Júlio de Matos Photography

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FLAT WATER (2007 - 2009)


TOWARDS A PRATICAL SEMIOLOGY OF THE IMAGE

There is something deeply threatening in this new series of photographs by Júlio Alexandre de Matos. It is something that we cannot put our finger on straight away, something that is not immediately comprehensible. Let us then try to understand it as we tread the unsettled and unsettling terrain of his images.

Starting, then, from the beginning. Júlio de Matos’ career, throughout more than 25 years of work, has focused successively on two axes which have singled him out as an author, all the more so because he is capable of reconciling them coherently: I refer, on the one hand, to his great capacity to, formally, completely master his own medium – photography and all its technical and even technological forms – and, on the other hand, to his parallel capacity to progress inside the very processes of experimentation in the photographic field.

That is to say, if on the one hand Júlio de Matos has never abdicated from treating what, in his own historic time, could place him on the side of a certain classicism, the fact is that, without by this undoing that knot of relationships that organise themselves as style, he has managed to move away a sense of academicism from this focus, by the fact that he has never given up inventing new ways of thinking about photography from his constantly renewed technical abilities. And, above all, because he did so without bringing those two axes into conflict which, in his already vast body of work, combine and prove increasingly capable of becoming, while combined, the hallmarks of a personal signature style.

Clearly, we are living in a period in which photography has come close to art, and in such a way that this closeness has made its understanding difficult within the narrow confines of what was formerly known as straight photography. The way in which Júlio de Matos has worked, all through his career, has never moved him away from a very clear awareness of the technical possibilities of photography.

Contrary to the tendency in certain German photography, for example, whose increasingly inexpressionist meaning has placed it alongside a certain way of understanding inexpressionism typical of contemporary art – I refer to the Becher couple, but also to Thomas Struth and Tomas Ruff – in the case of our author, what he has always been about was leaving open the possibility of giving an expressive character to the photographic, without evading this temptation: from the beauty of a landscape to the intensity of the blue of the sky, or to the will itself to continue using the camera as an instrument for capturing a moment.

In this sense, Júlio de Matos has not escaped the capacity of photography to remain within the photographic in its most classical sense. But, similarly, comparing it with certain aspects of the new American photography – I’m thinking of Richard Prince or Nan Golding – his images do not diverge either towards an expressivism that would submerge them in the realm of a use capable of serving irony or social exposure.

Calm and collected, even contained in the way he operates his unyielding observation of the real, Matos has remained true to what, in a photograph, is, above all, the ability to surprise things such as they are, more interested in the way the light plays on the perception than in the detours from the photographic into the realm of the expressive.

In this way, his images relate more, if we care to liken them to something in other work, to a kind of objective and, at the same time, dispersive documentarism, such as we find in the work of Fischl and Weiss. But also, and unlike these, what this work is about is much more encountering something that is essential to the photographic, rather than searching for what would come from the dispersive nature of the images itself.

And it is perhaps in this new series, in my view, the most daring by the photographer up to now, that he demonstrates more clearly what motivates him in photography: above all, his ability to remain, as I mentioned earlier, true to a certain objective gaze with regard to the photograph itself – take the way that, in one of these pictures, he photographs the contrasts between the coloured buoys that make a diagonal on the texture of the water and the chromatic intensity of its blueness. But, also, and as I also mentioned earlier, the way that this sensibility in relation to colour and line that he has just caught in reality not only does not forbid him from distancing himself from it, but also seems to even stimulate him to demonstrate the way in which this distance, compositional more than anything else, can become visible.

It is thus that the introduction of open white lines on the image itself, as if black and white were re-introduced through them into the heart of the colour to break up any semblance of naturalism, serves above all to sever this lingering on what would be a naïve gaze precisely to reinforce the constructive idea that seems to be before and after the whole image.

It is also thus that the introduction of four orthogonals of Mondrianesque recollection in another picture, as if they demarcated the visual field, moves us away from the perceptive relationships codified by naturalism, to suddenly introduce the notion of construction that inevitably is always prior to gazing. Or that, on rippling water, the introduction of four corners that re-centre the image, allowing us an estrangement, of an almost Brechtian nature, from the calm beauty of the image itself. Or like, still in another, two orthogonals break up a series of circles that the waters have drawn on the sand. More radically still, when, on a mirror-like surface of water swiftly overflown by a bird, the introduction of some hatched lines undoes all the lyricism that the image would apparently summon in normal circumstances.

But this presence of lines that reinforce the sense and the perception itself of a constructive dimension, intrinsic to the very image, does not only serve this purpose but introduces, unexpectedly, a signic dimension that re-forms our own understanding of what an image is, as a set of codes that we repeat incessantly.

A triangle, a circle, a line or a set of lines that are inserted into a given image suddenly allow us to re-introduce a perceptive distance that opens up to us another zone of understanding that oscillates between humour and the semiotic drive. That is, between a certain desire to smile, that derives straight from the way in which it demonstrates the organisation of the internal lines of a given image (almost like Jacques Tati in his marvellous Play Time) and the understanding that each image affects us much more for the fact that the plane in which it is drawn is a complex code of signals whose global understanding suddenly becomes for us a process of analytical attention.

And it is, I believe, this very strong semiological drive that runs through the pictures of Júlio Alexandre de Matos that, from their depths, makes them so perturbing and, as I began by saying, somehow threatening. I refer to the way in which a subtle dislocation from the visual to the optical happens internally, I mean, to the more concrete plane of perception itself. Reintroducing into the field of the photographic the distinction between form and substance and thus producing a strongly abstractive process.

Notable work, this, that gives us a profound lesson on the difficult road of seeing.

Feb. 2009
Bernardo Pinto de Almeida
Writer, Lecturer in History and Theory of Art at Oporto University


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