From Darkness to Light. The Alhambra (sold out)
From Darkness to Light. The Alhambra. Tf Editores/Galimard, Madrid/Paris 2010. Three editions in English, Spanish and French. 240 x 330mm, 178pp. Hardback with full colour image
I have a clear sense of privilege in commenting on this remarkable suite of photographs, I hope that in the course of my discussion, I will have communicated that ultimately the real task of Adrian Tyler has been to photograph differently, yet remain true to the documentary endeavor – how to teach something and to create at the same time. This is especially demanding for the case of the Alhambra, which has been photographed so many hundreds of thousands of times across the seventeen decades during which photography has been cultivated, not to mention its various representations prior to the modern period.
Why is it that certain sites become, so incontrovertibly, points of photographic interest? How is it that they endure as such over time? Even more surprisingly, these sites become points of reference for viewers who, for all intents and purposes, sometimes do not even recognize the cultural differences between the sites photographed and those who commit them to the memory of the camera. As such, those sites become difficultly avoidable icons that are viewed in seemingly limited ways, and often with remarkably similar stagings and poses from one photograph to the next, as if there were some kind of visual imperative to view and subsequently to represent in a preordained way.
If, in the history of photography in Spain, one were to name a corner of that world to exemplify the phenomenon of visual imperative, it would surely be the Alhambra, and one could possibly state the matter more limitedly than that, citing the Patio de los Leones as the single most photographed speck of earth in Spain. The photographer who today undertakes the photography of the Alhambra faces, then, the daunting experience of both recognizing its photographic past (and other means of its representation in art) and going beyond that representational history. Tyler has faced that daunting experience and gone well beyond the tried-and-true. He has remained faithful to the documentary endeavor, while creating things unseen, using the infinitely photographed Alhambra as subject. Perhaps I can explain some ways in which he has achieved this.
There appears to be something about photography as a pursuit that makes us want to standardize both our choices of photographic subject and whence and how we see that subject. This tendency is what our photographer has fought and over which he has shone victorious. One simple escape from visual imperatives may have been for Tyler to give his “impressionistic” view of the site; what it meant to him. He has not done that in the main, and instead has pursued his subject with an entirely different aim, one which constitutes, really, the central message of my commentary. Simply put, he has photographed respectfully. The term sounds almost gratuitous, but it is huge in its implications, and it may serve as one way to get at the heart of photographic activity itself; at photography in its realist mode, at least, for photography does have other modes.
On what basis can we claim that the Alhambra has been here photographed respectfully – photographed with respect? If we can legitimately determine things fundamental to the subject photographed, then gain insight into the photographic terms in which the photographer is working, we might then determine if these photographic terms match or are analogous to the terms of the original subject. This is not an entirely easy proposition, granted the Alhambra’s remove in time, place, and culture from most of today’s picture-viewing world. But if our photographer were truly to instill in his observer the sense that his photographic terms – terms as elemental as choice of subject, vantage point, print effect, etc. – matched or were analogous to the fundamentals of his subject, then a respect on his part, toward the subject, would have been accomplished. This matching – or parallelism, or analogue – is what leaves us with a feeling of representational realism here, even in the many instances when what we observe is almost unimaginably breathtaking and a bit difficult to credit as an aspect of the real world. Was this sort of realism not one of the things that photography aspired to accomplish right from the start? Is this something not inherent in all photography, even in that photographic mode that rails against representation and documentary and literal transposition? In making the general artistic and technical choice that he did, AdrianTyler has managed to bring before us a platter infinitely rich, yet with that most basic characteristic of respect for his subject.
I can hardly resist adding that if any locale did require this, the Alhambra did. Its immeasurable wealth of esthetic and ethnic implications, alongside the fact of the sometimes questionable visual representation that the site has undergone – even in the name of Accuracy and Documentation – required that it be maximally respected. On what basis was the photographer going to be able to demonstrate this respect? Using what terms? Most fundamentally, based on a keen sense of the genuine origins of his subject.
