray and the characteristics of the forms, the bodies, the beaks, and the feathers. The photographer wants to make it possible to experience the materiality of the medium, and so the prints on baryta paper are neither framed nor lined but rather, fastened by nails to large wood boards, hang down like fragile strips of paper. As a counterweight to photography’s emphasis on surface, boards mark the object-like quality of the installation, which was produced especially for the exhibition at the Jüdisches Museum.
Distributed in a loose arrangement, the boards rest on the walls; some are placed close together and suggest the photographs should be viewed in comparison, while other single images take up an entire wall. The birds, which are photographed slightly from below, dominate the exhibition space with their size and their aesthetic. All of the examples seem to be the same size: The differences in the sizes of the specimens were eliminated by the artist in the printing process. The names of the birds, and hence the titles of the photographs, are sonorous and sometimes strange: African emerald cuckoo, rufous-bellied kookaburra, red-throated barbet. Following the naming convention established by Carl Linnaeus, the names of the species are composed of the name of the genus (e.g., jays) and a descriptive adjective, often the color (e.g., green). In an adjacent area separate from the photographs, Lecomte setup a color room with monochrome color plates, staggered next to and above one another. Whereas the bird’s colors are absent in the black-and-white photographs, it is taken up again here in an abstract way. The colors of the cinnamon roller, for example, are represented proportionally by rust, violet, turquoise, and aquamarine. The various constellations of colors and forms and the power of the spacious and close-set surfaces of color develops its own dynamic, an immersion in color that recalls the color-field painting of abstract artists such as Barnett Newman and Mark Rothko.
In Tselem ve-Tsilum, the interplay of vivification and mortification and the simple act of separating the colors and the titles of the photographs from their original objects create an aesthetic and discursive resonating chamber in which the elements stand before alone and in relation to one another. Image, name, color. How does the black-and-white photograph relate to the color fields? How important is color for the perception of a (photographed) object? How do the names of the birds relate to what they identify? What precisely do we see, or think we see, when we look at Lecomte’s photographs?
Color became a practical aspect of the medium of photography only very late, more than six decades after its invention. Strangely, however, its absence did not diminish from photography’s function as a realistic method of recording and its claim to objectivity. On the contrary, especially in scientific photography and photojournalism, color was long regarded—until the end of the twentieth century—as not serious and even vulgar. Unlike art, its early defenders claimed, the automation of the photographic method produced photographs “exactly representing the objects as they appear, and independently of all interpretation.”  One aspect of this was the black-and-white aesthetic, which supported photography’s true quality as a scientific medium—its fidelity to and richness of detail—by reducing the object to form, light, and shadow. Color was considered part of the repertoire of art and was secondary to photography’s power as likeness and evidence. By employing the ornithological motif—the black-and-white photograph and the placement of the objects in front of a neutral background— Lecomte is citing scientific photography, which is one of the medium’s most important genres. It was crucial to research and teaching and hence to the establishment of various scientific disciplines, not least ornithology. It was easy to work with photographs, and scientists could exchange photographs and use them to illustrate their theories. Despite its obvious limitation as a reproductive process, and despite the awareness that it was possible to manipulate photographs, the photographic image was at times even more important than the object itself according to the German physician and microbiologist Robert Koch.  It is one of the enduring contradictions of the medium that the exploitation of photography’s objective character and the associated skepticism in scientific photography were not mutually exclusive. Lecomte’s work gets at this contradiction. She quotes the pseudo-neutral style of documentary photography but removes the limitations on its by means of a large format and integration into an installation.
In a similar gesture, working with the contradiction, Lecomte addresses another important function of photography, one that was celebrated almost euphorically in early writings on the subject: its ability to conserve objects in images, making the object itself obsolete in the process. “Give us a few negatives of a thing worth seeing, taken from different points of view, and that is all we want of it. Pull it down or burn it up, if you please.”  This radical formulation in the essay on photography that Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr. published in 1859 became reality over history of the medium. Photographs show us things that existed before they were destroyed or became extinct. What remains is their likeness. Photography, in the words of André Bazin, protects against time.  Conservation by means of photograph is also the basis for another idea immanent to the medium that can be applied to Tselem ve-Tsilum: the notion that the world can subjugated by means of photograph and controlled solely by its likeness. Appropriation by photograph of these very cultural artifacts seems to stimulate in the artist a speculation about the analogy between photography and the material conservation of animals, since the exhibition of the specimens in the Naturhistorisches Museum and their translation and iconizing in Lecomte’s work are in no small measure about taming nature for cultural ends. By removing them from their original context and aestheticizing them by means of photographic reproduction, Lecomte questions the supposed control of the object. She restores some of its dignity to it.
Doubt, Contradiction, Speculation
If we were compelled to identify a conceptual framework for Lecomte’s approach in Tselem ve-Tsilum, it would be working with doubt, making it possible to see or understand how photographs and their reception are encoded. Doubt is the necessary corrective of faith. Lecomte casts doubt on photography’s claim to credibility by revealing to the viewer the medium’s transparency and hence the power of images. We think we are seeing a colorful toucan but what we see is not the bird itself; it is not even its imitation in the form of artificial taxidermy but rather a printed piece of paper. Like the name of the species and the representation of its colors, the photograph is just a description, an attempt to get closer to what exists. The description can be sometimes more accurate, sometimes less, but voids of the unshowable and of inadequate articulation will always remain. There are blind spots between the object and its likeness, between the likeness and its viewing. The image is the key.
1 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1990), 98.
2 Alfred Donné and Léon Foucault, Cours de microscopie complémentaire des études médicales: anatomie microscopique et physiologie des fluides de l’économie (Paris, 1844–45), quoted in Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison, Objectivity (New York: Zone, 2007), 131.
3 Michael Hagner, “Mikro-Anthropologie und Fotografie: Gustav Fritschs Haarspaltereien und die Klassifizierung der Rassen,” in Peter Geimer, ed., Ordnungen der Sichtbarkeit (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 2002), 252–84, esp. 257.
4 Oliver Wendell Holmes, “The Stereoscope and the Stereograph,” Atlantic Monthly 3 (June 1859): 738–48, reprinted in Alan Trachtenberg, ed., Classic Essays on Photography (New Haven: Leete’s Island Books, 1980), 71–82, esp. 81.
5 André Bazin, “The Ontology of the Photographic Image,” trans. Hugh Gray, Film Quarterly 13, no. 4 (Summer 1960): 4–9, esp. 8.
Published in: Tatiana Lecomte, Tselem ve-Tsilum, Jewish Musem Vienna, 2013. Translation: Aileen Dering