“Reality is not real, perception in the new real. After all, photography is a beautiful [odd] lie”, Coco Martin states at the end of his artist’s statement. Self-taught photographer, architect, and educator, Coco was born and raised in Peru and now lives his life between New York and Lima.
Exhibiting since 1991, the photographer wished to create a more experimental body of work, questioning the very definition of photography. In his latest series, Opus Incarnate, Coco presents a range of scannographies, revealing the magic of a candle light and the soul of his subjects from their very skin.
“Within the current context of massive production of images due to the arrival of the digital era and despite the fact that each piece might take days to be composed and completed, the process took me back to rediscover the meaning of patience, exactly what some time ago used to be a synonym of photography, instead of the present immediacy”, the photographer writes about his latest work.
1. Could you explain why you see photography as an experience?
As a student architect in my hometown, Lima, I used to photograph buildings, urban and rural public spaces, churches and colonial architecture, just instinctively following the light. I vividly remember one night, back in the 1980s during a long blackout, I was working on a cardboard mock-up for a small project with the only help of some candle lights. Once I finished the model I realized I was sitting in a nice nineteen-century movie setting and I started to play like a kid, moving the candle around my new design, carefully observing and learning from the shadows, the lines and the shapes, the perception of light and darkness. That simple exercise was my ‘decisive moment’ and from that experience, I learned the meaning of light. I probably wasn’t fully conscious at that very moment, but surely was the starter point of my journey. I evolved to visual arts and the habit of pure observation. Our journey is a constant process. You develop and grow through experience if you are open to it. After I graduated I took the decision to learn gradually from architecture to photography and visual arts.
2. To what extent is your new series, OPUS INCARNATE, an escape from the digital era?
My transition from film photography to digital is still happening today and I consider myself an old-fashioned photographer, whose feet are in two worlds at the same time. It is a funny paradox because I wasn’t trying to escape from the digital era as much as I was questioning the nowadays-overwhelming mass production of images. I have been thinking and writing about this new world of zillions flickering images affecting our ability to observe, and maybe, damaging our retina forever.
More precisely with Opus Incarnate, I was trying to raise questions about the act of photography itself; the mechanical action, the aim to capture and “own” what you photograph and the need and meaning within my personal practice. In fact, with Opus, I ended up delivering a body of work with a photographic appearance, while recognizing they were not coming from a photographic camera but from a direct capture using a flatbed scanner. I have to say that what I couldn’t escape from was that candlelight lesson I’ve experienced one night in my early twenties.
3. Why did you use scannography? (also, could you briefly explain where the term comes from?)
‘Scannography’ is a relatively new term to describe digital images captured using a photographic scanner, and is a technique with a role in contemporary art. The reason why I used it is because it can be interpreted as a non-photographic procedure in traditional terms. It helped me to keep some distance from the camera and reflect on each conceptual aspect of the photo-mechanic by deliberately abandon the traditional photographic camera format, for almost 2 years. On the one hand, it kept me away from the voyeur concept since there is no viewfinder to see through. It became an ‘almost blind’ operation. The time and aperture have a different meaning and mechanic. The focal distance is very shallow and determined by the distance of the subject and the led tube inside the scanner. The mythical relationship model-photographer becomes closer to a medical experience, like an X-ray session in a hospital. On the other hand, all these facts are provocative scenarios for any photographer I think.
4. Why did you choose to give a second life to Renaissance characters?
In order to reinterpret portraiture by making scannographies I realized about the ‘lighting’ that the scanner delivers is somehow smooth and shadowy, but extremely detailed; and that you can not play too much with it. As everybody who tried this technique, I started with objects, plants and fruits then quickly move to body parts and faces. My earliest attempts were deconstructions of female and male corps lying down, and their expression was so close to a renaissance painting that was a natural choice start thinking about classical portraits. Because my technique was far from perfect, I had to learn how to get better-captured images and learn how to digitally stitch all body parts and deal with some distortions, especially on the faces. All this process was clearly helping me to think deeply about the fact that I was rebuilding, piece by piece, a portrait. I thought I was deconstructing the concept of a portrait.
5. In what sense are these both classic and contemporary?
It was natural that I ended up mirroring some of my favorite paintings and discovering other ones that really challenged my digital skills. Reinterpretation is something that really attracts me and I took the challenge to make my own modern Last Super version (Ibidem, 151 inches long x 27.5 inches height). On the surface, these portraits might be perceived as classic, but the craft and approach are a contemporary examination. That is why I don’t say they are photographs rather than saying they are photographic. Moreover, I think they question the genre on every distorted proportion and multiple points of view around the faces when you look at them very closely. An online version mostly doesn’t depict what I am saying here. In Alter Ego the reference to Edward Hopper’s ‘Excursion into Philosophy’, the play is very open and intentionally unfinished.
6. In an interview, you explain that it took you days to compose and complete one ‘scannograph’ and that this process somehow took you back to the very early days of photography – when things were not immediate. How do you think that helped you redefine ‘photography’ as such?
Yes, this is one of the answers I’ve got and I had to be as patient as I was inside a wet lab processing and printing. After scanning a model I’ve only got fragments; it took me days to recompose each portrait. Months to get Ibidem ready because of its twelve characters and props. Patience is for me a synonym of photography. It makes me think about how our society now wants instant satisfaction on every aspect of life. Photography, of course, is a clear example of this with the digital revolution. Maybe I am not redefining photography as such, but I am being very conscious that, with this personal project, I am taking a moment to step back and observe the trend.
7. As I go through this series, I somehow feel like the reincarnation of Renaissance portraits is paralleled with the reincarnation of old-school photography, or old-school ‘values’ of the discipline. It feels like a time travel. Why do you think that is? Is it somehow legitimate?
Thank you for saying that. It moves me. Yes, I think this magic kingdom of a candle light is totally worth it and legit, but not because it depicts old or new values, but because it gives an inner view that ironically fully comes from a cameraless process.
8. When you finished working on OPUS, did you have an answer to your question ‘why do we photograph’?
I have definitely got a wider scope and definition of what photography means to me after I completed this cameraless project; a bold ‘yes’ came as an answer to my question if I would still consider myself a photographer or at least an image-maker after that experience. More questions are now floating on the air. I am happily overwhelmed by new ideas and challenges. I am not alone on this journey and happens often now that I find more colleagues who are willing to experiment with the ‘nature’ of photography itself more openly, by questioning some myths like the ‘decisive moment’, the ‘golden proportions’ and so on. For me, the intrinsic value of an image can not only be found on a slip of a second in classic photographic terms. Photography for me is an (odd) beautiful lie, but that would open another conversation.
© Visuals: Coco Martin