Camilla Brown is an independent curator, writer and lecturer. She gained her MA in History of Art from the Courtauld Institute of Art, London. From 2000 to 2010 she was Senior Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and was previously Exhibitions Curator at Tate Liverpool. Currently she is Senior Lecturer, Photography, at the University of Middlesex, London. She is a contributing writer for the forthcoming Thames and Hudson book Photography: The Whole Story to be published Autumn 2012. She regularly contributes essays to books and recent published texts include Cast on Dryden Goodwin’s work Steidl 2009; and Sally Mann: the Family and the Land published by The Photographers’ Gallery 2010. She also writes for specialist photography magazines including Photomonitor.co.uk. She sits on many juries and in 2010 she was a nominator for the prestigious Infinity Awards at the International Centre of Photography (New York) and was on the jury for the World Press Photo Joop Swart Masterclass. In 2011 she was for the third consecutive year on the jury for the Amnesty International Photojournalism award. Www.camillaebrown.co.uk firstname.lastname@example.org
Camilla Brown about “LIMBO”, 2012 by Paulina Otylie Surys
The work of Paulina Otylie Surys The past seems ever present in Sury’s work due to her use of old photographic techniques. She uses an array of cameras (the most modern being made in the 1970s) working with a range of film sizes (35mm as well as medium and large format). She prints in black and white using the silver gelatin process. Sticking with these analogue techniques is an intentional decision by an artist working today. It is much easier, although significantly less skilful, to take shots digitally and then alter settings so that they are printed in black and white. However for connoisseurs of photography the look, texture, feel and resonance of the older process is lost in digital format. Another type of photography that Sury’s has experimented with is the wet-plate collodion process first introduced in 1851 and used by the American Civil War photographers. It is a method of making photographic negatives using a glass plate coated with chemicals which are then put into an old bellows camera. It is a technique that has seen a resurgence of use in recent years by a range of contemporary artists, most noticeably Sally Mann. It has been described as ‘painting with light’ (1) and in Sury’s work you can see the liquid marks across the print. The work with its vintage look has an almost ghostly quality to it. These processes are key not only to how Sury’s makes her work, but also impacts greatly on how the work looks, as she creates an enigmatic and timeless visual language.
It is not only the technique which speaks of the past in her work, it is also the subject, settings and style of clothes used which have an ageless quality to them which can seem Greek, Victorian, Georgian even at times bordering on the gothic. Sury’s may refer to the past but the work is never dew eyed nostalgia, nor clichéd, as it is simultaneously contemporary. In fact it is this combination of past and present which creates a wonderful fictional or dreamlike space that her subjects seem to inhabit. A very similar space to that created by the early surrealist photography. Tapping into the subconscious and playing with androgynous muses relates her work to that of Man Ray, Cocteau and Claude Cahun. The sexual and fetishistic imagery of naked women, often wearing eye masks, also taps into surrealist iconography.
In some works Sury’s restages myths or stories, something else which fascinated the surrealists. We see nubile young women offered to us as apparent sacrificial objects at the start of the book. One work refers more specifically to the story of the Hungarian Countess Elizabeth Báthory de Ecsed. In the early 1600’s she was accused of torturing and murdering dozens, by some accounts hundreds, of young women allegedly bathing in their blood to keep her youth. Either the first female serial killer or simply a women who fell out with a powerful king, she became a notorious figure of horror in Eastern Europe [shall we refer to the page number for this work ?]. Sury’s has set her version of this in the opulent setting of Dennis Sever’s house in Folgate Street, Spitalfields London. The house itself is evocatively laid out with rooms which appear to be set in a time capsule of Huguenot London. Understandably this proved fertile creative terrain for Sury’s who immediately started to construct a vision of how she might set out the scene.
This location has been well explored terrain for previous photographers such as Mario Testino and Corinne Day, both of whom are known for their fashion photography. Equally the context in which most people so far have seen Sury’s work is in fashion magazines, particularly cutting edge periodicals often on line. She is commissioned by those magazines to make work and that is the original platform in which the work is circulated and shown. It may not be overt but the work is selling new designs and more importantly creating a contemporary fashionable vision. Sury’s works very hard on the detail of the shoots, scouting out the locations, recruiting suitable models and developing relationships with designers who interest her. All is pre-visualised, and nothing is left to chance, so that she can work effectively on the day with but a few helpers. Yet the scenes she constructs have the sophistication of stills from elaborate movies.
There is of course a long pedigree of photographers who have begun as fashion photographers and then successfully moved their work onto gallery walls Juergen Teller; Irving Penn and Ryan McGinley to name a few. It seems Sury’s work will also make this transition well. The wonderful strength of photography as an art form is this creative slippage between commercial commissions and gallery presentation of work and the way the world of fashion and art are in dialogue with each other. In the history of photography it is in the field of fashion that photographers have been able to make ground breaking work as seen in the work of Guy Bourdin; Cecil Beaton and Erwin Blumenfeld.
