„World of Bricks”. Subjective Realism of Ryszard Czernow

Published in: Ryszard Czernow. Świat z cegieł. Fotografie. Urząd Miasta Tychy. Tychy 2013.

The issue of dating may seem to be a secondary element in an artistic activity, but it gives food for thought. Portfolio, posted on official website of Ryszard Czernow, presents subsequent photographic series, you can obviously realize the chronology, but intentional (?) lack of dating makes you think. At the same time another parts naturally become fragments of a larger whole – the whole that exists, as it were, beyond time and beyond chronology. It is, moreover, an essential feature of each photograph – existence beyond time, even though each image is a record of a particular moment („time”). At least that was the case for the ontology of traditional analogue photography. It is different, however, with digital one.

What happens when a fixed fleeting moment (even if, when it comes to exposure, it was not an instant as the twinkling of an eye) is converted in a long process of post-production work? You would like to say: in a „photographic darkroom”, except the fact that here we are rather dealing with a photographic „lightroom”, using an imperfect neologism. Strong light from a monitor as a transitive space, in which a digital image is made present in the phase of its processing, is just waiting for the finishing, and actually lives in a transitional phase, so to speak, in the larval stage, from which it will transform into a butterfly. We touch here upon important issues from the theory of digital photography. The question of the ontology of a medium is one of the key issues relating to the essence of digital photography. Is the proper domain of its becoming present (as a digital image) some form of a display monitor – then we would have to deal only with the soft copy, the virtual image of immaterial nature that does not exist as a spatial unity, because a pixel nature of such an image does not guarantee the unity – or do we talk about digital photography also when, after digital treatment, an image takes a form of hard copy: printout of an excellent quality, as is the case of Czernow’s artistic practice?

Perhaps these questions should be here to stay, although from the point of view of constitutive theory of digital photography they seem to be extremely interesting. For they touch fundamental matters, subsequent to other problems concerning, for example, whether this kind of media kit, which is the integral connection of a digital camera, a computer and printer, is a new type of camera and, in the literal sense, a new medium of artistic creation.

Digital photography is different from traditional photography which is recording time, as it makes use of time, similarly to what film medium does, which, using a metaphor of Andrey Tarkovsky, is „sculpting in time” or „creating time”. In this purport, stopped time in analogue photography is only the starting point for the process of creating photographic work in digital one. Digital photography – to be more precise one should say: a digital photographer – therefore does to time what film did. In this sense Ryszard Czernow, after all a former filmmaker, is doing today the same thing he did as a cinematographer and film director. The artist, therefore, consistently uses various (audio)visual media in order to, by saving the visible world, bring out what is apparent only at the moment (this is just a shorthand, because in fact it is a long process) of artistic creation. This in turn may seem almost „invisible”. And that’s exactly the point. This work is to be invisible, because it is not about the visualization of technical and technological process after all, but its final effect in the form of the finished piece.

However, speaking about the effect does not sound good, as usual, when using language to describe the phenomenon of the image it seems to be vague, wavering, ambiguous, or vice versa – too explicit. Images constantly elude language, defending their autonomy, not being subject to a discursive processing. It isn’t about the effect here, let’s repeat that, but rather about the total lack of effect, clarity of particular artist’s works involves the arduous cleaning them of any „frills”, which does not mean that we will not find Barthes’s „punctum” in them. I take this term in quotes, because I do not think about a classic punctum, positioned in some portion of the composition (although such situations also occur in Czernow’s works), but above all the punctum of the whole World of Bricks cycle. After all it’s „a brick”. The whole world is built like an architectural construction – from bricks. All the more the world of photographic, especially the universe which is arranged in cycle. Further elements of each cycle are bricks underpinning the whole.

