Life, Love and Death: The work of Adam Fuss Essay

This essay has a total of 2577 words and 10 pages.

Life, Love and Death: The work of Adam Fuss

Life, Love and Death: The work of Adam Fuss

Peanut butter and jelly, a common combination of two separate entities, most people have
heard of this duo, many enjoy it, but only one manufacturer packaged them together in a
handy snack. Much like the tasty treat that is Goobers is the tasty duo of Adam Fuss and
Roland Barthes. Two separate men, Adam Fuss and Roland Barthes put together in one
reading, complementing and accentuating each other. Fuss and Barthes, they share an
interest in photography, they share an interest in the foundation and principles of
photography, more over they share an interest in photography that is deeply personal. Fuss
takes the camera out of photography. Barthes takes photography out of art. Both men want
to get to the essence of what a photograph is, one by thinking and writing about it and
one by doing it. In this paper I will show how Adam Fuss' work matches up with and
demonstrates the ideas of Barthes' in Camera Lucida. I will look at one body of work at a
time and show which parts of Barthes' ideas are present in the work, in its creation and
its theory. I will start with his first professional body of work, move through to his
most recent work and then look back to some of his childhood pictures. Whether Barthes'
ideas actually influenced Fuss' work I am not sure of, I have not found any text or
interview that leads me to believe that it is, however I would not be surprised if it has.

Camera Lucida was Roland Barthes' last written piece, published posthumously in 1980. This
book deals with the topic of photography and the death of Barthes' mother in 1977. The
role of photography is questioned; he asks what about photography makes it a valid media?
We read about the operator (the photographer), spectrum (the subject) and spectator (the
viewer), also about the studium (what we see in the photograph) and the punctum (the
unclassifiable, the thing that makes the photograph important to the viewer). According to
Barthes the photograph is an adventure for the viewer, but it is ultimately death, the
recording of something that will be dead after the picture is taken. This idea is the main
focus of Barthes' writing, the photograph "that-has-been", in Latin "interfuit: what I see
has been here, in this place which extends between infinity and the subject; it has been
here, and yet immediately separated; it has been absolutely, irrefutably present, and yet
already deferred" (Barthes, 76). This topic of life and death in photography is what
connects Barthes with Fuss and makes Fuss' work easier to understand.

"The Photograph's essence is to ratify what it represents" (Barthes, 1981, 85). This idea
is the foundation upon which Adam Fuss has built his career. From childhood to his most
recent works Fuss has created photographs that are statements of being. These photographs
do not hide what they are; they are bold in their content, yet subtle in creation and
meaning. The theme of life and death is woven into the whole of Adam Fuss' work, in his
earliest childhood photographs, his early pinhole camera prints and his extensive body of
photograms. This theme seeps into his work through the method as well as the material,
through the studium and the punctum (Barthes, 26).

If the photograph's essence is to ratify what it represents, then the photogram's essence
is to ratify what it is. The photogram, by its nature is an index of a thing; there is a
one to one ratio between the subject and the photogram. There is no way to enlarge or
reduce the size of a photogram because each piece is unique, unlike camera and film
photography that can be reproduced without end. Fuss' early photograms, made between 1988
and 1992, deal with water and its movement, rippling water, a few beads, a bucket of water
crashing down on the paper surface and the wake of a snake's movement. Water is not only a
symbol of life, but the water in these photograms is in motion, alive in its activity. An
untitled triptych made in 1991 is composed of three separate photograms of water crashing
onto the paper's surface, next to these in Fuss' 2003 catalogue is a piece entitled Arc
(1988) which is composed of three ripples stretching to the edges of the paper with
several tightly clustered concentric ripples in the center. These pieces comment on the
same idea, the death of the motion. The viewer sees the record of the water, but we know
that it is gone; the motion ended a few seconds after it began. Similarly the snake
photograms of 1988 and 1998 record the movement of a snake in water. The snakes are now
dead; their wake is no longer rippling outward. We cannot create the moment again, or make
a copy of the photogram because it is a unique piece that has no negative to reproduce; it
is Barthes' interfuit.

In 1992 Fuss began his Details of Love series, his most controversial work to date.
Featuring rabbit entrails these pieces resemble the action paintings of Jackson Pollock,
their abstract content and vibrant colors create dynamic compositions that are very
appealing. Fuss places the fresh entrails of a rabbit onto the photographic paper and lets
the composition sit for a few days before exposing them. These photograms are made through
the chemical reactions of light on paper, but also through the enzymes and acids of the
entrails of his subjects reacting with the paper. Fuss first discovered this chemical
reaction when one of the snakes in his earlier work relieved itself on the paper and
created a bright orange streak when the paper was developed. This method places Fuss' work
in alignment with Barthes' idea that photography is not an art of the camera obscura but
of the chemical process. Photography is not like painting and drawing where the artist can
manipulate and create freely through time, photography is a whole other being where
through chemical reactions one can capture an exact moment in time visually. Fuss takes
this one step further and not only does he capture the image, that is to say the light
bouncing off of the subject, but the subject itself captures its image through its direct
interaction with the paper. Fuss captures the death of the animal, and the death of the
photograph as an active participant in the decay of an animal. Through this the viewer is
left with a work of art that, while brightly colored and vibrant, is deeply contemplative.
The viewer contemplates the rabbits, their gift of themselves for the piece. In one piece,
entitled Love (1992), the rather common animals are laid out, facing one another with
their entrails creating a "tree of life" (Kellein, 2002, 14) around them in rich purples,
golds and reds. Their images are unfocused; they seem to be slipping out of our sight, a
comment on the fragility of life and the solitude of death.

This idea of solitude and death is most readily seen in Fuss' series entitled My Ghost.
The images of baby clothes, weeping women and birds in flight have a cool, detached
feeling, yet their delicacy and their connections to Fuss' childhood create a narrative
that captures the sadness and solitude, perhaps not of death, but of the passing through
life to death. The baby clothes sit in a solid black field and appear like x-rays of the
garments. The delicacy of the embroidery and the seams give structure to the gauzy,
translucent fabric that appears to float above the paper. Fuss' father made high-fashion
ladies coats and may have made these clothes for Fuss as an infant. When Fuss was two
years old his father suffered a stroke that left him in need of constant care and in 1968
his father died when Fuss was seven years old. These pieces of clothing may be one
reminder of Fuss' father, a symbol of his childhood spent with a very sick father. As a
result of his father's death Fuss' mother moved back to her native country, Australia, and
brought Adam with her. After a brief stay they moved back to England where Fuss was more
comfortable. His grieving mother often brought clairvoyants into their house in an attempt
to contact her deceased husband, this belief in mysticism greatly affected Fuss, opening
another world to him as a child. My Ghost feels mystical, Fuss' baby clothes have a
ghostly aura, they float in a black void and resemble Kirlian photographs, where one can
supposedly visually capture the life force and phantom limbs of inanimate objects.

The weeping women in the series glow, their hot white mass seems to contradict their
sorrowful poses, hunched over, head in hands. Perhaps this is the way Fuss remembers his
mother, the widow with a small child desperately trying to contact her deceased husband
looking for comfort. The women in these pieces are faceless, unidentifiable; the viewer
cannot connect to these pieces through recognition of a face or personality. We have no
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