One way in which Tyler accomplished precisely this was to exercise a visual analogue of the geometrics that characterize so much of Islamic art. It seems to me out of the scope of my comments to enter into the reasons for Islamic reliance on visual geometrics, but they are there even for the most casual observer to remark. So one measure of this book’s achievement might be called geometrical seeing, as opposed to seeing geometrics, as a number of his nineteenth-century forebears did. Nor is this to belittle the nineteenth-century efforts. It is, rather, to point to one way in which Tyler has gone beyond the exemplars that might appear at first blush (and only in some examples) to be visual models. There are, in fact, no intentional mentors behind Tyler’s photographs, although we are tempted to tip our hats to a photographer such as J. Laurent (1816–1886), who, early on, dared to photograph so starkly. What notably separates the two, however, is photographic motive, if we can be allowed to claim such. More often than not, Laurent photographed in order to commercialize photographic exemplars; to present before a consumer public examples of the details of such an exotic place as the Alhambra. Laurent did so, as I said, with daring, but also with a technical and documentary flair that was extraordinary in his time.
This has not been our photographer’s aim. Laurent saw geometrics, but his vision, as a rule, was not the geometrical seeing that is Tyler’s. The insistence on balance, symmetry, and the geometric view is so much a motif in the photographs we have before us that it defines them as respectful of the esthetic and ethnic origins of the subject, to a degree that permits us to assign to this photographic work the stamp of realism, to which much photography aspired from its inception – a matching or analogue between what is represented and the terms by which what is represented is in fact achieved.
A number of photographs in this magnificent suite could serve to illustrate this procedure, not the least of which is the signature image on the cover. Even the peak of the roof on the far pavilion (“templete”) fits neatly into the gypsum ornament of the counterpoised pavilion that serves as the photographer’s vantage point. (Incidentally, this same positioning could not have been achieved in the original structure, which sported distinctly domed, not peaked roofs over these pavilions.) If one were to take stock of the images in this suite that resorted to this meticulous location of architectural structure in some way or another, the percentage would be very high. Arches that always fit within other arches, pillars that precisely transect these arches, flankings that anchor equally the left and right of our view – all this becomes part of the stock in trade of these photographic representations, such as they do in the image realized in the Torre de las Infantas [p.40]. Similarly in the Salón de Comares [p.67], and probably no more complexly than in the close view of the end of the Patio de Arrayanes [p.78], and probably no more gracefully than in the view toward the quarters of Lindaraja [p.131].
These might be understood as contrivances on the part of our photographer. But insofar as they are part and parcel of the very structure and esthetic of the Alhambra itself, craving to be observed and respected by Tyler in the course of his endeavor, we should consider that they are communicated appropriately to us, in order that we comprehend the basic tenets behind the art of the Alhambra. This is no mean feat, but what does it serve in addition to respect for the subject’s origins? Whereas the cover image gives us, at a whack, the very core of the Moorish palace – the nucleus to where all observers of the Alhambra are ultimately directed – the ploy of layout is much more subtle: the seemingly infinite spaciousness of the sierra that contrasts starkly with the near occlusion of the Puerta de las Armas (p.10). And with this photograph, we encroach upon the primary meaning of this suite, whose theme is “from darkness to light”. Once introduced into the labyrinthine bowels of the palace, having seen the elevated terrain on which this mountain paradise is poised, we begin to comprehend the significance of the Alhambra’s exclusion; exclusion by virtue of its position, and exclusiveness by virtue of its countless passages, at the end of which we seem always to find some thing that signifies the multiplicity of existence within: as pleasure dome, defense post, contemplative spot. An imperious and imperial seat that anteceded the more modern concept of the term; we can hardly escape recalling Coleridge’s “caverns measureless to man” and that pleasure dome in Xanadu.
So the Puerta de las Armas is a metaphor for the most overt purpose of this book, while it is a metaphor, willy-nilly, for Photography itself, and this precisely is the strength behind images of this sort. The Puerta de las Armas is only one such. The phrase “from darkness to light” implies as much about the task of Adrian Tyler as it does about the Alhambra itself. In the latter case, we are taken down and through dark passageways to a point of light, a source of revelation, as it almost always turns out. In the former case, that of the photographer, he has brought the Alhambra out of darkness, to and through light. From negative to positive, a photographer traditionally proceeded, and there are other suggestions of similar metaphoric force in the very geometrics of the palace: in the black/white, upside-down/right-side-up, brief friezes that cap so many of the geometric wall tiles. Alhambra is as photographer does, and, more importantly, vice-versa.