Each consecutive photograph reveals something that precedes and follows it. It’s kind of linear, however, also vertical film editing. Each brick is an autonomous being, even though it forces you to think about what will happen next at the same time. You would like to say – “Another Brick in the Wall”. Moreover, an association with a musical form of composition seems quite in place here. Let’s recall also the practice of Ryszard Czernow as a pioneer of a video clip in Poland or unforgettable portraits of Ryszard Riedel and Dżem from the cycle I Met Him, which became timeless images of not only individuals, but also emblematic representations of an era.

The concept of showing plain Polish People’s Republic reality actually had little to do with the documentary function of photography. Indeed, this is a feature of the artist’s entire oeuvre – reproduction and documenting role of photography is not his domain. Creation of his own world – or a strong need for a manifestation of an individual way of seeing – this is the attitude characterizing Czernow’s aesthetic predilections. And at the same time, during the period of exclusive use of digital instruments, the quest to (as he says) overthrow the myth that „digital photography has to be a heavily processed image”. Discrete interventions in the material from the composition stage, so characteristic for an analog phase of his work, are consistently implemented also at present, when the artist uses only digital equipment. Another thing is that some of his early pieces approach in their poetics and stylistics the digital composition, which only confirms the fact of the artist, as if were, waiting for „his” medium. A stylistic homogeneity that expresses itself in something I will call the reduction principle, is an excellent artistic signature of a conscious creator of both his workshop and what he wants to convey (and show).

I’m looking at the Riedl’s portraits, but I see an era which I know from autopsy; I’m looking at Jofa and Jan „Janou” Janowski’s portrait, and in front of my eyes I have that time – dark and hopeless, and yet for me very important, formative. Except that they are not documents in the strict sense, but rather a vision of the world in a subjective artist’s point of view. I will only add that it is very close to me, which is probably influenced by the generational connection.

Does sensitivity to music and a special kind of a photographic eye – which produces world images that are precisely composed – have something in common? Probably yes, although it is difficult to clarify. Music (taking place at the time) and photography (stopping time) are kind of opposite worlds, but this „kind of” makes the difference. Time is a too inscrutable phenomenon to be able to bring it down only to the formula: course versus stasis, movement versus stoppage, dynamics versus statics. It seems that this particular proximity may result from the creation, which is based on composing of space (in photography) and time (in music).

Brick must arise associations with an imaginary pixel. Photographic compositions (perhaps I intuitively follow here the Ryszard Horowitz’s definition which names an approach of an artist who uses digital photographic medium as „photocomposer”) that make up the World of Bricks cycle are beings formed from pixels. Picture of reality recorded with a digital camera is nothing but a mosaic of pixels. This mosaic – metaphorically, but also literally understood as a whole made ​​up of tiny multicolored elements – is processed, its constituent elements (pixels – bricks) are sometimes subjects to some far-reaching modifications. We are in a world composed of pixels, but also in the world built of bricks. Silesian buildings photographed by Ryszard Czernow are just a perfect starting material for further processing. Resulting in it image may seem to only be a well- gripped and composed „photo” of a really existing space – building made of bricks.

However, this is a place – no place, because in such form as pictured it is non-existent. Sometimes interference with the saved (photo-graphed, let us remember the etymological root of „writing with light”) fragment of reality is greater, sometimes extremely discreet, though the contribution of a photo-grapher (the one who „writes with light”) does not always end up on some, today already completely problematic, „decisive moment”. Because that moment is multiplied in post-production in a number of important choices related to aesthetic gestures: saturation, color, tonality, cropping, contrast, color desaturation, perspective interferences, dispatching colors, aspect ratio, noise reduction, etc. All these treatments are, however, subordinated to something that I called the principle of reduction. It’s carving on an image based on the philosophy of less is more. Isn’t it puzzling that this particular phrase (and attitude) was close to Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, eulogist of the architectural and designer minimalism? Van der Rohe also claimed that the devil is in the detail (although the English version of this saying is „God is in the Detail”). A brick is a detail, not spontaneous of course, but if not it’s reproducible and perfect form – cuboid ( this makes it different from a pixel as a square, though approaching a voxel, i.e. spatial element), most commonly in an aspect ratio 1:2:4 (thickness-width-length) – building, by the means of it, an orderly world of architecture would be impossible.

