Tuesday, March 15, 2011

All I Want Is A Photograph Of You

Robert Cornelius has a niche in history. An early pioneer of photographic technology, a self-portrait of Cornelius was one of the first, if not the first, photo taken of a person. The year was 1839; the place, Philadelphia.

Cornelius, and other early-movers in the art and science of photography, would have had no idea what they were unleashing. Almost two centuries on, and the human race and its environment has become a continuum of incessant snapping. We are photography. Homo Kodakiens.

The camera is arguably the greatest invention ever. The technology has formed the basis for record and for revision, no more so than nowadays; digital photography makes images two-a-penny and photographic software can alter images in a way that Stalin's airbrushers could never have imagined.

In Mallorca, where would we be without the camera? It has benefited from the same brilliant light in capturing land- and seascapes as that which inspired the post-impressionist school of art in Pollensa in the early twentieth century. It has been the medium for thousands, millions of the photographic cliché: the view to and from the Calvari oratory in Pollensa town; the pine tree hanging off-centre of frame as the lens scans the sweep of Puerto Pollensa's pine walk; the shadow thrown onto the horse promontory of Cala San Vicente's "Cavall Bernat". The cliché of image is as repetitious as the superlatives of adjectives that describe the scenes with the unthinking rote-speak of brochures and websites.

As focused on and clicked as the scenery are the reproduced descendants of Robert Cornelius. People. Mallorcan society, in its widest sense, appears at times to exist for one purpose - to have its picture taken. Little of this is what you might call photo-journalism; it is imagery for the sake of imagery. Its repetitiousness, its pose-style is as loaded with déjà vu as the tourist snap of the pine walk or other so-called "iconic" landscapes.

One such is the photo of long tables, disappearing into the distance, at which are seated any number of uninteresting people with dreary expressions who have gathered together to eat something. There is a recent good example of the art; a Partido Popular lunch in Campos, with, in the foreground, María Salom and José Bauzá. It is the same shot as is regurgitated from the memory cards of suppers at annual fiestas. Who on earth cares?

Politicians are, naturally, the worst when it comes to muscling into frame. The default politician photo comprises several of them, standing shoulder to shoulder, inaugurating something, standing on a platform, making some declaration or other. Just one problem with these photos is that many of the subjects, the blokes especially, are so badly dressed. Jeans really aren't politician attire, but they are in Mallorca. And the wearers look as though they've just walked in from the fields or the building site, which is probably because they have.

No more idiotic in the formulaic, side-by-side, on-stage photo is one from Artà the other day. It looks as though the whole town is in it, celebrating the almost completely unnewsworthy fact that the town has finally got round to having a tourism website. I exaggerate the numbers. They are not the whole of Artà, but they are that great that they equate to a World Cup football squad. It is so supremely old-fashioned and silly, you half expect them to launch into a chorus of "Back Home". This is photography by parish newsletter, which just about sums up the level of local politics and the sophistication that it attracts and displays.

But worse, far worse, are the photos of alleged VIPs and celebrities. They form a constant collage of the dicky-bow, the low-slung, the suntan, the champagne flute and the expensive trip to the hairdressers. These are the snaps of the faux-"Hello", misguided notion that anyone is actually interested. They are interested, if the subjects happen to be famous, but not when they are the famous unfamous or the simply unfamous. Most you have neither heard of nor care about, and if you have heard of them, you would probably prefer not to have. It is these images, though, which speak more, far more about Mallorca than the landscape clichés. Well, about a Mallorca, at any rate.

In 1839, Robert Cornelius conducted an experiment. One would doubt that he had in mind his own vanity. But what he unleashed, other than merely matters of record, was the vanity of others. One does have to distinguish between the photographing of Mallorcan society and of society Mallorca. The latter is the domain of the vain and the vaininglorious. The act of the photographer is not to inform an audience but to bow to the bows and frills of the subject. But most of this act is irrelevant, superficial and shallow; as shallow as the subjects through the lens and with even less depth of focus.

All I want is a photograph of you, something to remind me. Actually, I don't.

Any comments to andrew@thealcudiaguide.com please.

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