A Private Viewing
"These make me think of great works of lost art," my husband said, surveying the stack of photos I was preparing to scan.
I took the pictures he was looking at in Strasbourg, France, in 1992. Strasbourg is known for its gorgeous cathedral, a stunning structure of high Gothic style that took generations of artisans and laborers just over two and a half centuries (from 1176 until 1439) to construct.
When we lived in Heidelberg, Germany -- about an hour and a half from Strasbourg by train -- the city had another notable artistic aspect: Namely, the stencil art graffiti that covered the walls of buildings in certain quarters of the city. The graffiti tended to be located in the city’s older sections, where labyrinthine narrow streets (more like alleyways, really) wended and wound.
We would go to Strasbourg once or twice a year. One summer, we rode our bicycles there from Heidelberg, an undertaking that should only have taken us six or eight hours but that ended up requiring over a day given the various wrong turns and false starts we made along the way. We took shelter for the night in an inn in some tiny village, and were startled awake by a frenzy of fireworks: Only then did we realize that we’d chosen to undertake the journey on the day before Bastille Day.
Our timing had had nothing to do with the national holiday, but rather with the Tour de France passing through the city. When we did arrive, on Bastille Day, 1992, it was among a swarm of tourists and cycling buffs. Triumphantly, we made our way to the city center and there, in view of the cathedral’s towering spire, we enjoyed a celebratory croissant. That night there were more fireworks, which we watched from a bridge; the next day, we saw Greg LeMonde receive the key to the city.
Then I took my camera and spent hours trawling the city’s meandering thoroughfares, snapping away, assessing, reconsidering, backtracking, and sometimes neglecting to photograph images that nagged at me until I turned back to try to find them again. I didn’t always succeed, I’m sorry to say.
"You should publish these," my husband said, flipping through the photos. "This may be all that’s left of these wonderful works of art..."
It’s true, I’m afraid; a few years after moving back to the States, we revisited Strasbourg and found, to our horror, that the city fathers had -- imprudently, to my mind -- mounted a campaign to eradicate the city’s graffiti art, much of which was accomplished by use of stencil and vibrantly colored paint. (How vibrant? Take a gander at this bright blue rabbit on scalding red wall.)
And now it was simply... gone. It was like entering a wasteland where once riches had throbbed and danced before the eye: Everywhere we looked we saw only fresh paint. Not a specimen of stencil graffiti art remained.
I understand it, in a way. I get agitated and indignant when our neighborhood bodega is tagged. It’s sheer vandalism, and no matter how many times the owner repaints the wall, the vandals make their return, tagging the building yet again with their idiotic scrawl.
But the Strasbourg graffiti was in a different class. It wasn’t a mindless, albeit stylized, signature of some street punk. It was witty, insightful, calibrated to provoke thought and elicit a smile. The idea of public spaces (and private property) serving as a canvas is a hotly debated one, and I understand why. But I also respect and cherish art.
Maybe my husband was right: I should publish these photos. But how? A museum exhibition, perhaps? Well, that’s one thing when you’re Banksy or Shepard Fairey. But for someone like me, it’s improbable to the point of impossible.
Then again, why else do I have this column space if not to use as an outlet for just such art? Lost art - orphaned art - art that has barely survived - art that was given voice, then silenced (literally covered up!), and needs a voice once again.
For better or worse, I have to admit (and muse upon) the unavoidable fact that I can’t help having an effect on this surviving fragment of Strasbourg’s art.
In choosing and framing these images, I looked for color, composition, context, social comment... and, I admit, I was looking for a sense of fun as well. In scanning and editing these images for digital preservation I had a host of other concerns to mull. Should I remove cracks and discolorations? Should I tart up images in which the art was damaged by flaking plaster or the errant pens, paint, and chalk of lesser artists (and vandals)? To what extent should I correct for the color of the paper print fading, for glare off the surface, for contrast issues?
These images are not the art itself; that has been lost. This is photography, an art of its own (and not merely, as some would claim, a mere method of visual documentation), and so these images are arguably art twice over, liable to a new level of interpretation and intent.
Take, for example, the image above: Red and blue create not only a shadowing effect for a female face, but a kind of doubling, a graphic underscoring that could emphasize allure or suggest menace. Just how deliberate is that trickle of blue dripping from those red lips?
And this typewriter here, spray painted in black against a red wall. I identify with this as a writer, but there’s so much more going on with the image and its scroll of stylized text. I admit to enhancing the color just a little bit, to correct for the image having faded a little (compounding the way in which the wall’s paint had faded after being exposed to the elements). But in doing this, am I restoring the image? Or am I overstating the artist’s original expression?
I decided to present these images with minimal correction or editing, as a gesture of respect to the original artists.
But again: How much is enough? Where do you go too far? The print of this portrait of a young man in blue and yellow looked black, with a faint yellow smudge. The scanner pulled more color out of the image than was immediately evident. Decisions, decisions. Eventually I went with what I deem to be a more complete representation of the original art.
Inevitably, my own eye (aesthetic sense, judgment, preferences) enter into it, so I’m not merely a curator of this art. From choosing which images to include, to making editorial decisions about light and color and cropping, I am, in a sense, a co-creator.
As such, let me invite you to a private viewing. Continue to the next page for more.