What is essentially a digital photo? Maybe it just does not exist? Digitally recorded image (via phone, camcorder, camera, tablet) is an image of digital resource. A digital image (not identical with a digital photo) is a dominant concept in a discourse about digital imaging, but still vague, not clearly defined. Each digital photography is a digital image, but not every digital image is a digital photography. When in the past I was looking for answers to the question of what constitutes the essence of digital photography as a new medium, I looked for its distinctiveness in the fact that a place where it is made ​​present is a monitor/display. Immaterial, in the ontological sense, pixel being seemed to me a natural place to make digital images present, including digital photography.

Works of Ryszard Czernow make me modify (at least partially) those ideas. It also results from the changes in the area of possible artistic applications of this medium. Image piece of art can make itself present in various ways: on a monitor, display, but perhaps the most appropriate form of its perception is a premium quality print, for example, on paper. Paradoxically, it is only its „analog copy” which is the original. Analog output of an excellent quality reveals the full complexity of digital (post)production of the image. Once again, this proves the inherent synergies of the analog and digital world.

Working on digital images is also a moment of reflection on what digital images are in general. Each „brick” is looking for its location in the „wall”; as a single copy it means a lot, but only when tuned with other ones it starts to (multi)mean[1]. I perceive Ryszard Czernow’s works in this way: on the first level they are a poetic, well-conceived and consistently elaborated story – narrative, but anti-plot, with an architecture made of bricks, typical for the buildings in Silesia, post-industrial remains of Katowice’s mines, in which the artist began his series, and other unusual places found through the course of wandering around Silesia and the province of Opole. While fleeing from image calques and stereotypical Silesian landscape – even as the notorious Nikiszowiec, visually exploited by dozens of photographers and filmmakers.

This second level of artistic creation of the World of Bricks seems to me to be particularly attractive. It’s an artist’s reflection on the possibilities of creation of the world by the means of digital technology. For Czernow creates a new reality, but also cultivates a kind of „direct theory”. He is not only the creator of the digital images generated in the difficult process of digital post-production, but an artist who is constantly looking for justification for his practice in his reflection, even if these thoughts are not crowning touch to texts, manifestos or discursive statements. It may sound quite risky, but in his works I see something like inscriptions which is a question about the nature of the photographic – or rather post-photographic – medium.

These questions of the nature of meta-reflection, are the easiest to express in the texts accompanying your own artistic practice, but you can also, and this is definitely more interesting, make it a component of your work. With Ryszard Czernow a metareflexive motif  appeared in 2001, when he proposed a new concept to determine his own works – cybergraphy. The artist defines this term (in terms of cybernetics and Greek grapho, meaning to write, draw) as a form of drawing with light. We have here a reference to both the photo-graphy, or writing with light and cinemato-graphy, which is writing with movement. I am skipping for the moment the subtle differences between writing and drawing – let’s treat them synonymously. So, I think, this original term does not define the essence of the artist’s work very fortuantely, because today the prefix „cyber” refers primarily to the place where images become present, which is cyberspace (virtual network of space, and there the picture is only in a soft copy). Czernow, taking care of printing material with such attention (after all „saving” work on an analog medium), goes from something that is „cyber” (to simplify, living only in the virtual space of the computer), to something that has a value of an old „analogue” – traditional image. These complicated relationships between the generation of images and their final form seem to me to be particularly interesting. Because sharp, oppositional setting of the analog world to the digital world has always seemed to me a mistake, not only with respect to traditional and digital photography.

