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Night Sky NGS 3372 from the series “Night Skies”, 2013,
cocaine dust on photographer’s velvet, 132 x 306 cm. Courtesy of the artist

 

Photography and image-making by extension, have become part of the everyday rituals of contemporary western societies. The proliferation of images has become a synonym of acknowledgment, a symptom of our obsession for appearances and the praise of individualism. Susan Sontag’s call for an “ecology of the image” has been exceeded by social media and the “cult of personality”. To neutralize this visual superabundance, young photographers must innovate by giving new shapes to the imaged and by stimulating the ocular organ, they have to some extent, be able to alleviate the viewer’s gaze. Matthew Brandt’s strategy is to dig into photography’s past to present old-fashioned techniques of reproduction revitalizing them and offering a renewal in contemporary aesthetics.

At first glance, his are captivating photographs of vast landscapes reminding us of the tradition of the first American photographers who revealed to wider audiences the hidden treasures of the American West; photographers such as Ansel Adams, Edward Weston and Timothy O’Sullivan are among those who inspired Brandt’s body of work. His photographs from the series Water Bodies, especially Two Ships Passing U.S and Pacific Ocean bear witness to his penchant for ancient techniques. In a recent conversation held with the artist, he attributed the implementation of these procedures to what they enable him to do when creating an image: other than the playful asset, uncertainty plays a tremendous role. Brandt finds the mystery lying behind each take fascinating, ostensibly analog images magnify the desire to discover the image.

The brisk cascade of images in social media copes with the tandem of our contemporary world, the artist’s technique requires certain equipment and time of exposure and certain material that corresponds to the methodology used during the 19th century. The resulting images are far from the plethora of data in mass media. His artistic takes possess a particular texture and linear composition bestowing them softness and harmony. While Brandt relinquishes old fashioned techniques, he associates photography with chemistry rather than with a simple reflex. Photos are for him invitations to the past where each take is carefully thought about and constructed.

While Brandt relinquishes old fashioned techniques, he associates photography with chemistry rather than with a simple reflex.

Art and its techniques are an unparalleled footprint of a society’s way of thinking and seeing. Impressionism is an example of the evolution undergone by the human eye, without photography’s arrival, painting might have never been liberated from the mimetic burden. Clippings – a series created during 2014 and 2015 – uses the pointillism technique making a parallelism between photography and painting. These artistic avant-gardes explored human perception terminating with the Western tradition of perfect sight, they focused on blurry configurations. Clippings is an investigation of how an image is made and for the artist the latter relates more to a moveable oscillation of components than to a static structure. His unorthodox methods of representation – among them we can cite the use of kitchen ingredients in his series Taste Test in Color, honeybees, dust and recently cocaine for Night Skies – encourage spectators to be inventive and to understand that there is more to his photos that meets the eye.
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Lewis Lake WY3 from the series “Lakes & Reservoirs”, 2013,
C-print soaked in Lewis Lake water. Courtesy of the artist

 

One wonders then, what is the requisite to making photography or to creating an image? New technologies have widened its definition, but Brandt does not choose technology. Instead, he introduces elements from what he portrays, conferring to each photograph a special “aura”. This concept was firstly evoked by Walter Benjamin in his essay The Work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction, in it the German philosopher underlined the inherent dangers of “new” techniques. Benjamin feared art’s trivalisation as well as the audience’s loss of interest for the original. Yet, Brandt’s work disputes the philosopher’s claims by creating unique photographic pieces. His series Portraits is made with body fluids provided by the people photographed, to some extent each take contains its special DNA, one that can’t be reproduced infinitely. Lakes and Reservoirs operates with the same logic as he developed the photographs with the water collected from the lakes. The approach is further developed with Bridges over Flint, as it takes a political nuance. In the wake of the American elections, the photographs appear as indicators of the genesis of a critical moment in history.

Boundless connections derive from each of his artistic projects, Wai’anae for instance is an investigation on how Hawaiians relate to their land. Brandt took photos of Wai’anae’s nature, he later developed them, folded them in banana leaves and buried them on the ground. Moisture, rain and the soil transformed the photographs into quasi abstract printings, the experience was correlated to a Hawaiian burial ritual in which the body is folded and becomes part of nature again. Photography’s connectedness to death emerges as we remember Barthes statement “that had been”, image making reveals itself as a morose testament, a modern memento mori. Memory is indeed a fascinating feature in photography making, a part from taking part in modern ritualistic activities, it testifies to our presence in exotic places. In relation to tourism photography, Brandt created a whimsical character, the epitome of bad taste and questionable behaviour representing mass tourism. With a fist in the air, a Hawaiian shirt and a hat, Hands up embodies mass tourism and photography’s role in modern holidays. It was again Sontag in her essay On photography, that described photography’s place during the holiday season and how picture taking eased German and American workers giving them the feeling of doing something with their idle time.

 

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Two Ships Passing, US from the series “Water Bodies”, 2011,
salted paper print, 107 x 133 cm. Courtesy of the artist

 

Matthew Brandt’s photographs are historical journeys retracing the steps of photography and its evolution over the years. One of his latest exhibitions showcased at the Museum of Modern art in New York, was a video performance with the musician Julianna Barwick where Brandt was in charge of the video-making. This is a major factor asserting that Brandt doesn’t limit himself to photography’s stillness, movement is gaining in importance in his artistic practice. It is of little importance if Brandt’s interests broaden, what remains in his photographs and videos is his ardent curiosity for image and its by-products, a lucid testimony of what image has become.

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