‘I love kitsch. I adore bad taste. I fall for the maladroit.‘ – Andrea Judit Tiringer
In a recent book ‘What Photography Is’ – and just what it is seems to be akin to the meaning of a word for Humpty Dumpty – “just what I choose it to mean – neither more nor less” – the critic and theorist James Elkins savagely lays into the users of the photography sharing site Flickr. There’s a page or so of magisterial denunciation delivered in a scornful tone not unlike Humpty Dumpty’s: “Nothing is more amazing than Flickr for the first half hour, then nothing is more tedious” and “…each group puts its favoured technology to the most kitschy imaginable uses”.
It’s not that Elkins hasn’t hit on something – all the sins he bemoans, and more, certainly exist on Flickr but his is a superficial, lazy and tendentious view which evinces a shocking lack of curiosity and imagination for one so exalted in art academia. (Indeed so incensed did Elkins’s tirade make me that I started a Flickr group entitled Bollocks to James Elkins: https://www.flickr.com/groups/bollocks_to_james_elkins/rules/ please consider joining if you’re active on Flickr.)
Flickr gets lambasted too, from the opposite perspective to Elkins, by the proponents of a kind of “bottom up”, “anti-elitist”, account of art, by those who dislike its corporate ownership and by those, too, who believe that one should build such communities with pure free and open source software. To be fair to them there is here, too, much to agree with; Yahoo, Flickr’s current owners, are clearly more interested in maximising advertising income than the welfare of their users.
And yet, and yet… a little looking, a little thought and, hardest of all it seems, a little intellectual humility reveal – perhaps only the embryonic stage of – something rather marvellous too. The sheer scale of the network of users (which one must point out here could only be a utopian hope for an alternative network, at least under the current social and economic system), the fact that it is impossible that the art world as it currently exists can (or might want to) present to us every piece (or even a small percentage) of work worthy of our attention and, further, that there are many people for whom the impetus to make work is a stronger imperative than getting on in life, or becoming celebrities or making money – akin to Marx’s “Milton [who] produced Paradise Lost in the way that a silkworm produces silk, as the expression of his own nature” – means that careful sifting reveals artists every bit as worthy of our attention as those who please the art-world gatekeepers.
I’ve found hanging out on Flickr enormously nourishing both in terms of intelligent feedback on my own work but also in terms of the diversity of interesting and engaging work by others, some of whom even employ the “favoured technologies” – which largely seems to mean software manipulation – Elkins finds so risible, but in such a way that any honest accounting would find far from such.
It is true that one is tempted on occasion to conceptualise some of this work in terms of “outsiderdom” and this can be a helpful starting point; but there is a quantity/quality dialectic at work in the sheer size of the Flickr database and in the dialogues between the highly focussed outsider, the odd art world figure who doesn’t fear to rub shoulders with those not in the charmed circle, the family snapshot taker and even, though admittedly rarely, the amateur photographer who takes “well-made” photos but doesn’t forget to make them interesting too. There is a wider point contra Elkins here which can be expressed succinctly as – no form, no technique is in and of itself ruled out from the process of making art. Indeed the greatest artists have often taken the lowly, despised and out of fashion and given it a magic twist to create previously undreamed of possibilities.
I venture to suggest that the beginnings of something qualitatively new are here stirring.
That’s a long preamble to some showing, rather than telling. I want to look at a single and in my view very interesting participant on Flickr. First to introduce her work and then talk to her about what it means to her to make and post it.
nem sáℜa (Hungarian – ‘not Sara’ – the odd typography for the ‘R’ is a personal quirk and not a language feature ) is the name under which Andrea Judit Tiringer posts work to Flickr. Her body of work is at the same time highly consistent and extraordinarily varied. There are, at the time of writing, 252 images on her Flickr stream – all of them are 444 pixel squares (although I gather she retains larger versions offline). Of the images the vast majority feature a face or figure and this is usually Tiringer herself, a strikingly good-looking but usually (only three or four of the self portraits have smiles) melancholy presence. The focus of the images is variable and the colours are largely muted and pastel. A number of the images feature text, mostly in Hungarian (and occasionally other eastern and central European languages and once or twice even English) and most of them are clearly the product of some process of collaging. What is striking about these images is how sophisticated the use of the space is – there is no sense whatsoever of any “algorithmic” approach to the making of these works – no recipe – each one feels thought through from the beginning and one can linger on each and find new and interesting content (by which I also mean marks, variations of focus or colour, absences, difficult to decipher sections) and relationships within it.
Some are funny (or perhaps lugubrious is a better word) with the kind of tinder dry poker faced humour I particularly associate with Eastern Europe (Nikolai Gogol… Jaroslav Hašek… István Örkény) and which seems to have further fermented as a regional characteristic during the period 1945 to 89. A number of the images either appear to be entirely drawn from albums of snapshots (maybe family, I’m not sure) or to feature components drawn from this kind of source.
