BETWEEN TWO WORLDS: RICARDO CISNEROS, 2011
Cloth Hard Cover
12 x 12 x 1"
Text: Raul Zamudio
Editor: Juan Luque
Art direction & design: Monika Bravo
©TWO LEAVES EDITIONS, MONIKA BRAVO & JUAN LUQUE, 2012. All rights reserved
Between Two Worlds, is a journey into the depths of luscious, vivid aquatic canvases and features the photographs of Ricardo Cisneros and an extended essay written by NY critic Raul Zamudio. The book, conceived by Juan Luque and designed by Monika Bravo, was printed and bound in Italy.
Poseidon’s Messenger: The Art of Ricardo Cisneros
by Raul Zamudio
The history of underwater photography ostensibly parallels its terrestrial sibling. What differentiated the two, however, was the absence of technology allowing someone to venture beneath the sea for a period of time. This problem was exacerbated by the generally nascent state of photography; for the medium was at its infancy when the first attempt was made to photographically capture marine life underwater. The concept of the diving bell was known as far back to Aristotle; but it would not be until some 20 years after the first aboveground picture created in 1825, that William Bauer took the first underwater photographs through the porthole of his newly invented maritime transportation: the submarine. Before this, knowledge of underwater life was limited to that of marine animals used for sustenance or those real and fictional sea creatures that fueled the imaginary including the starfish, sea turtle, shark, giant squid, whale, and an array of mythic beings and monsters. To be sure, the layperson’s interest in Poseidon’s world and its photographic reproduction was piqued by literature including Jules Verne's 20,000 Leagues under the Sea (1869). But what may have reeled the public even more was what underwater photography embodied that was rarely found in pictures that were terrestrially taken. Even Bauer’s awkward early attempts or William Thomson’s images of seaweed from 1856 were imbued with this special quality referred to as art’s “aura.” The reason for this strange, bewitching magnetism holds true then as it does now: the splendor of peering into a whole other world beneath the sea affected the viewing public of the past like pictures taken of outer space mesmerize us today.
Similar to early underwater imagery, photographic renderings of city and country, urbanity and pristine nature such as Louis Daguerre’s Boulevard Du Temple (1839) and later on Timothy O’ Sullivan’s late nineteenth-century landscapes, were not considered artworks at the time of their manufacture. Daguerre’s masterpiece taken from a rooftop overlooking the famous boulevard whose name originates with the mysterious Knights Templar, captures what appears to be a vacant Paris; the exception being are the two individuals who remained still for the 15 minute exposure time needed to record their presence. Daguerre’s inspiration for the iconic picture, now considered to be the first photograph to include actual people, was to publicize his magical invention to the world- at-large. To a lesser or greater degree, the same thing could be said of Timothy O’Sullivan’s ethereal landscapes. O’Sullivan first came to prominence as an “operator”—which was the historical term used for photographer—in Matthew Brady’s New York studio. Brady garnered much attention documenting Civil War destruction and casualty: burned out buildings of battle torn Richmond, Virginia and mangled corpses of both Confederate and Union soldiers were just some of the more famous imagery that he and his operators became known for. But it was O’Sullivan’s post-Brady photographic assignment for the United States Geological Exploration of the Fortieth Parallel that cemented his place in the annals of his chosen media. His survey pictures of unexplored lands in the western U.S. were unmatched in their sublime beauty. Yet like Daguerre, O’Sullivan’s photographs were not considered works of art but documentation of the natural world. It was not until the emergence of the Pictorialists in the early 1890s and their manipulation of the lens and use of anomalous printing techniques that made a picture look more like painting, that photography was explored for its aesthetic potential.
Underwater photography’s artistic development, however, did not afford such relative progression from an ascendant technology that could record the world objectively to a vehicle for subjective, artistic expression. And this, moreover, may have had to do with the altogether newness of its subject matter. After Bauer’s submarine pictures and Thomson’s photographs of seaweed, others soon followed, including Ernst Bazin’s pictures taken from a diving bell (1860s); Edward Muybridge’s opaque and awkward underwater photographs from San Francisco (1870s); Louis Boutan’s underwater pictures from 1893 whose exposure time was excruciatingly slow; and, in 1927, the first underwater color pictures taken by Charles Martin and William H. Longely were published in National Geographic. Since then, what expedited underwater photography’s advancement were recording apparatuses, i.e. cameras as well as the invention of scuba diving. On the other hand, what seems to have hindered its expansion from a genre that documents in a rather straightforward manner the inherent beauty of the underwater world, to an art form on the level of its terrestrial counterpart, had to do with the inadvertent artistic limitations of those who engaged in it.