Such photographers were constantly pushing the medium particularly in the field of colour, but also experimenting with collage and other techniques. Colour is a key part of Sury’s work and again she chooses to return to a very early form of colouring prints, which refers back to the days before colour film was available. There are studio photographers in the far and middle East and in South America who still use this approach and often specialists will hand colour or tint the prints for the photographer. More recently artists, perhaps due to this growing fascination with traditional and older photographic processes, are also using hand colouring techniques such as Hector de Gregorio. But in this work there is an inclination towards decoration which can add a sense of artifice to the works. Surys’ colour vision is noticeably different. Her approach is much more painterly and is about gesture, touch and layering.
Originally trained as a painter in Poland and later drawn to screen printing processes, Sury’s puts on top of her prints layers of colour. She talks of working spontaneously at this stage of the process. Waiting for the right moment to work she allows her approach to develop in a way akin to the Abstract Expressionist painter Jackson Pollock, working in New York in the 1950s. His painting process was famously captured on film by Hans Namuth, and we see the artist laying his canvas on the floor and dripping, splashing over the top creating his energetic and free form images. This mark making over the surface suggests a direct conduit between the artist’s inner psyche and the image, which stands in contrast to pre-visualised painting.
Another key element to Sury’s work seen in this book is the importance of the border of the photograph. In her editorial work for magazines this would of course be cropped out. Annotated with her writing she creates, using a less sticky form of masking tape, wonderfully fluid and irregular borders around the image. The white surround creates another layer to the work, an outer edge, which makes the photograph turn more into an artefact or object. It lends the work a tactility as you can see it has been touched by the hand of the artist. It breaks down the illusion of the world created in the image, as we are made aware through this edge that this is an art work, a version of the real. It also makes the photograph into a portal onto a fantasy world created by the artist.
All these aspects of the work, the painting over the print and markings on the edge of the print itself are done in the post production phase of the work and lift the work to another dimension. In the fashion world there is much debate about what happens digitally to works after the photo-shoot. In this phase blemishes are removed and models figures are changed and trimmed. It allows a process of idealising the female form to conform to unattainable notions of beauty. Almost as a reaction against this Sury’s in her post production stage introduces a sombre and often dark connotation to the work. This can border on violence as a black eye or bloody nose is laid over the top of the images which speaks of dark abuse. Elsewhere clothes and fabric are painted to create movement and a sense of blurriness over the image moving a static photograph into a moving flowing impression. It is the painting process that seems to bring in the dark subconscious, the under belly that lies beneath her work. There is a dark beauty to her muses, as many of the supine women who lean over beds or lie with eyes closed seem to speak of representations of death. The title of the book refers in part to Charles Baudelaire series of poems Les Fleurs du mal (Flowers of evil) published in 1861. Reading his poems alongside looking at the work it becomes clear how much the former has influenced the latter. Baudelaire evokes a world of nubile young women, in rich luxurious surroundings many of whom are martyrs or on the brink of destruction. The fatal beauty of Baudelaire’s work is visually represented here with a sense of melancholia and pending death hanging over the work.
It is no surprise to learn that Sury’s grew up in Poland a country where the visual influence of Catholicism was rife. Artefacts and relics of death pervade this religions iconography. Sury’s speaks of her own early and traumatic encounter with death when she went to an open casket funeral of her grandfather at fourteen (2). She had been brought up by her grandparents and for her it was a horrific experience to see the false smile literally stitched onto her grandfather’s face after his death. There was this jar between her memory of her grandfather’s smile in life and this surreal, grotesque smile created for his public presentation after death. Rather than make his death more palpable it became horrific to her and was to affect her emotionally for several years.
But this connection between photography and death exists beyond these literary and personal associations, as Sury’s is well aware. Theorists Roland Barthes and Susan Sontag have both explored the almost intrinsic relationship between the photograph and death. Barthes describes this in his concept noeme that a photograph is of what has been, which means the sad realisation on viewing a photograph that we are seeing a world that has gone. Be it when viewing a photograph of a deceased relative from the past or one that was taken but a few moments ago, what is encapsulated on film has past. Barthes talks of young photographers as being ‘agents of death’ (3) and Sury’s can be seen to represent that.
And yet of course these deaths all exist in the fictional, fantasy space created by the artist. We are knowingly complicit in the drama displayed to us, aware in the techniques employed, the finish and edge of the works that this is not the real world but a created vision. As such the work taps into current debates about reality and fiction and the blurring of those worlds. Photography itself is in turmoil about where as a medium it needs to stand in our digital age. How can it maintain the credibility of truth as document when images are so easily manipulated and altered ? In this context Sury’s work sits where most interesting art photography sits today. She moves beyond the photograph transforming it into a painting and an object and with this she changes the work from being a reproducible edition to a one-off. Despite the conversation with the past, Sury’s work is totally in the present. Her fluid and individual use of techniques and her painterly tactile approach provide an exciting and fresh vision of what photography could be in the future.
(1) France Scully Osterman, a specialist in this process of photography based in the United States in a workshop at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London 18 May 2010
(2) Interview with the artist 2nd July 2012 at the Grove building University of Middlesex, London.
(3) Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida Reflections on photography, Vintage books London 2000, p 92 Biog: