The blurring of photography.
On the “Clackastigmat 6.0” series by Oliver Möst
Out-of-focus photos are en vogue. They give an impression of blitheness and lightness, and also have something secretive about them. Now, there are hardly any commercials, advertising or corporate brochures, or even journalistic images without blur. While in the 1980s, blur was only used in photography to demonstrate speed, for example motion blur in sports photography, or for soft-focus effects in nude portraiture or landscape photography to convey romance and eroticism, perfect focus was a key criterion for standard applications. In an artistic context, photography was just starting its final victory march at that time: In 1972, photographs were exhibited at the “documenta” exhibition in Kassel (Germany) for the first time, and by the late 1970s or early 1980s at the latest it had found its place as a fully-fledged artistic medium in terms of exhibitions, the art market and publications. And, when in the 1980s colour prints with sizes over 180 cm became possible at last, photography was finally a serious competitor to painting. This not only gave it recognition for itself, but also changed the direction of painting, which, through the photorealism movement, first exhibited at “documenta” in 1972, had previously occupied a sector now taken over by the new technological possibilities provided by photography. There was no place, or at most a marginal role, for out-of-focus photography. A paradigm shift of this nature did not occur until the 1990s – with a few exceptions – in particular through the attempts of digital photography to attain perfection. Counter-movements such as lomography, whose key tenets were imperfection and randomness, spread rapidly. Playful variants, experiments and, as a result, intentional blurring were the consequence of this. The supposed ideal of perfection and objectivity was replaced by the ideal of immediacy and subjectivity.
Oliver Möst’s photographs are also radically subjective images. His “Clackastigmat 6.0” series consists entirely of blurred images. There is not a single in-focus photograph, nor is even a single detail of a photo in the series in focus. All of the images are “coated” with an even and extreme blur – like an impenetrable fog, i.e. defocused. At first, this greatly unsettles the observer. Of course, the photographs are not really of fog, on the contrary: it is clear that the sun is shining on most of the photographs – for example in all of the photographs taken outdoors. There is a natural, at times even glaring light and shadows are cast. There are even subjects that are inconceivable without the sun, e.g. beaches or the photographs of tourists. Some of the subjects are particularly happy, and – where visible – reveal a lightness, which – as already mentioned – correlates superlatively with the current strategies of blurring.
Oliver Möst has been taking photographs of beaches since 2003. However, it is difficult to identify subjects or even actions precisely: Is the pelican a real, live bird or only a dummy? Are those people really dancing along the beach? Who could ever reach that life buoy floating high in the air? How big is the swan really?
One year later, in 2004, Möst started his series of photographs of tour- ists. They are images of people who come in crowds. They form queues in crowds, they ride on tourist boats or busses in crowds, and they visit museums, swimming pools, monuments or important buildings in crowds. We perceive tourists as a uniform group, and are not interested in individuals in these crowds. But: Don’t you want to see who is waving at you from the boat? What is his or her facial expression? What is happening on the Marathon steps or in the Gellert swimming pool? Don’t we all enjoy observing individual actions in crowds? But Oliver Möst prevents us from seeing precisely these things. Everything remains blurred, as though we had let too much chlorine into our eyes in the swimming pool.
The still lives and photographs of people differ in both style and content. For these images, Oliver Möst chose a bare interior, a neutral, grey background, and positioned flowers and trophies, or had people pose in front of the background.
His series of still lives of flowers has something else in common: all of the arrangements are in the same unpretentious glass vase, which matches the grey background perfectly. However, the neutrality of the grey colour is in no way dull, as the flowers, however different they may be, whether five colourful gerberas, a single, white “innocent” lily or a bushy bunch of white flowers, give an impression of grace and beauty. Perfectly lit, the white light strikes the arrangements from the left, which creates soft shadows on the right of the image. They are perfect images which benefit from a blur that makes them even more elegant.
However, Möst does away with this beauty completely with the second series of still lives. Like the flower arrangements, he now places cups in the centre of the images. The trophies are of different types, whose disproportionate forms are highlighted by the blur. Due to the blur, viewers cannot read why the trophies were awarded. Having lost their content, only the shape remains, which is anything but award-winning design. They are crude vessels which were not designed for any material content, but symbols of a performance no longer identifiable in this context. Möst also makes conscious use of light again here. This time, there is no gentle side lighting; the trophies are lit neutrally from the front. While this does create a shining effect, the cup as a whole is presented neutrally against the grey background, without embedding it in the space. Since Möst’s childhood, these cups have been on his parents’ kitchen shelves. They are the trophies his father won for curling and playing the traditional card game, Sheepshead.
