Our Shared Circumstance
in : Panos Kokkinias: Here We Are, powerHouse Books, New York, 2012
The photographs gathered here have been organized by the photographer into four sections that he has entitled Home, Interiors, Landscapes, and Here We Are, the last of which brings a clear suggestion of confrontation with our existential state, the overarching theme of the book. The sections are porous because the sustained themes of the pictures, which are particularly contemporary ones, are those of anxiety and isolation, not to mention downright dread. The photographs are not fragments of ordinary, unmanipulated reality, snatched from the flow of every- day life, but, rather, they are oftentimes extraordinary, fantastical constructions completely arranged and orchestrated by Kok- kinias. Handsomely composed, simple and pictorial, Kokkinias’ photographs have been preconceived and are illustrations of the photographer’s ideas.
The historical precedents for arranging and constructing photographs began in the nineteenth century and are particu- larly noteworthy during photography’s so-called “Pictorialist” era mid-century when photographers made pictures whose subject matter was “important.” Two notable early examples are the work of Oscar G. Rejlander (1813–1875) and Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901). A Swedish photographer working in England, Re- jlander was noted for his allegorical compositions made with the technique of “combination printing” in which he joined multiple negatives to form a single image. The most famous of these, The Two Ways of Life (1857) shows two young men on either side of an elder sage; one young man is turning towards representa- tions of religion, charity, and industry while the other towards gambling and licentiousness, which end in suicide and death. The final print of the picture measures 16 x 31 inches and was compiled from individual photographs Rejlander made of groups of costumed people he hired and photographed at scales appro- priate to the distance at which they would appear to the spectator of such a scene. Henry Peach Robinson (1830–1901), was a British portrait photographer who having begun as a painter also used “combination printing.” Robinson’s first and most famous composite picture is Fading Away (1858) in which a pale, dying young woman on a divan is tended by two other women, presumably family members, as a man stands at the window with his back to her and us, his anguished face, the picture suggests, too distressed for us to bear. In order to compete with the great themes of painting and genre photography as fine art, F. Holland Day (1864–1933) assumed the role of Jesus Christ in a series of self-portraits entitled The Seven Last Words (1898), in which he recruited his neighbors in Norwood, Massachusetts to stage an outdoor reenactment of the crucifixion.
This “directorial mode,” as constructed photographs of this nature have been more widely known, is evident in the work of Duane Michals (b. 1932). The 1960s documentary aes- thetic with which the individual views in Michals’ works have been made accrue in true narrative fashion, as building blocks that create a story with a beginning, middle, and end. Michals’ sequenced pictures describe an unfolding event as in Chance Meeting (1970) in which the impossibility of Michals having been witness to this ordinary event and photographed it as it unfolded is immediately apparent to the viewer. But this disbelief is suspended as one is drawn into the “episode,” seduced by the factuality of the individual images, which is, in turn, counterbal- anced by the fictive nature of the entire series. Contemporary examples of manipulated and arranged photographs include a great variety of works, from the staged stills of Cindy Sherman (b. 1954) in which she reinvented herself in a series of self-portraits to take on questions of female identity in the late twentieth century, to the elaborately staged tableaux of Gregory Crewdson (b. 1962) whose overtly cinematic pictures reek with theatrical lighting and saturated colors within the sweep of the cinematic overview.
Closer in sensibility to the work of Kokkinias, and perhaps closer in chronology, are the enigmatic views of Philip-Lorca diCorcia (b. 1951) whose pictures of largely cosmopolitan contemporary life are “arranged” or otherwise controlled by the photographer in less visible ways than the aforementioned. The pictures in diCorcia’s monograph A Story Book Life (Twin Palms, 2003) are of mostly young people in domestic settings, or at leisure in the countryside. Their implied narratives hold a sense of menace and certainly reveal a restless, discontented author whose anxieties are assuaged by little and who is redeemed from his existential despair only occasionally. Many of these pictures have been taken with a camera on a tripod which means that the action was not quite as spontaneous as they first might suggest and that diCorcia’s subjects may have been “directed.” In his floating Noemi a young woman lies on a raft amidst marshes, much like Hamlet’s Ophelia as seen in John Everett Millais’ painting of 1851–1852, and as such the photograph is imbued with a portent of disaster.
The work of Kokkinias is a contemporary extension of this venerable tradition. A closer investigation of the particulars of his work reveals its allegiances to and departures from these precedents. Kokkinias avoids the painstaking labor of his nine- teenth century counterparts Rejlander and Robinson by using the computer to create modern versions of “combination printing.” Through simple pictures whose readings are immediate, Kok- kinias conjures up the drawings in comic books or, perhaps, the storyboards made in preparation for the filming of a movie: the individual photographs represent individual scenes, declaratively stating their themes. The screeching neon colors of many of the pictures exacerbate our sense of alienation and, at the same time, emulate the exaggeration of comic drawing whereby im- ages are purposefully reduced to their essence in terms of action and meaning to achieve more powerful impact. For example, in the photograph Penelope (p 99), a picture of a relatively young woman standing amidst commuters, the “drawing” of her figure is such that her countenance and facial expression refuses to tell us everything. She appears as though she has been struck by a terrible realization and has, literally, stopped in her tracks. The out-of-focus figures of the men in the foreground who frame her and the bright light on her, created by the artist through the use of a reflector, direct our attention to her. While the drawings in the individual panels of comic strips are intended to carry the plot forward, in Kokkinias’ book, there is pointedly no forward momentum, just a deliberate recircling of themes.
