Johanna Calle, Photo Graphias

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2020 by Editorial RM (here). Swissbound cloth hardcover with tipped in photograph, 21×30 cm, 528 pages, with numerous photographic reproductions. Includes an author interview by Alexis Fabry, and essays by Michael Frizot and Rachel Mohl (in English/Spanish/French). Design by Olivier Andreotti and Pénélope Monnet (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: In a lecture several years ago, photographer Michael Burns explained the difference between painting and photography in this way. Painters start with a blank canvas, to which they must add material in order to create something new. Photographers are the opposite. Their starting point is the entire world, already chock full of stuff. To create something new, they must remove material outside the desired frame. One medium is additive, the other subtractive. 

I’m sure there are some holes in this theory and I can’t vouch that it’s foolproof. But it does make for an interesting thought experiment, especially when applied to the work of Colombian artist Joanna Calle (b. Bogotá, 1965). If photographers work by subtracting, hers has gone wonderfully haywire, the deletions typically washing right over the frames of her photographs and into their cores, converting them into tabula rasas which she can inject with her own content. Occasionally, as in the series Lapsus, the entire core itself is removed, leaving just an empty border. For Calle, “this constitutes the very negation of the photographic object.”

Edgy material indeed. But it’s not just photographic edges that catch her interest. Calle has long regarded all boundaries with disdain. “It’s just art,” she says of her work. “I only aspire to be an artist with no labels and classifications either.” Trained originally as an oil painter, she switched to drawing in the early 1990s. In the 2000s she began to morph yet again, this time into the field of photography, sort of. Calle sees no need to take her own photographs. “When you have the good fortune to live inside a photographic archive,” she writes, “you begin to think that everything has already been captured photographically.” She and her husband, the archivist Julio Cesar Pérez Navarrate, collect vernacular snapshots. She then physically manipulates these found photos into new forms. She calls her process Dibujos Fotográficos, or “photographic drawing”.

Calle’s tool-kit is expansive. “I draw lines, cross out, erase, cut, conceal, reproduce, enclose, delimit,” she writes, naming just a few methods of intervention. She seeks to “show what is missing, to designate the absence.” Although her Dibujos Fotográficos tend to cluster around subtractive processes, they comprise an astonishing variety, and Calle’s output is enormous. The recent book Photo Graphias samples work from 59 separate projects, each with a distinct flavor, most of them produced in the last decade. This is the first book of Calle’s photographic work. Weighing in at 528 pages, with several hundred plates, three substantial essays translated into three languages, and various career accoutrements, it is a massive tome.

The main body of Photo Graphias is sectioned into Oeuvres. Each one features a date, a brief description in English, French, and Spanish, and a captioned sampling of images spread over roughly a half dozen pages. The sequence of Oeuvres bounces around through times and styles, following no clear order, but reinforcing the continuous sense of Calle as a restless spirit, constantly in the act of exploration and discovery. She might follow one muse for a while, then switch gears without warning, then resume the first idea with a twist. And so on. The haphazard sequencing keeps the reader’s eyes and mind off balance and unsure what’s coming, and the book is probably best approached without too many preconceptions.

A favorite technique of Calle’s is basic surface effacement. By removing a photograph’s emulsion layer to reveal the white paper underneath, she essentially converts photographs into reversed drawings. Removal becomes her white brush, the backdop against which traces of the original photograph step forward. Like a chrysalis, Calle’s process conversion often results in a form bearing little resemblance to its origin. In series such as Abstractos, Acento, Fusagasuga, Retratos, Sin Titulo, Polaroides dobles rayadas and others, the effacement is so extreme that only a faint white shell of the original remains. Calle leaves thinly traced abstractions atop, their outlined morphology resembling a coloring book page or paint-by-numbers kit. The voids are beguiling and mysterious, especially when reproduced in their original context, glued into the pages of old flea market photo albumes.