The light at the end of passageways, which is our invitation to observe more broadly, is often ethereal, thus promising a paradisiacal surprise: the kind of surprise that we find when we peer across Lindaraja’s seat or through dark corridors toward the Torre del Homenaje [p.19]. Yet little can compare to the Islamic structural (and no less esthetic) device of ceiling design, which several times – in the Sala de Baños [p.142], the Sala de Dos Hermanas [p.140], the Sala de los Abencerrajes [p.124], to cite a few – achieve the aspect of a heaven on earth; that is, the very thing that the Alhambra pretended to be. By these multiple ceilings, we are again reminded of the phrase “from darkness to light” and of the fact of what was the photographer’s fundamental business: manipulating light in order to concretize the unseen; a universe of negative/positive.
These incomparable ceilings suggest still more; actually, a multiplicity of concepts are suggested by them. In their capacity as a representational starry heaven, they bespeak the smallness in which we find ourselves, by comparison with what lies beyond. Unlike the occidental propensity to reason what is beyond, these ceilings are meant to be marveled at, to be amazed by, more than they are meant to be understood in any rational manner. They signify something vaster than the observer of them; vaster than the gazer who stands beneath, or the viewer of the ceiling depicted on the page. So it has been the photographer’s difficult task to depict that; to bring these ceilings to us in such a manner that we, too, marveling and amazed, feel our relative insignificance, yet are free to feel ourselves unimprisoned in the space in which we stand as viewers – beings with hope and justified wonderment about the unknown beyond (art and structure “for the sake of the viewers and the young who will be drawn by it and freed from cares”). Again “from darkness to light”, now on a spiritual level, quite apart from the other possible interpretations that we have already observed – none of which is to deny the entirely esthetic interpretation, which begs the question “When can Art be taken for Heaven itself?”; “When is it justifiable to call the photographer’s art heavenly?”
We see that the phrase for the title of this suite of photographs – “From Darkness to Light” – is powerful, because it is expansive. In fact, it would appear that so much Islamic art suggests much more than what is evident: “the external form is for the sake of something unseen, and that took shape from something else unseen”; “since you have perceived the dust of forms, perceive the wind that moves them; since you perceive the foam, perceive the ocean of Creative Energy”. Historians have recognized that in these characteristic forms may rest meaning beyond what the forms are most ostensibly. Granted the repetitive nature of these forms, repetition of design is underscored visually by our photographer, even while he presents to us the variants of designs that dress the Alhambra. This formal repetition, I think, reminds us of exegetical practice in an entirely different context, where repetition of the art form (or the good tale? or caveats written to the childish self on a blackboard?) can make for improved moral being. In the persistent cultivation of the forms rests, possibly, a path to something much vaster than the material thing itself. Why, even in a space as vast as the Salón de los Embajadores, where expansiveness might lend itself to variant forms, formal repetition is the chosen norm.
It is tempting to observe that in an almost perverse way, the palace of the Emperor Charles V respects that norm. The photographs of the Patio Redondo [p.110] are made in such a way as to insist on symmetry, order, and equability. Could this possibly have been, at least in some degree, in homage to the fundamentals of Moorish design? By the same token, do the photographs [p.112–113] of the façades of the Palacio de Carlos V intentionally depict this equability of design? After all, they negate de facto that most characteristic of Renaissance artistic qualities, paradox, and paradox seems not to be part and parcel of Islamic representation as we find it in the Alhambra.
