José Luís Neto’s studio always had, as far as I could see during my various visits there, white, completely bare walls, except, over the last months, for a sheet of sensitised photographic paper that was affixed to one of the walls, more or less at eye-level. This sheet was the basis of the project now shown here: he dedicated himself to the task of photographing it, adding to the camera motors that allowed him to roll the film at a more or less constant speed (according to the motor used, the same kind of film could take from two to forty-five minutes to expose). He also used several different apertures and masks, allowing different quantities and intensities of light to impress the film. The result of this process is a series of vertical strips that, with more or less regular intermissions, run from black to white, with several shades of grey in the middle. For the Modern Art Centre’s Room of Temporary Exhibitions, José Luís Neto simply decided to enlarge some of these strips and display them along the walls, in an almost uninterrupted fashion, at eye-level.
We may start by noticing that the exhibition’s name automatically disturbs a certain chronological ontology of the photographic image: the exhibition’s name is continuum.

At first, everything would seem to point towards classifying this project as a meticulous reflection on the medium itself: the concern with light, the tautological (almost fetishistic) element that is the photographic paper, the exploration of the potentialities of the ‘assisted’ camera (putting the machine on an equal footing with the photographed element). But the obvious, in this case, can be quite obscure: continuum is very far from being some kind of self-reflective or centripetal utopia: it is, instead, an intelligent ontological disturbance of the medium – if not a caricature of it. How? First, because it includes duration, a chronological element we never associate with photography – soon we will see how; then, because the result of this photographic process is absolutely opaque, almost sculptural; finally, because by scratching the first layer of an apparently exclusive precision, we discover that this project is created in the territory of improvisation (and who ever said that rigidity in pattern and accidental contingency are incompatible?).

Let us start with time. continuum upsets any ontological exclusivisms, at least in two senses, both associated with duration issues. And that is so because it leads us to reflect on the precise moment in which the photograph starts to exist – and here we cannot even suggest the time of the shot, because there isn’t one here; and more importantly, because it disturbs the idea of photography as an absolute deviation, or rather a cut (that ubiquitous term in photographic thought) with any type of continuity. To the notion of photography as something that cannot evolve over time, as an element that must inevitably freeze whatever it focuses on (and it is that, too), José Luís Neto opposes the possibility of a mechanical narrative that allows us to experience duration. How? By taking advantage of the subversive potential of anachronism (these pictures do evoke, though remote in iconographic terms, the early times of photography) and depriving us, as viewers, of any observation vantage point.

Two banalities must now be remembered: photography, both in practice and in the theory that eventually grew around it, was not always connected with the moment – and much less with the ideology of the decisive moment; there is always, in the photographic act, a doubtful relationship, a slight discrepancy (which may be the result of a fraction of second) between vision and image1.
If we look at the history of photography, we will see it was not always seen as the art of the moment, or of the abolition of duration – to start with, because of a pure technical impossibility, which obviously excluded any reflections on instantaneousness. On the other hand, since we have always associated life with motion – and photography to depicting motion – we must remember that this kind of depiction is not simply an act of freezing what is fleeting, or of immobilising what is in motion: the volatile, blurred figures in the first photographs show us that certain kinds of technical oddities, like long exposure times, for instance, may possibly reveal the true image of time, or better yet, something that someone has already called time-as-image2. This project by José Luís Neto obviously implies a motive power, since its process involves motion and its reception mirrors it: in the absence of a fixed observation post, we are led to walk around the exhibition space, more or less intermittently, more or less parallel to the walls. It is also a reflection on the experiencing of duration in photography: not only because walking around the room implies lived time, but also because it is impossible to separate the final result from the process that brought it into existence, just as it is impossible to forget the time implied in this process. Let us say that each of the strips shown here is, quite before anything else, a register of its own history, of its own making.

To José Luís Neto’s mind, experimentation demands a precise formal system: the process that sets continuum in motion is nothing more than a rigorous planning of the surprise effect, and thus it comes as no surprise that he is a lover of music, especially jazz – it is in this musical genre that the relationship between pattern and improvisation, so central to a photographer, becomes more extreme. It is hard, if not derisory, to try to find a beginning and an end in a jazz piece, and the same applies to this exhibit. Also, the relationship between camera and photographer can be described as a relationship between instrument and player, because it prolongs itself in time, because it is eminently physical, because it brings deviation into a previously defined program3, because, within that program, José Luís Neto amuses himself, in Walter Benjamin’s words, by throwing punches with his left hand.