A number of the images have drawings or written text added either by superimposition or in a separate space. Sometimes this takes the form of ink stamps or documents such as receipts or other official formats. Many images are divided into sections; sometimes of the same, repeated proportions, at others into something less structured. The sense of internal barriers marking off distinct sections is a strong one. These barriers are created in a number of ways – repetition, addition and the use of drawn or printed line.
The meaning of the texts, as much as I can make out the non-English ones, seems at least on the surface completely unrelated to the image content but, of course, the viewer naturally seeks such connections.
Many pieces employ “traditional” symbols of femininity – flowers, dolls, a killer dress sense. This also seems tied up with a summoning of the experience of growing up – we see a number of images of young girls. Again I’m unsure whether these are of a young Tiringer or simply found images. What does seem clear is that they carry some autobiographical charge. They are never twee (or if they do tread close, the surrounding work pulls them back from the brink and they become “about” tweeness – and if I can put it that way, the “whyness of tweeness” rather than exemplars of it). Equally the femininity cited above is certainly not inconsistent with strength and confidence. A number of the images allow us an intimacy which many self-portraitists would baulk at. Older women appear with relative frequency and are treated with tenderness and respect, as are images of daily household routines, of “women’s work”. Men appear in only two of the 252 images.
This image series is complex, subtle, sophisticated, mysterious and very beautiful. It is structured with a high level of intentionality by someone who is technically clearly completely in control of the visual language they are using but also open sudden dispatches from the unconscious. Whilst I’m always chary of ascribing “meaning” to works one can clearly delineate here a central set of concerns/hauntings/ pleasures/what-have-you which crop up repeatedly. Femininity, ageing and transition, female solidarity, day-dreaming and play, humour, storytelling, dressing-up (both the childish and the older sort) forming a kind of core around which other rarer, more peripheral themes appear and disperse.
This is not minor work.
I interviewed Andrea Tiringer in English by e-mail over a couple of weeks in late August and early September 2014. Her responses appear largely in the order she sent them although I have interpolated some purely factual responses from an earlier exchange for clarity and I also corrected any (very few) errors of English usage. She checked the final interview text to ensure I had not altered the sense of any of her comments.
Could you tell us a bit about how you came to start making this very distinctive body of work and what you feel you are trying to accomplish with it?
I prefer to exist unrecorded. I take comfort in the temporary nature of things. I am always impatiently anticipating the new…. everything, I never want to hold the moment, yet somehow this photographic urge crawled into my life, without me taking notice.
The first step must have been years ago when I suddenly wanted to capture my grandma’s life. We had weekly sessions: her, me and my tape recorder. She was indecipherable. I tried to capture her essence. I needed her stories to be mine forever, figure out how to have a little ‘Róza mama’ transplanted into me. She expected me to be impossibly glamorous, the way she never could be. As far as she was concerned, that was my task. I was born at a time when girls could be scientists, astronauts, writers, but she did not want me to be a scientist, astronaut or writer, or only maybe as a side project to the grand life. She would look at my shoes and ask: were they expensive? The only acceptable response was: very.
Fast forward to about 2010 when for some reason I found myself chasing a nun on the street because I wanted to take her picture with my cell-phone. I have no idea why. I had no camera to my name, I had never before taken a photo on a whim. I caught up with her (she stopped to look at a shop window, my favourite kind of nun behaviour!) and at home I turned the poor thing, with the help of some online editing tool, into an unsightly shade of purple. I was pleased.
Some weeks later I threw a camera I found at home into my handbag, thinking, ‘Maybe I will run into something that I can take a picture of’. I saw a shabby garden through a ramshackle door. It was obvious right from the start that reality does not circumscribe me in any way.
I love kitsch. I adore bad taste. I fall for the maladroit.
So how did the very singular topics and imagery in the photos you post to Flickr came about? I’m particularly thinking of the repeated self portraiture which must be a feature of 90% of the pieces…
When I was a little girl I was convinced that just as we watch the people on TV someone somewhere is watching us, so we always have to show our best side. In my mind it worked like this: the interesting and good looking are on the telly, the rest on the radio. I would dress up to the nines and sing, because I figured if you did not have a good voice you only got to give the weather report,.
These auto-portraits are quickies. Passport photos, accessorized. Captures of what I am not but maybe could be. They are like a colourful puzzle. I never plan anything. (Actually I have planned to stop for about the last 100 images yet still I keep taking another one. I like them for a couple of days, even weeks sometimes, then forget about them, or they start to annoy me. I am a happy deleter.)
About a year ago I made an air freshener out of one. I adored that! I decided that if they are ever to materialize they will be just that: fake cherry scented tiny fake me’s dangling away in a cube shaped space and challenging visitors’ olfactory and visual endurance.