Now, in the twenty-first century, what can underwater photography show us when it seems that every inch of the aquatic world has been recorded by the medium. What is absolutely necessary for this particular practice to move beyond novelty is that it needs to acquire an artistic vocabulary akin to other photographic genres. Portraiture went through myriad transformations to where now there is a variegated formal and conceptual history underscored, for instance, in the works of Andres Serrano and his pictures of homeless people; Rineke Dijkstra’s full-length studies of youth emitting the natural awkwardness of puberty; and the psychologically revealing frontal portraits by Thomas Ruff. But not only within the register of portraiture has thematic diversity been attained, but also in landscape as well: think of Andreas Gursky or Joel Sternfeld, to name just two. Even the still-life picture has been updated within a contemporary context exemplified in the work of Robert Mapplethorpe and others. Thus, could underwater photography attain a similar level of formal and conceptual transformation, or will the genre be limited to what can only be seen and documented, amounting to the aquatic equivalent of nature photography however sublime and beautiful? One such artist/photographer who has met this challenge with verve and finesse is Ricardo Cisneros.
Ricardo Cisneros’ underwater photography reworks the contours of the genre; his pictures transcend and aspire to something beyond highly aesthetic renderings of the world beneath the sea. To be sure, his photographic acumen reveals a sophisticated mastery and technique. This is evidenced in the way his compositions coalesce from disparate elements into a unified formal structure that evince subtle, conceptual underpinnings. For Cisneros’ pictures in general run the gamut of aesthetic affinities with other artistic practices that they deftly absorb: some works are nuanced with an almost painterly métier, while others veer into the sculptural as well as the cinematic. One work, for example, is a close-up of a school of fish swimming right to left. Their scales are a palette of yellow that appear like streaks that play off their light, bluish bodies. It could be argued, however, that this is the species’ natural coloring, but it is Cisneros’ intervention that transforms them from a creation of nature to a creation of art. Although it appears that the artist has captured this elegant mass of fish by happenstance, on closer inspection is revealed an almost designer’s eye for placement between figure and ground that works in counterpoint fashion. The triangulation of movement, color, and depth/ surface seems to create visual palpitations before our very eyes. Here, as in other works, Cisneros uses nature as both the subject of his art as well as it paradoxically being the vehicle that gives it form. Like a painter who deploys color and mark-making across a canvas’ surface, each individual fish congeal into a collective where the parts are more than the sum and vice versa. The fish that cut horizontally across the picture plane, for instance, almost feel like brushstrokes. Another amazing aspect of this particular picture is how Cisneros is able to manifest a high level of artistry beyond the naturalism of his subject matter. It’s not that he is anthropomorphizing what he is photographing, but manages to amplify the innate characteristic of this specific species of fish as well as the school’s plural yet singular directional flow. Obviously the photograph is ontologically static, but Cisneros is able to infuse it with dynamism by virtue of placement as well as subtle cropping. His ability to seemingly work as a kind of director, where nature becomes his actors in an organic, primeval script improvised by his protagonists, is ever so clear in another work that also captures a school of fish in its chaotic and graceful surge.
In this case, however, Cisneros takes a different vantage point in picturing his models: he photographs the spiraling vortex of fish from underneath looking up to the sunlight of day beyond and above the sea. As such, there are some interesting dichotomies elaborated in this composition: the most poignant being the terrestrial world on one end and the artist/ photographer on the other, as well as the sunlight and camera that serve as formal/conceptual bookends to the fish in between. When the register above the sea is pictorially cited and absorbed by Cisneros into his imagery, one cannot avoid the subtle meanings they evoke. The narrative underpinnings of this work in the age of environmental disaster, reside in the picture’s margins like ever present plankton that permeates the sea but not detectable to the naked eye. While Cisneros’ works are always charged with a kind of primal beauty as if we are witness to some underwater utopia unsoiled by humanity, there is nonetheless a dystopian undercurrent in some works that one cannot elide regarding recent cataclysmic environmental disasters: BP oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico, and subsequent harm to marine life due to pollutants and so forth. This is the subtext of this picture where the other world above the sea comes into the artist’s purview. By the same token, in another photograph Cisneros literally captures both worlds simultaneously by keeping the lens halfway underwater and the other half focused on the terrestrial world above it.
