© Dick Blau. The New Arrival, 1995
The question we all ask when viewing a photography exhibition or video is: “What is it this about, what am I seeing?” It is a question of meaning—its construction and deconstruction, the coding and decoding, and the framing of the work within a context. This context may be historical, political, personal, or public, but it is “we” the viewer, the reader of the (visual) text, who brings an understanding of our response or reception to the mediated experience. In short, we take what is given to us and mold it within a cognitive framework that gives us meaning. The meaning is our meaning an acquired meaning rooted in our personal and collective history,
Yes, the maker of the work plays the role of encoder—i.e, maker—and decoder—i.e. reader of their own text. (Here, I am using the term “text” as anything produced to be experienced). Yet, how we come to understand that experience is the challenge of interpretation and the constructing of meaning.
By asking questions regarding the construction of meaning, we also consider the very object experienced as a package of codes, for it is the object (and images are objects) that we ultimately reply to. Understanding the image (the object) as either an “outward” or ‘inward” response by, in this case, an image-maker forms the first margin of context. (I also wish to suggest that the relationship between the text and the reader is a collaborative effort to construct significance.) For example: What is our relationship to the making of an image? Are photographs made in response to the world at a particular point in time and space, “the decisive moment” of Cartier-Bresson, or as an internal intitutive decision, a “moment of decision”, as proposed by Nathan Lyons? Each position forms the margins of meaning.
Turning to the photographs of Dick Blau. It is not often that we have the opportunity to explore a forty-year endeavor by a single photographer.
Thicker Than Water exhibits the 40 plus year inquiry by Dick Blau into his relationship to family and himself. This, for me, is the crux of the work: can relationships be photographed or shared? Blau is public with his work, he is sharing, he is writing his own text and, as he has pointed out in his video interviews included in this exhibition, he is talking about moments that most of us, on both sides of the camera, would keep silent and in the shadows.
If he was just making images of his family, most of us would quickly lose interest. Our experience would be similar to looking at the presentation/documentation of a person’s family vacation. Outside of some humorous moments we would be polite, drink more wine and try to stay awake, while providing the occasional smile and chuckling at the appropriate time. (May I add, that with the emergence of digital and the ability to produce endless amounts of photographs at almost no cost, the display of a family trip could go on forever. That means a lot of wine consumed).
(Image: © Dick Blau, Mother and child 1971)
However, Blau tells us upfront that these are not family documents made for later consumption; rather, this project is about theatre. He refers to it as the “Theatre of the Family.” Yes, they are photographs of his families, with Dick documenting their lives through his camera. But, more importantly, they are evidence of the performance moment—that moment when the consumer is pulled into the image, empathizing, identifying, and living with the subject(s). All good theatre images build upon the peek before the catharsis.
Within the context of theatre, Blau’s photographs may be better understood in terms of the relationship between actor and audience, with Blau simultaneously fulfilling the roles of playwright and director. We see only what he and his performers want us to see. What we see is their production; we see only what Blau wants us to see. So, what are we seeing?
Is Thicker Than Water a self-reflective 40-year journey? Is it a commentary on relationships and daily life, or a psycho-analysis of relationships, similar to what you may find in psycho-drama? Or does Blau give us a drama, a performance of off-moments, the glance, the gaze? Does he bring it all home?
In any case, Thicker Than Water demands the engagement of the viewer, similar to a Bergman film or a self-reflexive act encouraged by a Brechtian moment. The viewer finds themself in the space between “audience” and “performer,” constructing meaning and associations pulled from their own history. The performers in Blau’s photographs for the most part hinge on the moment, inciting the gaze of the interested reader.
The role of the subject/object in his photographs also deserves consideration. Were the “looks,” the gestures, and the silence made for Blau’s camera (and us), or for the delicate moments of our lives? Was this a performance for the camera—the perceived audience? When the camera went to the eye, did time stop? Did they wait for the shutter to “click,” delineating the moment, or was it just another moment? There are images in which the subject is looking directly at Dick/us, fully aware of the camera and the potential of the image. Then, there are those where we are placed as transparent pedestrians observing.
No matter how you read the images, it is we who are reading them. Some remain referential or indexical, while others become emblematic. In either case (or both), the reader creates the significance of the experience. To read is to create meaning.
With Thicker Than Water Blau has given us more than a family album, he has given us a play—a play from our own lives, one that only we make sense of. For Blau, the experience of being there, making the images, editing the (visual) text is both private and public. I believe that he invites us, the audience of his performance, not to see the play through his eyes, but through our own. (image: © Dick Blau, Green Shirt, 2011)
© Roberto Muffoletto, 2015