You say: “Captures of what I am not but maybe could be. They are like a colourful puzzle.”
Could you expand on both of these points? Could you say something about how the other content in any particular self portrait relates to the portrait itself and also what is happening in the pieces that don’t include a self portrait?
It’s extremely hard to describe a scheme as to how they are conceived. When I first started to create these images I haven’t taken a self-image for years. I did not even consider it, I captured what I liked, added my touch, altered them to the best of my abilities. I was getting familiar with the editing software through the process on my own, meaning there were many, many mishaps. Those were always welcome.
At some point the first auto-portrait must have happened, and of course I had all those traditional expectations: look good, appear interesting etc.
I started to think about scenes, but my goal was to create something that cannot be named, that is not easy to place, to find a category for. I avoided obvious symbols. No hearts, no crosses, no stars, nothing that could serve as a clue to the… who knows what?
When I choose the constituent elements, my decision is based only on the colour and geometry of each. This includes my attire and surroundings. For example, I look at the front of my blouse and it reminds me of ovaries; this leads me to a vintage anatomical model I printed the image of weeks ago, the colour of which somehow reminds me of a tiny burn I had on my skin at that time, so I took pictures of these and assembled an image from them..
Each has such individual stories, I never premeditate, it is such a quick process. As for the words, it amazes me the way sentences, taken out of their original context, suddenly stand bare: the absentminded cruelty in the prim cookbooks for proper ladies, the description of a slip-up from a madcap novel for teens that suddenly reads like major romantic poetry. I always photograph texts that catch my attention and if I find a loose connection I may add them to an image. Again, each one’s story is so unique, it’s hard to describe any rule or pattern.
I think there is no difference between the photos with me and the ones without me. I just haven’t found my place in each of them yet …
You’ve described quite lyrically and also humorously some of the personal sources and feelings behind the work. What I’d like you to do now is to talk us more clinically through the way, technically, that you set about making each image. Do you have, after so many, any set approach? What software do you use? How long does it take to make an image and do you make sketches or drafts before settling on the final version? Is there anything else about your approach you think is distinctive?
I use a point and shoot Nikon Coolpix, a simple, simple people-camera, I am not even sure of the exact make. I use GIMP to edit/composite.I have never made a sketch, I do not plan and plot. Something happens and I register that and this results in an image. I am presented with a pear and I casually place it beside me and notice it could belong to the pattern of the dress I am wearing. I look at items from a past exhibition at the medical museum in Budapest and as I catch sight of my reflection on the screen I perceive a concordance between me and the disfigured fetus in formaldehyde. If in those situations I can reach my camera I take a quick photo and it may become part of one of my squares. I try to avoid any set method, the only rule being the square shape.
I love taking photos of strangers. I love happening upon strangers that I want to take photos of. I love happening upon anything at all that I want to take photos of but I noticed that I got pickier over the years.
The found images come from everywhere and anywhere. Family photos, my huge box of vintage snapshots, movie stills, random Google Earth takes. My only rule regarding these is that I have to take a photo of them. No scans, no screen caps… This enables me to add my own mishaps, to “destroy” the originals with my technical shortcomings.
Of course there are schemes I could use. If you tell me to create a photo I will tell you to come back in half an hour and I’ll have it. To you it will look like the rest of them. But if I wait for my moment it can be in ten minutes or never (and I do not care, this way it is extremely personal, diary-like).
The reason I feel like stopping after each one is because their increasing number makes it a challenge to make new things, not to find myself in a rut.
So finally, given the fact that you post your work to Flickr I want to know how you view yourself? An artist? Someone with art as a hobby? An outsider artist? Some completely other category? And I want to ask too, if you had the chance to show this work in an art world context – galleries &c – would this interest you? Who is the work for? Do have any thoughts on Flickr as a place to show your work?
Leaving you to chew all that over that I’d like to say a big thank-you for your time & for the care with which you have considered and answered these questions!
I absolutely adore this time, the now. Flickr and other interactive/social media sites, in my view, are like any non-virtual public space. Similarly to our sartorial choices and general behaviour, it is a place for quick exchange of personal information, the possibility of sending perceptible signals about who we are, how we see everything and how we ourselves are related to that everything, so this is a very natural extension of my presence.
I do not really seek a label to describe my relation to the pictures. Definitions provide reassurance and security, but they also mean restriction and responsibility and it is such a relief to have tiny spaces in my life without those.
Who are they for? Hard to tell. At one point I was thinking ‘How wonderful, my son will look at them and think, great, my mum so enjoyed being.’ At the moment this looks quite unlikely, I am too alive. I get the quick attentive glance, the like on Facebook and I am happy and then he heads right back to his world of scalpels and detached limbs in formaldehyde. It is kind of reassuring that nothing about them worries a young doctor.
I will happily display them in any context where they match (or clash) perfectly, and of course that includes the art world and any other world too…