The succession of strips in this room is more than just a frieze of photographs on a wall. In a way, they make up a second wall, becoming a kind of sculptural element (an object-image), or at least something that is thoroughly opaque4. We are forced to look at the photographs, not through them – indeed, we must acknowledge our own gaze, and the conditions of our perceptive experience, rather than any given object. Indeed, what is here to be seen could not have been remoter, in purely visual terms, from the object that originated it: these are zones of rarefaction and saturation, systoles and diastoles, apparent contractions and dilatations – like any wall, which keeps from our sight what is happening on its other side, these pictures by José Luís Neto prevent us from immediate contact with the outside world, which would only seem strange if we blindly insisted on the idea that photography has an absolutely privileged connection with that world. Thus, it is not by chance that these strips appear before our eyes as a kind of grid, that ordered, planned model, so discussed by art history and repeatedly described as anti-natural and anti-mimetic – as "what art looks like when it turns its back to nature"5.

Nothing is more typical of José Luís Neto’s work than dilating the difficulty and duration of perception; for he is not interested in representing recognisable objects – his back is indeed turned to the outside world – and is extremely methodical in his chronological operations (he brings time to the centre of the reflections on the image). In continuum, by using nearly nothing (camera and blank sheet), the photographer was able to deviate the chronological axis we normally associate with photography, while also postponing our perception of the images, forcing us to stand before them physically (performatively, even). All things considered, he was able, without resorting to the stratagems of interactivity or let-the-viewer-create-the-work, to equate making and reception, as well as his and our presence – to force perception into acknowledging its own existence.

Ricardo Nicolau
  1. See Jean-Marie Schaeffer, La imagen precaria. Del dispositivo fotográfico, Cátedra, Madrid, 1990 [originally published by Éditions du Seuil, 1987, under the title L’image précaire. Du dispositif photographique], pp.137-142 [“El astigmatismo”].
    The author explains how the celebration of the moment slowly and surely imposed itself on the history of photography, in spite of the fact that it was totally absent from its first two decennia.
    He also describes how the decisive moment later became a fully-fledged ideology, associating it to the apparition of a kind of portrait (and to a growing necessity of selecting the moment that better expressed the model’s individuality), to the decomposition of motion (Marey, Muybridge) and to the development of photojournalism. In order to stress the way the moment was turned into a doxy (an actual temporal ontology of the photographic image), Schaeffer also reminds us that the photographic act always implies a duration (short though it may be) and is based on geometrical aberrations and space/time astigmatisms: “the photographic device dissociates itself into multiple focalisations and focuses, bringing material impurity into the theoretical model that postulates an ideal focal point, which supposedly organises the image in its unicity” (p. 139).
  2. It is not by chance that anónimo, José Luís Neto’s previous project, shown as part of LisboaPhoto 2005, is so intimately tied to the dilution of outlines brought by the long exposure of late 19th century - early 20th century photographs. The photographer resorted to a vast number of photographs (about 3800 negatives), by an unidentified photographer, which make up an inventory of Lisbon’s historic quarters, between 1898 and 1908. From these images, he isolated whatever was moving in each shot and was thus on the brink of disappearing – the pedestrians – highlighting, as in continuum, the work of time (or revealing its true image). See the catalogue LisboaPhoto 2005, Câmara Municipal de Lisboa – Direcção Municipal de Cultura / PÚBLICO – Comunicação Social, SA, Lisboa, 2005, pp. 196-203.
  3. This is particularly clear in the strips which were rewound by hand, or which are the result of the approaching and drawing back of a hand-held camera.
  4. And this is not the first time José Luís Neto’s photographs took the form of walls. See Carreira de Tiro (2000), a series of frontal shots of bullet impacts on bullet-proof screens used on the shooting ranges for training police officers. Here, too, we are forced to look at the photographs instead of through them: the pictures lose their potential as windows to the world, becoming somewhat opaque. See Metamorfoses do Real (Cat. Encontros da Imagem 2004), AFCA – Associação Cultural de Fotografia e Cinema Amador de Braga, Braga, 2004, pp. 142-145.
  5. Krauss, Rosalind, “Grids”, The Originality of the Avant-Garde and Other Modernist Myths, MIT Press, 1986, pp. 8-22 [p. 9]. See also Krauss, Rosalind, “Agnes Martin: The /Cloud/”, Bachelors, MIT Press, 1999.