The picture is not only an incredible image of both worlds, but he alludes to the symbiosis and holistic nature of the two environments that are inseparable. Whereas other artists may use more candid and even forceful imagery to convey the fragility and interconnectedness of the terrestrial and aquatic domains, Cisneros blindsides us with visual poetics where his picture is concomitantly what it is and so much more. Pictures such as this one that hint at the terrestrial world and its machinations, carry with them extraneous meanings about aquatic environmental endangerment; yet, Cisneros never succumbs to a kind of ecologically political didacticism. One can see the parallel of this type of commentary in other artists who have used flora and fauna to cipher through them questions of an eco-political nature: Mark Dion and his sculptural installations of taxidermy animals, for example, become reflexive commentary on nature’s extinction as well as the role of urban encroachment on wildlife. Regardless of the subtle narratives of Cisneros’ works that corral two worlds into one, there is a formal power engendered through the picture’s tactility and attendant sculptural dimension.
Sculpture first and foremost has phenomenological presence, but its tangibility equally manifests through space that it occupies as well as the negative space immediately surrounding it. Water, unlike air, has by nature more density in that it is visibly present through the movement of fish as well as plants, coral, and so forth. In short, flora and fauna are engulfed in it; as such, water has material form and detectable in creatures who live in it as opposed to, for example, a bird that flies in the sky. This is something that Cisneros acknowledges and incorporates in his work with the greatest aplomb. But not only does he exploit the ambiance of water as aesthetic strategy that is part and parcel of his formal methodology, but in this case the luminous void or the light at the end of tunnel is a signifier of another universe altogether. In this sense, it can be construed that Cisneros utilizes light here to allude to something almost metaphysical as Lucio Fontana did with his puncturing and slashing of his canvases and the exposure of negative space. Whereas Fontana inflicted violence on the surface of his paintings in order to explore as formal element the space underneath the canvas and its support wall, Cisneros conceptually tropes sunlight as narrative device rather than using it solely as compositional element. The range of what Cisneros achieves in this work and others is truly astonishing. He easily moves between different registers of artistic articulation. While both works that capture schools of fish are representational and one seems to be more painterly and the other sculptural, Cisneros also veers into what can only be called a kind of abstracted aesthetic in his investigation of the surfaces of marine life via extreme close-ups.
It is often difficult to surmise what it is one is looking at in these photographs due to their relative abstraction, though the artist affords the viewer transitional works that progressively veer away from the strictly mimetic to the exceedingly amorphous. This is achieved by pushing his imagery right up to the picture plane subsequently transforming a large mass into the microscopic; in fact, the surface is so magnified that it comes short of appearing molecular. Here, then, Cisneros moves away from strictly a kind of representational photography to one of that is abstracted if not wholly non-representational. One photograph, for example, consists of a clam or other form of shellfish that is in the extreme foreground making it a challenge to ascertain its subject matter. Adamantly textural, physical yet overwhelmingly optical, this picture is akin to the quasi abstraction of the photographer Minor White, for example. Some of White’s imagery includes ocean tides cutting across the surface of sand. Because the emphasis is placed on the contrast between water, foam, and pristine beach, the work teeters between representation and pure abstraction seemingly coming close to a kind of Op Art photograph. There are many works in Cisneros oeuvre that embody this aesthetic: from close-ups of fish and flora, as well as myriad barnacles and crustaceans; the latter even seem to be so magnified to be hallucinatory in that there is even a kind of oscillation, albeit briefly, between something microcosmic and macrocosmic. It is this concomitant attention to minutiae as well as the panoramic that reveals Cisneros’ cinematographic eye. The works’ cinematic dimension is testament to Cisneros’ artistic intelligence and imagination: for he is as interested in taking beautiful and unique photographs of the underwater world as he is in their composition making him akin to a painter who uses color, texture, saturation, modeling and so forth on a canvas. But, as was stated earlier, Cisneros is also very cognizant of water as a fluid form of space, in both its negative and positive guises that creates dialectic of movement and stasis. He is well aware of water’s materiality and uses it like a sculptor would matter and the space that surrounds it.
In absorbing the aesthetic of a cinematographer, sculptor, and painter and ciphering it through his chosen media, Cisneros is making us rethink underwater photography as an art form all its own. As the medium’s technology advances, so must its artistic development in order to parallel what is practiced above ground. Ricardo Cisneros is the consummate photography who has evinced this through his works’ seemingly endless formal permutations. In doing so, he conveys many things to us about the world beneath the sea including its beauty and fragility, but also that the artistic future of underwater photography is as open as the sea is wide.