Text on the RORSCHACH series

François Cheval

The visual experience of space and our consciousness of it are so closely related that we have no idea what determines the one or what is dependent on the other. Landscapes mirrored in water, like so many chance Rorschach tests, confirm and cause the mystery of photography. Even though what we see—a set of signs registered by a user—is real, in no way is the world further explained by it. The photographic work has its own logic, which can be enigmatic or occasionally disturbing, but which is always exhilarating.
And poor us who think we can control people and things by means of a camera. We in fact rarely manage to master them. To tame images, we constantly must return to words, for we cannot help but name things. It is difficult to have to find words or to have to comment on what one does not know. We have to project feelings or sensations in a confined space in which we cannot imagine ourselves. And here, in exacerbated form, we consent to mutter a few maxims—or worse, pronounce some trite truisms—so as to bring some clarity to this matter devoid of primal meaning. Lacking thought, we make unjustified remarks, cut off as we are from a comprehensive experience of a foreign space. The perceptual world of these photographs is so inaccessible that we might wish it would fill itself with unpredictable things and apparitions. This would be reassuring. We might fumble for a psychological arsenal with which to corner the photographic unconscious. But try as we might, the texture of the image cannot be handled. The reverse and right way round orientations, when fused into a common space, offer no nooks or crannies, no secret hiding place for our small perversities and our great confusion.

Landscape collage, so dear to the nameless photographer, is nothing but an offense to the romantic vision of a landscape. The sensorial system, enlarged since the eighteenth century by the feeling of nature, is undermined by the process. Uncommon landscapes create unusual experiences. As there are limits to the visual culture that each of us has stored within us, those who see in such landscapes the allure of a new territory and find their imaginations stimulated by them are rare. For we must admit that our nervous system has borne the brunt of the aggression caused by this senseless augmentation and this 
absurd inversion. Upon closer inspection, it is clear that information has proliferated without offering any new insights. This is irritating. In the final analysis, the viewer seeks above and beyond all else to identify with the image. We love nothing more than “to understand,” “to puzzle out,” “to explain.” These pseudo-tests shatter the synthetic idea of the existence of a great whole. In offering up a grotesque form of the panoramic vision, inverted distribution destroys the culture of the harmonious whole.

Nonetheless, this discretely bounded territory appears to hold within itself signs both visible and invisible. Like all forms of representation, it possesses hidden structures. If we acknowledge that the act of recognition is the direct result of an internalised 
action, the ruse that is photography can only be seen as an aberration. Our bodies, habituated to repeated actions and used to certain perceptions of space, cannot move in this twinning anomaly. Pinning down a random phenomenon—the perfect conjunction of the mirror effect—has the effect of clouding the traditional structures for apprehending one’s environment. By rejecting the effect of several centuries of imaginary perspective, and by jettisoning the landscape tradition, these little unassuming images disorient us and make us lose our footing. The realist hypothesis and its naturalist progeny collapse, along with their incessant concern to provide order and stability to the project of organising nature. What was imposed on photography by painting then withdraws, tail between its legs, in favour of an event as potential as fleeting, and as purposeless as it is real. But if it is not, in fact, knowledge that is called upon to emerge from this task, what is? What might come out of this observation? The rationalist machine—with its conception of visual space perceived from a unique point of view—having broken down and the blind faith in illusionist reproduction having been rejected, what is, then, the nature of the enigma?

The construction of images of this type falls into the domain of the ludic. Only enthusiasts have a taste for that which is purposeless in photography. Which is not at all to say that this “purposelessness” might be merely anecdotal or sterile. In wanting to concentrate on the fragment and in searching for the discriminating detail, the perceptual object loses its originality. The only choice left to the scrupulous scrutiniser is to look for perfect similarity. Small-scale images, moreover, do not lend themselves well to detailed examination. Assembling the two parts causes a peripheral zone to dissociate from a central one, the dark stain. This stain concentrates retinal stimulation on its outline and on its proportions. In the final analysis, the image will be of interest to its capturer only on condition that it stand out in a contrastive way. Visual deformation—the ends of the photographic operation—has no other goal than to triumph over nature. Such is the true form of the “Pencil of Nature”! No longer do we seek to capture the soul in a boulder, or to discover wandering shades in the forest. An alarmed Novalis refuses the affront to his dignity; nature is an abstract construction! The distancing of the subject by this “collage” is a direct consequence of precision as well as of the effect of flattening of tonality. This world is composed of just one substance, devoid of depth and fruit of reflection. It offers to the eye only the possibility of chance and of pleasure.