World of Bricks finds the right expositional place not on a monitor/display or in network, but in exquisitely printed, polished in every aspect, physical prints. Because they are simply images. It is also a clear breakout of artificially created duality: analogue-digital. These are digital images from the spirit (and matter) – demanding analogue presence. In addition to the transition from analogue to digital (let’s remember about all forms of digitizing analogue materials of the past) – we are witnessing today a more frequent move in the opposite direction. From the „digit” we return to analogue order. Perhaps soon both of these orders will go under such a radical convergence that we will not even bother with this anymore.

In the context of Gates to…, Light and Stones and Di Tojern, Czernow’s previous cycles and artistic projects seem to be „the gates into the” World of Bricks. Gates as the mysterious passages to another reality, in which we cease to apply well-known laws of physics (and chemistry) of the image. These gates lead us to places unseen, invisible, dark, those that trigger our imagination. Where, then, are these border places? Maybe in our imagination, in the world of creation, and maybe where we want to get. I go into these spaces, walk inside, and these pictures (cybergraphs) lead me there. It’s the power of photographic gesture, because I still think of these images as of photographs, but those that represent not what is, but what can happen in our imagination, if only it is properly put in motion.

Gates hide secrets, even when they are open; by contrast when they are closed, they are calling for opening, crossing to the other side and seeing what is behind them, where they lead. Transgression theme is important, but perhaps more important is the moment of remaining „in front of a gate” as in front of an image. Gates open to infinity, as those compositions which in artist’s photomontage invention were found in the sea or on a snow-covered field. This is a situation like from The Castle by Franz Kafka: we desire as the protagonist K., to get inside (the Castle), but our efforts are doomed to failure. Although it might sound trite, it is true that the way counts above all, though the point of arrival is also important.

World of Bricks should be treated as summa of previous artistic accomplishments of Ryszard Czernow. It is an evidence of a mastery in digital techniques and at the same time the fullest expression of a distinctive aesthetic that springs from the conscious use of new media instruments. What is so difficult in art, especially in the art of new media – creating your own recognizable style – here was certainly successful. Images from the discussed cycle are an excellent proof that cybergraphic compositions growing out of the traditional approach to the photographic medium, in fact exceed it, setting out the original world, which can also be listed in the conventionally called postphotography context. The artist, using seemingly simple means, reaches a very sophisticated aesthetic result. Here we encounter the absence of digital photomontage or composite effects or informational and visual redundancy so characteristic for many projects. Cybergraphies are black and white or almost black and white, because in some cases, whilst increasing the saturation and desaturation of dark tones, the artist leaves highly saturated dark brown colors. Digital retouching, as one of the basic technical means, however, leads to the creation of monochrome images. All the signs of present, such as satellite dishes, billboards, advertising, cars, neon signs or people, disappear. „Cleaning” of the image is radical, this monochrome and clarity of the frame are used for a specific, paradox purpose: on the one hand, the image retains a reference to the natural color of photographed subjects, on the other hand, it makes us see these buildings differently, as if they had been taken out of the order of reality – as almost surreal, even though they still belong to the order of a specific, Silesian reality.

And so we come to the conclusion that as any original work of art, a series of World of Bricks is an autonomous universe, rooted in reality, but drawing on its essential elements to create a parallel universe. The longer I look at the images of the brick architecture, the more I pull away from a concrete presentation, and I think somehow „above” or ” outside” these images. I know that this is not just my subjective accidental impression. The artist consciously strives for such situation using all available means of artistic creation. Creation that is understood ambiguously – as the process of creating the piece of art, but also as creating a unique and hitherto unseen world. Unseen in the manner presented in these works. It is not a world created ex nihilo, as a material source of reference is a brick as a building material and a pixel as its immaterial representation. The artist himself gives it the aptly point: „Digital images have become (…) a visual representation of a new, non-existent world.”

Let’s add only that this physically non-existent world was constituted in the creator’s imaginary, and he has shared it with us – the recipients of his works. It has therefore become real as anything else that the artists create by the power of their imagination.

[1] In Polish term „ambiguity” is composed of words „multi” and „to mean”. Translation does not reflect perfectly the pun on words used by the author (Translator’s note).

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