Tackling the complexity of reality demands taking a step back, analysing, and returning to it in order to learn its approximate form, or the ways it camouflages itself: when it really is disguised, when its disguise is a representation, or when it is pretence. Reality can be regarded as what is left when everything else has failed, even in the moments when, with everything known as “the rest”, we seek a substantial change in its presence, and thereby in its influence on us.
Few expressive media offer such a plausible approach to the great theme of reality and its representation as does photography, whose course through history
inseparably links the record of what happened, therefore shaping a visual memory of the world, with the plasticity of having recorded it with an aesthetic intention, thus stepping into the sphere of art. In other words, photography unifies function and purpose in a single medium, halfway between the fine arts and the mass media (Jean-François Chévrier). The fact that the media available today for recording and generating images allow realities to be constructed without directly involving a real subject in no way undermines the importance of memory in photographic practice, and even less so in the classification, consumption and archiving of photographs.
In a society as markedly visual as today’s, issues surrounding the use of image cannot be ignored. Numerous forums, seminars, publications and articles debate and deliberate on the future of photography in relation to the ambivalent and changing concept of image, but also with regard to the concept of reality. In 1977 Susan Sontag wrote in her article Photography in Search of Itself on John Szarkowski’s Looking at Photographs. 100 Pictures from the Collection of the Museum of Modern Art: “Determined to prove that photographs could —and when they are “good,” always do— transcend literalness, many serious photographers have made of photography a noetic paradox. Photography is advanced as a form of knowing without knowing: a way of outwitting the world, instead of making a frontal attack on it.”1
By placing “good” in inverted commas, Sontag underscores the controversial position taken by anyone who attempts to judge or draw a line between the meaning of good and bad photography. However, later in the same article, Sontag resolves this question with one of the most clear-cut defences ever made of photography: “For while paintings or poems do not necessarily get better, more attractive simply because they are older, most photographs seems[sic] interesting as well as touching if they are old enough. It is not altogether wrong to say that there is no such thing as a “bad” photograph —only less interesting, less relevant, less mysterious ones—.”2 This claim, along with the rest of Sontag’s 1977 article, can no longer be literally defended. The evolution of the photographic medium and its assimilation within the world of contemporary art has marked a line between certain photographic styles that perhaps cannot now be crossed. Clearly, her statement was valid for the type of photographs Sontag used to illustrate her writing, which likewise illustrated Szarkowski’s book. Weston, Avedon, Evans, Stieglitz, Abbot, Muybridge, Callahan, Atget, Cartier-Bresson… To a greater or lesser extent, there is an overriding documentary value in the decisive works of any of these photographers that is not always found in the themes or subjects of contemporary photographs; something that makes those images, decades later, not simply interesting, but authentic icons of visual history. It is not an exclusive point, but undeniably this documentary value is not always representative. Hence, contemporary documentary photography sits in limbo between its function to inform and the eternal doubt of whether to cross over the threshold into the sacrosanct temples —represented above all by white cubes— of the artistic environment. Likewise, the “noetic paradox” to which Sontag refers presents photography as a method of knowledge, as opposed to the more intuitive fact of the rapid gesture, the suitable location, the different ways of defining the precise moment; in the end, of the photograph for its own sake. This debate no longer throws up the same questions as before, but it continues to generate the same opposing positions. The vast difference between the two historical situations may perhaps be seen in today’s photographers, even those who through their work contribute no knowledge to the common good, find it hard to come to terms with this lack of intellectual content and tend to disguise it with subjects that simply illustrate commonplace situations, excessively use post production or repeat a handful of barely understood concepts that attempt to define their mediocrity.
One of the challenges Pascual Arnal takes up in his photographic endeavour to describe fluid reality —the elusive and changing characteristic of the present moment— is that of giving a voice to the nuances and presence of the faces hidden behind personal stories. His choice of subjects is diverse; symbolic in the way in which he repeatedly returns to ancestral physical objects and cultural actions; he is curious in his quest, never running short of suitable disquietudes to consider; and also contemporary, in the sense of topical, in that he knows how to blend the familiarity of virtually insignificant facts with practically unique events that occur when the eyes of the viewer observe and detain them, and give them meaning.
His work, which in plain terms might be analysed as unconnected, partial, unstructured, is based on the confidence of the photographer’s eye and on holding out until certain signs reveal themselves. Nothing is left completely to chance, however much chance allows the imagined idea to be turned into a photographic image. In other words, knowledge about the image already exists before it is created, and when it appears in a similar form to this imagined idea, it then exists. It is unsurprising to consider that there may be many more imagined images that, in a certain moment, in a still undefined or unvisited space, might eventually emerge as photographs.
The challenge is met when all the pieces of this puzzle of contents and scenes, of intentions and images, are joined together and the cracks between them are soundly welded or, in complete contrast, they are totally unconnected, re-beginning the search process and bring it up to date. This apparent contradiction is no other than a symptom of the challenge taken up: to portray a society that rages between merciless, callous competitiveness, and the notorious failure brought about by the model designed for this competitiveness.
Pascual Arnal assumes this risk with sobriety and approaches it from a certain distance. The white surface he chooses as a backdrop for all his work, the proportions of which vary in relation to the image shown, at times appears as a frame, in others as a margin, and in others there is a neutral space required by the scene, open like a light diffusing sky. In some way this white surface, this figurative passe-partout, is like a sieve that acts as a filter for the image. On each occasion the relationship between the two elements is different and, therefore, the interpretation arising from the relationship varies; one dependent on the other, according to each case. Perhaps we can no longer continue debating the importance of background and form, but their interchange of power and meaning here take on a specific significance.
On the other hand, these photographs present the essential issue of credibility: the discernment between reality and fiction at a time when most images are constructed from nothing or converge from diverse origins in the same space, in the final resulting image. Pascual Arnal’s photographs range from the weirdness of a real situation, experienced and felt in first person, to a magic reality that is hard to believe in, like the men dressed in black suits queuing to enter a temple, or the ghostly shadow of an equestrian statue projected onto the facade of a building with a river flowing by.
Continuing this sensation of sometimes unexpected results obtained from reality, what stands out is the appearance and presence of elements of marked symbolic power that appear to confront the external, surrounding reality with the very sensation of this reality through objects, gestures, cultural constructions or nonphysical, but fully perceivable, elements. Mountains, castles, doors, lanes and roads, statues and very precise gestures, like secrets whispered into someone’s ear, embraces or disconsolate weeping are portrayed as indebted to feelings that have been passed down through generations to reach us, the beginning and end of personal experiences. All so peculiar that they turn out to be inevitably real. As though fiction only enters through the chinks that reality, with its sharp edges, does not completely seal; in terrains where only the incredible reaches.
The edges of a prism delimit and complete its shape, but the main aspect of its function (and its definition) is that each edge is the line formed by the intersection of two planes. The edges, therefore, result from the meeting of these planes, and form a midpoint between directions where the tension is maintained and finishes. For example, between reality and its double, between the event and the plan, between knowledge and chance meeting, between the document and the construction of a moment. A polyhedron in process, growing, in constant metamorphosis.
Álvaro de los Ángeles
1 Susan Sontag, Photography in Search of Itself, The New York Review of Books, January 1977, Volume 23, Numbers 21 & 22.
2Ibid. p. 38.