We cannot, then, enter into this other space. It is impenetrable. And should we want to shed some light on it—which, let us repeat, would be a vain exercise—let’s leave it to the poets to do so. For only they can guide us though the domain of the non-
sensory. Novelty never resorts to the vocabulary of psychology. We cannot uncover the subjectivity of being or its basic functioning. The incoherent image is an internalised performance of an optical illusion which expresses itself unambiguously and which thereby refuses its own interpretation. If the image is undecodable, language declines to submit to analysis.
However much we study them, we will not manage to glean from these photographic meanderings an unconscious thinking that might be wending its way through us. We are not flushing from its lair a savage and pre-logical form of thought liable to call forth new intuitions.
Only a Swiss-German psychiatrist could have imagined that an ink blot might conceal so many secret meanings. Oedipal and fantastical conflict and perversions, as well as the summoned father, mother, and child all spring forth from these spidery representations. Excreted from a Pandora’s Box, their names spurt out, sonorous and resounding.

On the other hand, these images make us aphasic. We free ourselves from the tyranny of the word “right” or “true.” Our hearty laughter keeps the clinician and his buried truth at bay. The happiness of these images lies in the way in which they trouble the descriptive order. Finally, to remain silent! Why not concede that there’s not a great deal to say and that intelligence remains flabbergasted? Our attentive awareness must accept that a surprising imagination might take a light form.

Chance is the great organising principle of a photographic recreation based on symmetry, as well as traditional geometrical order and its relationship to random shapes. The apparent harmony of repetition is constantly upended by roughness. And our attention is regularly maintained by these arrows of excitement. The image is hardy. It comes to life to the beat of an oscillograph. Studied from a horizontal perspective, it measures heartbeats and records market fluctuations or volume levels. Such subtle amusements seek only to arouse our senses.

Assuming that these images are read vertically, thus becoming unintentional Rorschach tests, mischievous photographers do not aim to assess the creativity of the viewer. They make no claim to probe his intelligence. These photographic amusements are made above all else for their designer. They are orphaned images that we collect today and to which we would like to assign a meaning at whatever price. For what’s at stake is not the modern viewer’s psyche, but rather that of the taker of the image.

This image taker is alone in projecting himself into this new and carefully constructed world. Where test professionals see ambiguity in ten photographic plates brought together, the photographer who is fascinated by his object of study multiplies them at great length. What the psychologist constructed by folding is, for the photographer, a gift of the snapshot, a possibility afforded by the medium. Nothing is forbidden to him. When the psychologist sees the incest taboo well up, the photographer, thrilled and satisfied, masters the exposure time necessary for a successful shot. He barely needs to price his answers; being confident of his identity, he awaits patiently the right moment. The man with a camera expects nothing other from his art than the perfect result of his landscape excursion. He quests after the perfect fold line and, to achieve it, is a firm believer in attractive mirrors of calm water and counts on an even level of lighting.
The anxiety of the psychological profile emanating from the Rorschach Test is countered by the comforting satisfaction inherent in a well executed photograph. Should we be concerned for the mental health of an amateur photographer who prefers such idle pursuits to producing portraits of his family? Quite the contrary. In fulfilling this supposedly futile need, the photographer goes beyond the perceptual norm. In a word, he super-sees.
He has no need to put into words this unusual vision. He thus has no reason to have recourse to a third party therapist. In pressing the shutter release, he places himself above his fellow humankind. He becomes the organiser of a new order—the founder, even, of another cosmos. If he suffers, it is from the rules governing photography. Landscape conventions bore him. He wants to turn his back on the painters’ arsenal and on their standards. Here right way round is as good as reverse, and everything is topsy-turvy. The world takes the form of a tarot game when the photographer humbly sees himself as a Lewis Carroll. He sends Paolo Uccello packing along his vanishing lines and flings the Photo Club of Paris back to its artistic pretensions and modern commentators to their astonishment.

To flee balance by embracing symmetry: this remarkable paradox—this epistemological rupture—is a photographic event, granted, but all things considered, one which does not concern it alone.
In these cheerful daffodils one can observe an entire performance—defined, unitary—which has no other meaning than the domestication of technical skill and the domination of nature. Mastering the photographic subject and developing a relationship to a camera are a form of authority over the environment and a positive representation of oneself. Enthusiast creators go limp before the exterior world because they make it up. In what is, ultimately, mere recreation, this rare attitude confirms one of the characteristics of the modern technical act, namely the power of intentionality and the inventiveness of the free act.

Born in 1954, François Cheval was trained as a historian and an ethnologist and has been a museum curator since 1982, initially in the Jura region and later on the island of Réunion. Since 1996, he has directed the Nicéphore Niépce Museum in Chalon-
sur-Saône. In this role, he strives to free photography of its preconceptions and to present the originality of the photographic endeavour through a rejuvenated curatorial approach. In particular, he has organised several well received retrospectives devoted to such figures as Denis Roche, John Batho, Gérard Collin-Thiébaut, Peter Knapp, Mac Adams, and Raoul Coutard. He also promotes a younger and more exacting photographic style, evident in the work of such figures as Elina Brotherus, J.H. Engström, Claire Chevrier, Antoine d’Agata, Charles Fréger, and Rapha​ël Dallaporta.