Tanja Verlak photographs

In his essay on Camera Lucida—Barthes' last book—Victor Burgin (Re-reading Camera Lucida, first published in Creative Camera No 215 in November 1982 and since then reprinted in several anthologies and analects) has undertaken a review of Barthes' writing, which by now has turned into a seminal treatise on the theory of photography based on the phonetic identity of the English words I and 'eye'. The homophony of these two words reveals a deep conceptual connection between the subject looking at something that was previously seen by another subject, i.e. an image first observed by the photographer's eye and consequently fixed by the selected piece of technology, and now being seen and interpreted by the viewer's eye. What the eye senses, the mind (i.e. I) recognises.

In its initial phases, semiotics—based on the findings of structural linguistics—has classified photography as a signifying system, organised as language, and thus the readability of individual photographs was set on the backdrop of a range of different reading codes. In the early Seventies, this type of approach changed considerably, as the linguistic model was replaced by several complex methods, most notably by Freudian and Lacanian psychoanalysis. Every single entity being analysed is an autonomous whole, whose potential meanings are exclusively contained in it, independently of other similar entities that may be connected into a cycle or a series.

Tanja Verlak's photographs are—from their very conception—relying on the principle of singularity, their implicit reluctance to be classified in comparable contexts that could enable the viewer to recognise places and locations of shooting, or in thematic surroundings having a self-evident narrative of motives proceeding as sentences in a story, which starts abruptly and often continues in surprising directions. On the contrary, Verlak articulates each photographic declaration as an isolated thought that has nothing in common with the following or the preceding image, but is rather self-contained, pointing to its own being, determined by a formal and structural coherence giving a sense to its existence. One or several stories arise within each photograph, which is polysemic by nature, not only at the level of I (the artist’s statement), but also at the level of the 'eye' (the viewer's commitment to the image viewed). There are certain principles that may be derived from the images viewed, a kind of wide dichotomy ranging from the classical chiaroscuro to the re-examination of an array of possibilities, which constantly question the relation between reality and its illusionistic representation. Although recognised by the artist as important, form is not an end to itself, as is the case of many photographers, who want to 'polish' the selected motif or series with perfectionist composition and with their insistence on structural harmony, without considering how such an endeavour may inhibit the expressive force of an image. Formal perfection, which may quite rapidly slip into excessive aestheticising, often tends to hide the meaning, since it halts at the level of denotation, i.e. the primary recognition of a 'nicely' arranged motif. From the viewpoint of the 'photographic paradox' (according to Barthes) this is definitely not enough, as each shot implies a connotation, a meaning beyond the visible. Tanja Verlak transposes connotation into a meta-language, into the exploration of the constitutive elements of photography, conceived as discourse in action with its own vocabulary, grammar and syntax. In this sense, it is the viewer—the active participant of a process initiated by I with the aim of activating the 'eye'—the one entrusted with the production of meaning.

Psychoanalysis has shown us that conscious mental processes are not the only known processes producing meaning, because in Burgin's words 'absence' of meaning may only mean that “meaning has left the room and is now hiding in the basement”. There is no paradox in reality itself, but in the way, in which the actual is described. Barthes' definition of the photographic paradox implies two opposed discourses: a semiotic and a phenomenological one. Everything we sense and recognise on the basis of our general experience of the phenomenological world (or—by analogy—with the photographs we have seen somewhere before, although not identical to the photograph viewed now) generates different reactions in different viewers: While one person may be indifferent to an element of an image or to the image as a whole, someone else may have strong personal feelings, which are so individualised that they may become unbearable. An intimate experience evoked by the act of observation may thus shift the relation between the I and the 'eye': the photographer's I, which created the given photograph, suddenly becomes the viewer's I, which perceives the image in an extremely subjective way, regardless of the artist's intentions and general connotative categories. Although many a photograph may have an emotional impact on many people, we still need to distinguish between this experience and the individual perception of what is displayed by the photograph. This double interaction of meanings is so strongly emphasised in Tanja Verlak's works that it almost seems the artist is reiterating it in order to very explicitly define the ontological essence of the medium. The interplay of dichotomies—upon which she has based her creative tenet—could be finally reduced to the antinomy between the seen and the unseen, darkness and light, knowledge and feeling. Although this contraposition, of course, could be articulated indefinitely, we need to recognise the thin dividing line between rhetorical banality and reliable artistic persuasion. Verlak convincingly overcomes this gap and takes up a position, where the creative I is supposed to stand if the observing 'eye' is to willingly accept it.

Brane Koviè