I have mentioned that Tyler practices geometrical seeing, or vantage point, decidedly in respect of the geometric forms that characterize much Islamic art and architectural structures. On two occasions in the depictions of the Salón de los Embajadores he renders interior corners of geometric design. Having myself had the rewarding experience on a former occasion of Tyler’s expertise for book layout, I cannot but think that in instances such as these, Book becomes as important as Photograph for Adrian Tyler. The mirroring that was achieved many centuries ago by the Islamic artisans is used now to represent the task at hand, the magnificent, lush Book itself. Of course, in photographing angled things such as corners, or even the remnant partitions that once defined interiors, such as in the Alcazaba [p.176] or alongside the Torres Bermejas [p.36] or the Torre del Homenaje [p.33], the photographer, in his way, creates his own geometric display. But he never does so more respectfully as when he photographs the Alhambra ceilings that are, in reality, sometimes incomprehensibly three-dimensional: in the Puerta de las Armas, the Torre de las Damas, the Torre de la Cautiva, the Salón de los Embajadores, and the Peinador de la Reina [p.159]. By virtue of the photograph, three-dimensionality becomes two-plane; in effect, tiles created by the photographer. This “flattening” of dimensionality is a curious phenomenon quite in keeping with the cultivation of the Islamic tile as a genre. And it is entirely in keeping with my claim that Tyler exercises geometrical seeing, as opposed to seeing geometrics, which would be the more traditional (and facile) approach.
Of course, Adrian Tyler is not the first to have recognized that in the particulars of the individuated parts may rest the path to some major form (for want of a better term) reflected in, but outside of the extracted particular that is photographed. I have mentioned J. Laurent as one antecedent, but I have also stated that motive in the two photographers was different, and this factor is likely to be distinguishable in the production. Outside of Spain, Auguste Salzmann (1824–1872) comes to mind, never hesitating to isolate the object, in order better to explain the exoticism of his subject, thereby to turn it into a photographic art object. Perhaps now we are closer to Tyler’s work. Perhaps closer still in the mass of work by Walker Evans (1903–1975) of the U.S. The vision that is square-on, not casual, many times symmetrical, and in which script can acquire the plasticity of artistic form.
This last phenomenon occurs – largely due to occidental ignorance about such matters – in a number of images by Tyler, where script has become incorporated into the photograph incidentally, that is, because it had been one aspect of a decorative cluster that was the photographic subject. Notwithstanding its visually pleasing quality, this apparent mild disorder within the customary regularity of design should not seem the least bit disruptive of either an esthetic or ethnic norm. In fact, in another photograph [p.116], pillars and capitals of columns in the Patio de los Leones, consummate order may have been meant to lend an illusion of mild disorder, in order to lend emphasis to the natural growth that was part and parcel of that Court in an earlier time; in other words, to provide an illusion of extended natural growth into the colonnades. Perhaps the gardens of Lindaraja today [p.150] achieve much of the same, although the perennial orderliness of the Patio de los Arrayanes and the Generalife
Just as within the Alhambra those relatively infrequent appearances of natural, non-geometric forms may be a nod to caprice, Adrian Tyler ventures similarly in that direction, although infrequently. The strikingly beautiful polychrome in the details of the Palacio de Generalife [p.165] combined with a hint of natural forms in the vines, make this image a metaphoric counterpoint to so many others that pay homage to more usual Islamic design, but it is likely only the result of wear that yields a randomness to coloring. Color, in fact, was fundamental to Islamic design, and nowhere is this more evident in the highly accomplished image of the Sala del Reposo [p.144]. If ever Tyler’s ability to control what “from darkness to light” might render, it is here, in the image of this Sala. The exceptional washes of celestial blue over the gorgeous supports are as if to demonstrate exactly why one might be interested in proceeding from darkness to light; certainly, they serve to demonstrate why the photographer could never ignore that potential. If image [p.156] looks at first like the poor cousin of the image of the Sala del Reposo, we should look more discriminatingly, since it is precisely where color in what is natural is actually brought out and enhanced by light, rendering the unpresupposing scene almost otherworldly.
Images such as the several just addressed beg a huge question: what is the extent of the photograph’s power? – more correctly put, of the photographer’s power. Can photography actually ferret out knowledge that we otherwise would not possess? Can it stir musings about past or assumed realities, even when photography cannot pronounce about those matters with surety? In the spirit of such musings, the suite moves to a close appropriately. Specifically, the image of the Alcazaba [p.176] is as if to say three things in almost the same way: some thing there was; some thing was there; something was there. Adrian Tyler’s photography has the strength and integrity to recall that location, that substance, and that past for us. He provides the respectful visual experience of the Alhambra, when we perhaps must forego the direct visual experience of it. And even if we could be there to have it, the photographer with due respect for the subject can help to shape it for us, all to our advantage. I have attempted to show in what this dignified manner of photography is rooted, and why it is morally, culturally, and spiritually so worth our while.