The willful obliteration of sentimental keepsakes might seem a wanton act in a less anonymous context. But Calle charms potential ill ease into novel reinventions. “A photographic portrait ‘captures’ the image of family members, friends, and loved ones,” she writes. “Some of these objects accurately reflect the age and aesthetic of the photographs that they contain… In other cases, my interest has been to propose a parity between the image and the found object. The guiding thread of the project is experimentation….”

In series such as Plomo, Álbum Optica Medica, Álbum Finca, Narraciones, and the titular Dibujos Fotográficos, manipulated snapshots are locked into original album pages in distinctive grids, then shown in sequence. As each spot on the page cycles through its own changes, the effect is similar to a chorus of musical voices, individuals acting in unison through time. Calle takes the musical metaphor a step further in other oeuvres. Lírica, Lied, Notación Musical, and Sociales experiment with effaced photographs, using the removal of material to create imaginary musical staffs.

Although usually abstract, Calle’s manipulations sometimes lead to tangible forms. In the series Árbol de Monte (Raque), Yavarí, Bosque, Tierra Caliente, her deletion leaves behind vegetative silhouettes. Other series such as Mensaje Citrado create letter forms from snapshots. The series Los No Fotográficos does the same, but with more conscious political intent. Its conversion of vintage cartes de visite into the word NO is a statement of feminist bravado, “refusing the impositions of a role defined by culture.” The series Voyeur—a striated deletion of nude forms—and Otros Feminismos—with collaged blocks poking holes in the myth of hysteria—address patriarchal tropes with similar relish. Elsewhere Calle recontextualizes crime scene photos (Pie de Fotos) and land reform images (Campo) to make sly political statements. A seemingly innocuous monochrome Polaroid becomes a declaration of race relations (Instantaneo en blanco y negro), and her language of expression (Spanish) a reflection of colonial imperialism.

Clearly she is no pure abstractionist, and her art has an activist element. But Calle seems most enamored with art as craft, and the physical interjection of her presence into archival materials, “transform[ing] the photograph from a unified, memento mori into a multifaceted living object,” as described by Rachel Mohl. Photoshop be damned, all of Calle’s works are handmade. Her interview with Alexis Fabris reveals an artist who revels in the nitty gritty, as she expounds on the potential of various old emulsions and printing papers.

In some ways her Dibujos Fotográficos shares more in common with traditional graphite drawing than camerawork, a point made by Michael Frizot. His well considered afterward compares Calle to photographic pioneers Talbot, Niepce, and Bayard, whose early recording efforts were limited to the blunt outlines of drawn forms, garnering labels like “photogenic drawing” and “dessins”. For an artist such Calle, unmoored from calcified assumptions about how photographs should look, these models proved as suitable as any, an outlook affirmed in her book’s title which translates literally to “Light Drawing”.

As a book Photo Graphias is a lot to take in. There is so much here, and in so many small varied handfuls, that several pass throughs will be required, and even then much will be lost. The table of contents is sprawling and difficult to navigate. It is resequenced alphabetically on the back cover, but with no page numbers it’s more of a graphic exercise than practical guide. Some of the texts are sectioned into different parts by language, in a way that makes little sense. Probably best to ditch the index and just plunge in. The good news is that each revisit is rewarded with fresh insight. Fortunately the book’s Swiss binding allows the thick contents to open flatly, without the spine constricting the pages.

For an artist whose work is so craft based, and intermingled with vernacular scrap albums, it’s ironic that this is her first physical book. It bears some resemblance to her scrap albums not just in physicality but in heft. Stoked by decades of flea market pickings, the Pérez and Calle archive is immense, and so is the task of absorption. “Julio and I spend hours, days, and months trying to define the grammar of the archive,” she writes. That remains on ongoing process. For now Photo Graphias is a rough snapshot of its past decade. Perhaps in time this book too will be recirculated through a flea market, then found and repurposed into some new form by a future artist, and the cycle of appropriation and reinterpretation will continue.

Collector’s POV: Johanna Calle is represented by Josée Bienvenu Gallery in New York (here) in New York and Toluca Studio in Paris (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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