Aperture Magazine

The magazine of photography and ideas

Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin—To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light

The artists engage the medium’s urge to extract generic meaning from knotty specifics.

 - April 19, 2013

It is said that she (or rather her first incarnation) worked at the Kodak factory in Rochester, New York, in the 1950s—though the story has never been verified. Her name is Shirley, and she is something like an embodiment of photography’s tendency to dodge and blur distinctions between the generic and the particular. For decades images of “Shirley” were dispatched to Kodak labs around the world as a visual reference, the original model being replaced by a succession of more or less elaborately dressed and coiffed avatars. In the version chosen here by Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin, Shirley’s white evening wear, the gray backdrop, and the oddly invasive primarycolor soft furnishings are meant to demonstrate a color balance and dynamic range labeled “Ektacolor: Normal.”

Shirley and her successors were for many years solely Caucasian. Color film was designed for a narrow range of skin tones, and it was notoriously difficult to include black and white faces in the same frame. This despite the complaints, for example, of photographers in the 1960s who, following the desegregation of U.S. schools, had trouble rendering the faces of African-American students in class photographs. Institutional memory at Kodak has it that it was only when manufacturers of wooden furniture and chocolate complained they could not adequately photograph their products that the corporation began work on a new range of films with which, internal descriptions assured, one could “photograph the details of a dark horse in low light.”

Page from Cahiers du Cinèma, no. 300, May 1979. The caption under the photograph reads: The Image and Its Secret.” In the late 1970s Jean-Luc Godard was invited to Mozambique to start a television station for the new Marxist government of Samora Michel. Godard famously refused to use Kodak film, claiming that it was inherently racist, and turned to video instead. The project ended in failure and no trace of his video exists. However, Godard guest-edited issue 300 of Cahiers du Cinèma, which he devoted to his diaries from these experiments in Mozambique.

Broomberg and Chanarin’s project—which includes photographs of Bwiti initiation rites, made as part of a recent commission in Gabon, remnants of a darkroom donated to the artists, and fragments from the photographic life of “Shirley”—takes its title from that curiously euphemistic suggestion as to how Kodak’s new film might be employed. But the images presented here are points in a constellation with a more ambitious extent in terms of the history of photography and the medium’s urge to extract generic meaning from knotty specifics.

Some orienting fragments of backstory: in the late 1970s the filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard was invited by the Marxist government of Mozambique to advise and collaborate on a new state television channel. Among the problems of representation that he touched on in the course of the project (ultimately abandoned) was that of Kodak’s “racist” film stock, which Godard refused to use. No footage exists from Godard’s time in Mozambique—only some photographs he took (with non-Kodak film) of his local collaborators coming to grips with TV technology.

Strip Test 4, 2012. Photographic print on fiber-based paper. Following a weeklong Bwiti ceremony, this pygmy initiate is heading back to the city. Bwiti, a traditional religion in Gabon, is organized around eboga—a powerful hallucinogenic root that is ingested during the ceremony. Tucked into her robe is a Blackberry mobile phone.

In their travels in central Africa, Broomberg and Chanarin worry at the notion—which pertains to the history of Kodak, Godard’s Mozambique project, and the tradition of anticolonialist photography—that each act of representation is somehow revelatory of a certain “typical” racial Other. The category of test images is essential to that aesthetically and politically vexed history. The artists here explore these experiments using darkroom equipment and reference images that belonged to a friend’s late father, one Dr. Rosenberg. Among the photographs in this project is Broomberg and Chanarin’s sole success among many tries with a batch of medium-format film that expired in 1978. Underexposed and color-shifted to weird magenta, the image, of a palm leaf, stands for the idea of a stable photographic reference and the wayward reality of the medium.

Brian Dillon is U.K. editor of Cabinet magazine and a tutor in critical writing at the Royal College of Art. His books include I Am Sitting in a Room (Cabinet, 2011), Sanctuary (Sternberg Press, 2011), and The Hypochondriacs (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2010).

This image and below: Magic and the State #6, 2012. Collage, hand prints on fiber-based paper (unique prints). This series of collages shows the outlines of young Bwiti initiates who asked to remain anonymous.