Oliver Möst also selected a neutral space for his full-body portraits. The room is illuminated so brightly that the people whom he poses in the centre almost disappear in the blinding light. Their contours dissolve and neither their faces nor their bodies are visible. You can just about see that the same person is naked on one photograph (displayed together on a double page) and is wearing a bathing suit or underwear in the other. Without their scant clothing, it would not always be possible to tell whether the subjects are female or male, so little can be seen of their bodies. In this context, blur has yet another function: naked bodies generally arouse desire in viewers; no- one wants to see a blurred image of a naked body, we want to be able to see it in detail. Blur is viewed as censorship, even here, although Möst does not photograph any of his models in ambiguous poses. For the most part, they are classic nude portraiture positions. The models stand upright; some rest their hands on their hips or cross them in front of their bodies. They vary their supporting leg and their free leg and – though we cannot see this precisely – have nothing sexy or provocative about them. They also appear to be looking directly into the camera, at the viewer, who, as a result of the blur, cannot return this glance, and thus the contact, due to the blur.
Two other series follow: The beach houses and the equestrian monuments, in which the blur highlights the shape of the respective subject. Möst photographed all of the beach houses from the land side, so that each background is characterised by the straight line of the blue sea horizon. In the centre of the images – like the still lives and portraits – colourful beach houses, characterised by their absurd architecture, are the subjects this time; small buildings, which obviously consist of only one room, but gener- ally have huge, mostly white lattice windows, whose size is in no relation to the tiny building. This makes them look like toys, reduced to their main features.
Of all his subjects, Möst uses the equestrian monuments to distance himself from his monumental treatment of the subjects. The monuments themselves were obviously posed enough for him, which led him to choose a different staging for these images. The statues are pictured from a range of distances and perspectives, for example from diagonally below, from behind, in the midst of bushes or from a great distance. Möst seldom emphasises the actual display side. The generally heroic pose of the rider in question, who was surely a famous hero or ruler, is thus thwarted and the representation of their power is subverted. The historic context, the person or the event which is to be commemorated is no longer clearly visible, or can only be remembered by viewers who are already familiar with the monument.
Beach scenes, tourists, flower arrangements, full-body portraits, cups or monuments: For his “Clackastigmant 6.0” series, Möst selected subjects with mostly positive associations – or, as he says, subjects which have been “photographed to death”. They are either presented neutrally against a grey background or in bright sunlight. In spite of this, the images are not posi- tive, as their key feature is the extreme blur used, which many viewers could find unpleasant. It is not the casual blur we are familiar with from advertising photographs, and which gives an impression of a pleasant flair, something secretive or special, but a blur, which we – possibly with the exception of the flower still lives – perceive as an obstacle to our need to see, as a restriction. The evenness of the blur is probably the reason for the unsettling feeling. The familiar, standard methods of blurring in photography, methods to which our eye has long since become accustomed, are blur, motion blur or overexposure. In these applications, there are always transitions from in- focus to out-of-focus, which show dynamism and approximate our natural vision.
These transitions are completely absent from Oliver Möst’s photographs. What is his method, what is he trying to do? His approach for this series is to make viewers experience his own sight impairment, as Möst is extremely short-sighted. His right spectacle lens corrects his eyesight to 6.0 dioptres. Without visual aids, he is completely helpless. If he removes his glasses he sees the world as shown in this series. To share his experience he uses a camera, in which he has installed his right spectacle lens permanently. Viewers of his images take on the visual impairment of the photographer, which results in a radical transfer of subjectivity. This also explains the title of the series: “Clackastigmat 6.0”. It is made up of the name of this camera “AGFA Clack”, and his sight impairment “astigmatism with 6.0 dioptres”. Fitting a spectacle lens to a camera lens is unique and explains the blur, which we find unpleasant. In spite of positive subjects and sunlight, these pictures make us feel that the blur results from a shortcoming.
Möst’s other photo series are also highly personal representations of the environment. For example, the “Audigraphs”, in which he used his old Audi 80 as a tripod for roughly two minute exposures using a pinhole camera without a lens. This creates blur, which however – depending on the speed of motion – contains transitions between the different degrees of motion blur. The objective is to present his own private perception of everyday car journeys in which the stationary environment dissolves to motion blur. Möst’s “PenParamat” series contains images taken with an old half frame camera from the 1970s, which allowed 72 exposures to be made on a 36 exposure roll of 35 mm film, which show fragmentary excerpts of his travels. He also uses blur here, but this time in gradual nuances. The extreme blur, which threatens to drive viewers mad, as they cannot suppress their desire for focus, only occurs in the “Clackastigmat 6.0” photographs.
Thus, Oliver Möst works with blur at a time in which it is extremely fashionable, both in art photography and in advertising and journalistic photography. However, in contrast to this perfected high-tech world, he experiments with a range of low-tech techniques and searches for methods to allow viewers to experience his subjective vision. In this, blur always plays an important part. It varies from a pleasant blur in gradual nuances to a disturbing kind (extremely so in his “Clackastigmat 6.0” images). This unsettling effect is heightened when you learn of the photographer’s shortsightedness which forms the basis for the method.