ARTS

Navigating the world through photographs

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The exhibit of Paris-based Filipino photographer Ding Gerrous features photographs developed through the process called wet plate collodion — a popular method among open-air photographers in the late 19th century. Photo by TRAN QUOC TIEN

For the most part we come to Art Fair Philippines for its smorgasbord of paintings, sculpture, installations, and performance art, until four years ago when organizers formally launched AFP/Photo, a section in the fair dedicated to position photography as contemporary art. Since then, the program has been one of the most talked about segments of the fair and continues its steady momentum by introducing fresh names to its roster of photographers for this year’s line-up of exhibits.

In a grandiose sense, it helps us examine the significance of photography in our lives. “The painter constructs, the photographer discloses,” Susan Sontag wrote in 1973. She argues that what ultimately elevates photography as art is its ability to “alter and enlarge our notions of what is worth looking at and what we have the right to observe.” It urges us to witness, much as it discloses. It is a visual language and every individual taking part in the enterprise of photography knows of their contribution to the ethics of seeing: at a time when to look the other way, to become apolitical, is considered immoral, especially when the urgent and humanitarian response is dissent in any shape or form.

A Filipino in Paris

Co-presented by the Swiss private bank Julius Baer, this year’s ArtFairPH/Photo showcases among others the works of the Paris-based Filipino photographer Ding Gerrous with the exhibit “Binhi” organized by art/n23, a multi-city agency for Philippine contemporary artists and designers. “Binhi” features photographs developed through the process called wet plate collodion — a popular method among open-air photographers in the late 19th century.

Moving to Paris led him to Musée d'Orsay in 2007 and for the first time witnessed its huge photography collection. “I was simply awestruck by the aesthetics of the early processes particularly of the pictorialist era. It dawned on me that I am in the place where it all began.”

A sample of Ding Gerrous' ambrotype portrait. Photo courtesy of DING GERROUS

Gerrous captures his work with a French tailboard camera then subsequently prints them on recuperated window glass panes from old buildings in Paris. His photographs are convincing evocations of a bygone era, and for this exhibit, one element that pervades in his photographs is rice, an integral part of our history and culture.

“I've always been drawn to find what we as humans share on a communal and personal level,” he says. “Whether it be about struggles, conflicts, joy, pain, past, present, future — themes that one can contemplate and explore and discover that despite the seemingly infinite amount of possible correlationships they all form part of the human experience.”

As part of the exhibit, he will demonstrate his photographic process, in which images produced go direct through the camera on glass or metal plates coated with salt nitrocellulose called collodion. It is then rendered sensitive to light in a bath of silver nitrate solution, so the dark areas which normally form the highlights in a printed image turn pale, and the clear areas which form the shadows in the print appear to be dark. He explains his fascination, “It’s not a print. It’s the very same material, the very same glass that I put behind the camera, and comes out as the only copy that you can have.”

A way of seeing

Photography is the internet’s dominant language — and it has become an ubiquitous aspect of our lives, more so now as we sustain interactions digitally.

Artists have turned to images to aid the confessions of strangers finally revealing what they never said to people in their lives out of fear, regret, or missed opportunity; to advocate for the conversation of our wetlands in Mindanao; to document crime, conflict, suffering when being a woman seems to be an already precarious position to be born in; and more recently, to capture the many heroic demonstrations of unity and mutual aid within communities in the absence of government relief. By studying the images or video recordings of our society, as is in visual ethnography, we develop an analysis of our social-cultural views, values, and practices.

Established in 2020, Strange Fruit is an artist collective that explores the photographic medium and presents images illustrating the socio-cultural landscape of the Philippines.

In its second year in Art Fair Philippines, this year’s exhibition includes works from Raena Abella, Jes Aznar, E.S.L Chen, Francisco Guerrero, Jason Quibilan, and the Pulitzer grantee Veejay Villafranca.

Jez Aznar, whose work often reflects society’s contradictions and incongruousness, speaks about the photographers in this exhibit, “We don’t have a preconceived set of messages to spoon feed to our audience. What we only offer is a new way to see them, through our perspective and medium.” The images — arresting and suffused with grit and dignity — reflect the singular vision and ethos of its members, but that, “Politically, we do have one thing in common. And that is we do not condone tyranny and authoritarian rule.”

Part of Francisco Guerrero's "The Wave" diptych. Part of the Strange Fruit exhibit in ArtFairPH/Photo 2021. Photo courtesy of STRANGE FRUIT/ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

In particular, Veejay Villafranca’s “Saviour” is about Sitio Pariahan, a sinking coastal village in Taliptip Island, Bulacan where much of its demise is attributed to land subsidence, or the sinking of land due to the over extraction of groundwater through unregulated deep wells. Its subject: the abandoned chapel where its community members used to hold weddings and baptisms. Here the persistence of color seems hopeful (in particular, the blue piping of the altar and the blue of the tablecloth awaken the senses) and the fluorescence of the cross a suggestion of deliverance against the backdrop of turbid flood water that never since dissipated after a series of typhoons.

“The medium can be turned political as it is in itself and in these times of manipulation, fake news and deep fakes, one has to immerse oneself and be fluent in the visual language to be able to discern. The pieces we are showing are just tools to achieve that,” Aznar says.

Fresh pair of eyes

Another presenter in this year’s ArtFairPH/Photo is the creative content agency and gallery Tarzeer Pictures, with their new exhibit “TARP,” a series of eight works on 70x70in tarpaulin displayed alongside the exterior of the gallery’s building. “In many ways, this idea came out of the current situation we are in. Mounting this public installation allows us to show work in a safe space as well as continue to explore ideas that excite us,” says Dinesh Mohnani, one of the three people behind Tarzeer Pictures, through an email interview.

"SPWR (Self Portrait as a White Rabbit)" by Jed Gregorio. Part of the Tarzeer Pictures exhibit in ArtFairPH/Photo 2021. Photo courtesy of TARZEER PICTURES/ART FAIR PHILIPPINES

Referencing the weather-resistant material that functions both as an outward-facing surface as well as a means to conceal works in progress, it’s the embodiment of the eight artists currently on view, namely Rob Frogoso, Ralph Mendoza, Regine David, Jed Gregorio, John Eric Bico, Renzo Navarro, Enzo Razon, and Gio Panlillio. “Rather than thinking of specific images at the start, our approach was more about which artists we wanted to bring together to respond to the medium,” Mohnani says.

The photographers who come from a variety of backgrounds were given one tarpaulin to showcase their photograph of choice. The result is a series of disparate images, their dissimilitude highlighting each of the artists’ distinct point of view.

“Today everything exists to end in a photograph,” Sontag once wrote, as if prophesying the age of compulsive documenting that permeates social media today. On the other hand, Art Fair Philippines continues its streak of shaping the critical conversation around the importance of photography as visual record as art: that we’re lucky because we have a multiplicity of voices, hundred eyes watching like the Greek giant Argos, to document, witness, affirm the state of our lives. And as Aznar of Strange Fruit perfectly says, “Photographs [are] our guide in navigating into this new, digital world. Long ago, people would travel just to see visual art. Now, art has the capability to travel to the people. That leads to a multitude of interpretations and ultimately an explosion of new discourses.”

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Explore available artworks in Art Fair PH/Photo through artfairphilippines.com/artfairph-photo. The exhibits will run from May 6 to 15, 2021.