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BREAKING THE FOURTH WALL

Facing the traces of photography


Text by Bárbara Lissa
A dialogue with artist Diego Ballestrasse
 


Blow-up (1966), a film by Michelangelo Antonioni, tells the story of Thomas, a London fashion photographer, who, after spending the night taking photographs for an art book, returns to his studio late for a photo session. On the way, he passes by a city park and photographs a couple. As the woman becomes increasingly angry about being photographed, she follows the photographer to his studio, demanding the negatives. Curious about her attitude, he makes several enlargements of the black and white photos and then cuts the photos, until sees almost abstract grainy blow ups. He seems to discover what he believes to be a body and a hand pointing a gun within among the bushes in the park.


Does this discovery speak of a real and criminal event in the park or of an image created only on the photographic surface, after the several enlargements and cuts? The doubt leads to question the reality within the photograph. Thus, throughout the plot, the premise of photography as evidence is put into question and the film provokes reflections on the common understanding of photography as a mere record of the real. Is the photographic image only a trace of something that happened in front of the camera?


For French historian and theorist André Rouillé, photography does not function as an exact representation of things as they are. The photographic process is rather an event and the image can therefore be understood as the mark of something that has not yet happened, but that will reveal itself in the photographic process. In this sense, the photographic apparatus, as well as the photographer’s choices, operate as a device for abstracting the “real”.


With a similar perspective, La cuarta pared [The Fourth Wall, 2015-2020], of Diego Ballestrasse, places us in front of the traces of the image.


Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, La cuarta pared, 2015-2020.



In this work, photographer Diego Ballestrasse (Argentina, 1974), who lives and works in Barcelona, places the camera inside photographs to seek its blind spots. But not just any image, he performs this procedure on his family archive of photographs. How do photographs mediate our family relationships? How do they intervene in our links, in our understanding of family ties? he asks on his website. Through these blind spots, it is possible to discover gaps in what is not known about family relations and also to imagine different temporalities within the same image.


Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, La cuarta pared, 2015-2020.



The advent of the digital camera has gradually renewed interest in photographic materials from domestic spaces, such as analogue photographs stored in boxes and photo albums, once not considered as artistic. In this context, photographers and artists seem to be actively searching for vernacular images and archival materials. Unlike digital photographs, the analogue ones, printed on paper, are adhered to the physical and so become corrupted over time, like bodies: they change, they age, they get yellow, they fade, they bear marks and turn to ash. The paper’s materiality changes and the printed image is its hostage. In La cuarta pared, we can see the marks of time in his family’ stories over photographs, once the family album is exposed to the action of time.


Just like the protagonist in Blow Up, working with zones in the image that our eyes would not normally focus on, looking at its fragments, Ballestrasse provides us with the opportunity to think about the polyphony of images contained within photographs. Capturing apparently secondary information produced by the photographic apparatus, he opens up possibilities of thinking about the photographic image, as well as producing other meanings alternative to those previously set by the whole picture. By selecting gestures from the family photographs, emphasising the distance – or close proximity – between bodies and isolating the marks left by time on the photographic paper, Ballestrasse is able to construct a secondary narrative.




Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, La cuarta pared, 2015-2020.



Both in theatre and in cinema, the fourth wall is an imaginary wall that separates the story from the real world. This invisible barrier functions due to the mutual agreement that the audience will see the fiction as reality. If we break the fourth wall, this contract is broken and the audience is faced with the reality of the fictional process. Researching the imaginary potential that contains the photographic medium, Ballestrasse confronts us with the multiple temporalities of photography, as well as making us realise that a photograph is a framing of only one narrative, one point of view, among other possibilites.


On El tercer viaje a Chapelco [The Third Trip to Chapelco, 2020], Ballestrasse explores the interior of his family travel pictures – the past and the fictions that accompany them. “The starting point of the project is a series of slides taken by my parents during two trips to the Argentinean Patagonia, the first during their honeymoon in 1969 and the second, ten years later, when I was five years old and travelled with them and my siblings”, as stated on the photographer’s website. The third journey takes place in the present, when Ballestrasse returns to Argentina to photograph this site after two decades away from his country of birth.


Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, El tercer viaje a Chapelco, 2020.



By exploring the possibilities of engaging in another point of view, from another angle, the work enables an opening to explore new spaces within the image and even new ways to relate to it. The photographic surface is worked on from its possibilities in generating new images. Thus, the archival photographs do not have an end in themselves, but function as a starting point, since the photographer recreates them.



Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, El tercer viaje a Chapelco, 2020.





Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, El tercer viaje a Chapelco, 2020.



This work is made up of three parts, a digital video projection created after a super 8 video archival footage; a photographic triptych and an installation of a series of images printed on transparent material. Balestrasse takes these images made in the intimate environment and, facing their traces, brings them to the collective. Through the new ways of seeing old images, not only are new temporalities created, but new meanings emerge within the public sphere. In this way, we can say that those images printed on paper change not only because of the action of time on the material, but also because of the change in how we look at them.



Diego Ballestrasse, from the series, El tercer viaje a Chapelco, 2020.




ON THE ARCHIVE...

My approach to the archive is made through practice. I'm not a theoretician, but rather an image reader and someone who works with and from them. I find the archive fascinating as a device to be explored, I'm interested in what it hides, what we can do with it from an artistic perspective, by connecting one or more archival photographs. Unlike the photograph taken with the camera, where the photographer aims to create new images, the archive already exists and therefore the challenge is different. Working with the archive challenges us to find new stories in it, the stories that it opens to us, or what we can perceive from its re-ordering and re-conceptualisation through artistic practice. In this sense, we could make an analogy with the work of a sculptor who discovers the figure that is hidden within the stone.
After spending more than two decades away from my country of birth, the photographs from the family archive have taken on a singular role in my artistic practice. My approach to the archive began by finding a group of photographs from my family archive and has been at the forefront of my work for the last 8 years. Through those images, I have developed my most recent body of work and at the same time it became a tool that allows me to reflect on photography as a material object, exploring its physical dimension and materiality, as well as on its immaterial aspects, by approaching another way of understanding the photographic event that transcends the moment when the photographer took the picture. It’s from this point of view that each photograph, more than a closed surface of a past event, acts as an element of mediation.



ON THE LAST 10 YEARS...

Through this process of artistic practice around the archive I have been able to deepen my understanding about aspects in the observation of images. My work with the photographs from my family album is structured in chapters and, in this context, I have carried out three works linked to the album: Juan, La cuarta pared and El tercer viaje a Chapelco. As I progress through the different stages, I cover different intrinsic and latent aspects that underlie the act of observing an image. This process has allowed me to develop my own reflection and understanding of the multiple temporalities that each image carries, as well as the mechanisms which activate memory and the subjectivity in our perception of images. How does our mind reconstruct them when we remember an image or when someone describes it to us? How does it affect our memory? How do photographs mediate our relationships? These are some of the questions that I am interested in exploring through the archive.


ON ARCHIVE FEVER...


Fevers are stages that mark trends and affect almost all of us in one way or another. The appearance of "Archive Fever" is the result of multiple factors that have made many researchers and artists look for new alternatives to explore. I think that more than a Fever, the archive has been something that has come to stay. I like the idea of drawing an analogy by comparing the shift that painting suffered when photography appeared. Since then, painting was freed from the need to represent reality because a more effective tool had appeared, leading to the birth of new styles of painting such as the abstract. In my case, archive fever encouraged me to review in my own family file. I think that working with my family album will accompany me for a long time as I find new ways to approach it.


ON DISCOVERIES IN THE ARCHIVE...

My experimentation with the album gave rise to my work La cuarta pared. I found a photograph in the bottom of a drawer in my house in Barcelona reviewing a few family photographs that I brought from Argentina. In this particular photograph, I’m with my grandfather and his eyes are closed. That detail made me curious to know more about him, because he died when I was a child, so I barely knew him. This detail triggered me to collect images where he appeared. It turned out that his presence in the photographs was closer or more direct than anything that my family has ever been able to tell me about him. Consequently, I began to carefully observe the photographs, paying attention to everything that surrounded him: the places, the distances between bodies, the interstices, the shadows, the emptiness. This way of observing the photos opened a new path and I expanded the research on the photographs of all my family environments. That's how the idea of entering into the image was born, of going through ‘the fourth wall’ of the photograph, the two-dimensionality of the image. In this way, what the photograph shows becomes my stage. It is there where I dive in and photograph, just as I do with the camera in real life, looking for elements that catch my eye, those empty spaces, those interstices, the shadows. Metaphorically, I use the concept "the fourth wall" from the theatre, I apply it to a way of observing photography in order to be able to cross its materiality.



 

REFERENCES

Sontag, S. (1977) On Photography. London: Penguin Books.



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