What is a photograph? Literally, "drawing with light." Another way to think of a photograph, then, is simply an image that is made without the direct intervention of human hands. With this view, our thoughts about the first photograph slide right past the 1800s and into a much older category of image—the divine and the miraculous "acheiropoieta"—icons that were "made without hands." Well before Niépce, the idea of producing an image without human intervention was considered a miracle. The most famous such image is the Shroud of Turin, one of the most carefully dissected images in human history. Discounting divine explanations, this object has been called a wonderfully preserved medieval photograph.
It feels fitting that El Greco, the pioneering 16th-century painter, chose to depict this object in his painting, St. Veronica with the Holy Shroud. El Greco's life-long mission was to convey the invisible (the divine, the holy, the spiritual) through visible means—his paintings. Besides employing fascinatingly subjective perspectives and unusual methods of representing the human body, he also painted with an otherworldly color palette. Much as color photographers had to struggle to establish themselves in the 20th century, El Greco was a lonely pioneer in his use of vibrant colors in the 16th century.
El Greco's influence continues to be felt today in the exhibition ToledoContemporánea. 12 world-famous photographers, ranging from Philip-Lorca diCorcia to Rinko Kawauchi and David Maisel were commissioned by the international art institution Ivorypress to create contemporary views of the ancient, mystical city of Toledo. Their only assignment was to produce their own photographic interpretation of the city—a tall task given that the place carries a centuries-long tradition of iconographic representations.
The resulting works are diverse and fascinating. Many show direct inspiration from El Greco while other feel more generally inspired by the same mystical, undefinable source that spurred the painter. The quotations of El Greco are stunning but imaginative: from Shirin Neshat's black and white portraits to Vik Muniz's cubist landscapes, they speak both to El Greco's wide-ranging influence but also each photographer's distinct practice. Other series, such as Rinko Kawauchi's, Flore-aël Surun's or Philip-Lorca diCorcia's, are less direct but draw on the same veins—light, shadow and the invisible divine.
In the exhibition, hosted at San Marcos church, the atmosphere was enthralling. From Michael Rovner's monumental video (see below), to Abelardo Morell's vibrant cityscapes, the church felt alive with ideas and inspiration. In print, the magazine C-Photo (also published by Ivorypress) dedicated an entire issue to serving as the exhibition's catalogue. Whether in the exhibition itself or in the catalogue, the works not only remind us of El Greco's genius but create crackling contemporary dialogues. The catalogue does its best to convey the splendor of the exhibition, but the embodied ambience of a church is simply irreplaceable.
Nevertheless, ToledoContemporánea in all its forms presents a worthy model for contemporary art exhibitions. The works draw on rich traditions and recognize that they are merely continuing conversations that have been ongoing for centuries, but they also offer bold new practices and arresting glimpses of the present and the future.
Editor's Note: Ivorypress is a publishing house specializing in photography and contemporary art. It is based in Madrid, London and Switzerland. C Photo is an editorial project by Ivorypress that aims to stimulate debate around different trends in contemporary photography, whilst exploring the developments that have shaped the medium over the course of its history.