Fashion, like a magnet, has been seasonally repelled and attracted to black since the 1980s, and, with the exception of photography, every art form at one point in time has been in love with the mysterious “color” (Scientifically, black is not a color as it absorbs light rather than reflects it.). Not black that’s diluted, weakened or contrasted with colors, but pure oversaturated, obliterating black.
In the 1950s, Robert Rauschenberg, Frank Stella and Ad Reinhardt dealt exclusively with the color to produce works that are simply known as the “Black Paintings.” Photography however, despite being synonymous with black and white, has never quite been in awe of this darkness. Though it has certainly employed and embraced black in order to create depth and emotion, it has never allowed it to totally control the frame. True, overdominating black is theoretically the opposite of what photography is about. That is until now.
Starting today at Youkobo Art Space, Katrin Paul, a Tokyo-based, German photographer, is presenting a show entitled “100 100 100 0 or 0 0 0 100 and the Devil’s Grandmother.” Those unfamiliar with all those zeros needn’t worry, they are not secret codes from the Devil’s Grandmother but formulas for printing black on paper. In CMYK printing, black is made by printing 100 percent cyan, 100 percent magenta, 100 percent yellow and 0 percent “key,” a printers’ term for black — hence 100 100 100 0 — or by printing 0 0 0 100, with 100 percent key.
As the title suggests, the show is literally black, black, and more black. On display are five huge photographic prints, heavily inked scrapbooks and two “secret” objects. Despite the thought given to this installation, the 130-cm x 200-cm prints are the show’s strongest feature as they are big enough to get lost in. Concerned with “presence of light in almost absolute blackness,” at a distance they appear to be solid black, but on closer inspection they bear faint light sources.
In one work, a few streaks, like lost rays from the northern lights, make their way across a black sky. In another, a break in the blackness suggests an eyelash, a smudge or a faint, surreal sense of landscape.
If this makes you think of Maiko Haruki’s overexposed temple photos, which were recently featured in a Kay Itoi article on this page, think again. Though both photographers employ intense darkness, that’s where the comparison ends. Unlike the works of Haruki, who creates a sense of representation by juxtaposing light with dark, Paul’s images revel in their pitch black ambiguity, making comparisons to Minimalist paintings more appropriate than to the works of any her photographic peers.
Still, the motivations behind her use of black are quite different from the Black Painting movement. Ad Reinhardt, the most notable of the Black group, saw the shade as a theoretical tool that would end painting’s relationship to Modernism. By embracing black, he could create “free, unmanipulated, unmanipulatable, useless, unmarketable, irreducible, unphotographable, unreproducible, inexplicable icons.” Though Paul would agree with the “unphotographable, unreproducable” nature of her work, her choice of shade is not an end, but a beginning.
Prior to this show, Paul, who has worked in Tokyo for 10 years, had concerned herself with narrative depictions of Tokyo’s young and elderly, so her new work is a surprising and welcome departure. With photographic imagery so prevalent in everyday life, we no longer really see what we are looking at — Harajuku’s overexposed Goths being a good example. Thus the strength of Paul’s new work lies in obscuring her subjects to present a visual challenge. Unlike so much contemporary photography, which is quickly distributed in coffee-table books, Paul’s photos, like paintings, must be experienced in person. Only in doing so can their power — that is, their ability to “put seeing back into photography” as Paul says — be felt.
Though contemporary photographs still embrace social documentary, much work is increasingly becoming purely photographic. Some, like Maiko Haruki, see the everyday with a spiritual aesthetic, others, like Gregory Crewsdon — who also employs a lot of black, but with extremely different effects — reconstructs reality in order to produce movielike effects. Paul is part of the overtly photographic trend but differs in that she doesn’t present one view. Instead, we the audience must — like a photographer — construct our own view by seeing for ourselves.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.