In the book’s first section, Home, which consists of photographs of domestic interiors—a site we like to think provides privacy and refuge—our commonly endured existential fears are fed. Middle-class life is evident in the furnishings, books, the corked half-bottle of wine, parquet floors, and the art postcards and calendar. The section begins with a dispiriting view of the interior of a refrigerator freezer. Who hasn't looked into their freezer with the false hope of finding something to cook only to find empty ice-cube trays and an abandoned hunk of frozen meat that will take twelve hours to defrost?
The man who appears in these pictures is an anonymous protagonist in the middle-class struggle to create a meaningful identity. The eerie calm in the series is abruptly disrupted when mayhem breaks through in Cabinet (p 13), the photograph in which we see the feet and lower legs of the man as he inexpli- cably stands on a dresser arranged with sea shells and corals gathered from distant shores sitting next to a stack of newspa- pers. The symbolic meaning of the picture is paramount. Has the man been reduced to simply another object in the benign, reas- suring arrangement? In another photograph, the bare walls and clean lines of the room in which the man laughs uproariously, or madly, contributes to our sense that the room is, perhaps, insti- tutional, so that our mirthful protagonist, dressed as he is in the uniform of institutional “whites” is simply mad. Since it is the last picture in the series, our sense of entrapment is complete and we leave the site of Home with the conviction that there is no solace there.
We then move into the next section of the book, Interiors, a series of pictures of the kinds of anonymous public spaces we encounter during the course of our daily lives. Interiors is a set of pictures made in public places, sites created by people for other people, in which the protagonists appear utterly alone or, in one picture, engaged in an awkward attempt at “connecting.” Cold, lifeless hallways, a massive swimming pool and arena, and a mostly empty parking lot, among other sites, continue our sense of alienation. Foreboding is evident in the parking lot picture (p 37) because in moments a moving car is going to turn the corner and encounter a man on his hands and knees. The viewer is obliged to finish the narrative as he or she imagines it, which raises the voyeuristic aspect of the work, created at least partially by our photographic distance from the subjects (and it is here that the work bears a conceptual resemblance to that of Crewd- son). One of the major aspects of photography, of course, is its inevitable “voyeuristic” nature, a quality that Kokkinias exploits to exaggerate his urgent “stories”. We cannot help but feel that we have come upon a scene we should not, or would not, want to encounter. These include the toweled woman standing at the side of a pool as a man watches her without her knowing, or our view down an endless stairway where on a lower floor a couple engage in stand-up, clothed sex. The photographer and we, as unsuspecting viewers, are either voyeurs or innocent witnesses. In either case, we are implicated and the impulse is to act or flee.
By the time we enter the outdoors, pictures which comprise the third section of the book, Landscapes, we have moved from views of disturbing home sites and alienating public interiors to a both resplendent and forbidding “natural” world. The first picture describes blossomed trees within a verdant landscape. Amidst the foliage, we see a red-haired “Eve” as she contemplates the apple she has just bitten. But our Eve wears sunglasses, placing her several millennia after the original Eve, into our world. With the protagonists we travel across a variety of mostly uninhabited landscapes in which miniscule figures engage in an array of actions both bizarre and ordinary, raising questions about their intentions. Why is the man in the baseball cap so purposefully striding across a barren landscape in Megalopolis (p 48)? Crazi- ness is seen in Kastri (p 55) in which someone photographs another man standing on a table in a large, evaporating pool of water in the countryside. The absurdity and mystery of their effort can, perhaps, be an illustration of the artist and his life, whilst the picture seems to suggest that art itself is folly. Finally, in Mitsero (p 67), did someone leap from their car into the pol- luted waters of a quarry? Landscapes ends with a photograph of a man trekking through a scorched forest dragging a chair as he continues his/our journey.
The straightforward title of the book's final section, Here We Are, poses implicitly the question, “Where, exactly, is that?” Kokkinias seems to suggest that we are in unidentified, deserted, in- dustrialized landscapes, at home in bed, or driving behind a large truck with a butterfly trapped—not unlike us—in our windshield wiper, where, once again, we are the protagonist of the picture. We are the soccer goalie, standing before the goal and suffer-
ing anxiety before the kick, and we are a visitor with a nametag in the gleaming lobby of a corporate tower. And we are always alone. An air of mystery and menace permeates these pictures, precipitating our unease and dread. And again, within the refuge of home, we see a grandmother holding a sleeping child, both seemingly engaged in a kind of somnambulist activity, not quite part of this world.
As in the best works of art with difficult or distressing content, the sense of order imposed on the subject by the artist brings not only pleasure—as a sense of wonder at unleashed imagination and an appreciation of the scrupulous powers of execution—but also a simple, although brief, reprieve. Our contemporary anxieties and sense of alienation are momentar- ily at some distance having been identified for us by the artist and thrown into relief. Through Kokkinias’ work, we are able to consider these small, human dramas that describe our commonly held fears and experiences with some objectivity and even, oc- casionally, to smile in response to our absurd position. Kokkinias confirms that our ills are inevitable and relentless, yet through his recognition, embrace and acceptance of them, we momentarily transcend their inevitability and our shared circumstance.