Øivind Storm Bjerke

Geir M. Brungot’s photographs are at first sight registrations of our surroundings, especially with an eye for the artificial, the manmade. The images are sober in the sense that his presentation seems reticent and neutral. However, if we are to discover every facet of meaning in the photos, we cannot merely view them as a channel for information conveying more or less random visual impressions attached to the screen. If the deeper meaning in these works is to be revealed, one must go beyond the understanding of photographs as objective registration of what stood in front of the lens at the moment of exposure. The meaning in the images is revealed by placing them in a photographic, artistic, institutional, and historic context. Not in the least, we must also ask ourselves what effect the images have on the viewer, ourselves, and our surroundings.

Of course the question of what we see in the images is still relevant. The idea that a photograph’s function is to be a facsimile or exact copy of the world around us is for most of us the central function of photography and its main purpose. It’s difficult not to identify the revealed motif with its content, especially when the motif is a person. Brungot has at times photographed persons where their faces are the central motif, but here in a series of portraits he has photographed his models from behind. Thereby the face, the most important element in a person’s identity, has disappeared. This is almost a continual demonstrative element in Brungot’s photographs. He would rather avoid the most obvious identifications between motif and content. By opting for other angles and views of the motif than the most obvious, he creates a distance between the motif, the image, and our perception of it.

The backward-facing viewer is a well-known figure in art history, where he often acts as a substitute viewer. Most often the person is looking out across the landscape of the Romantic, over a sublime or beautiful terrain as if to make us aware of it; or the person is lost in meditation to remind us of our own ability to imagine ourselves as part of a landscape - something that changes the landscape itself into an inner, personal experience. It becomes part of the artist’s transition from an objective registration of phenomena to the creation of the perception, experience, and characterization of the motif as the central idea for his photography. It is often difficult to understand at all what has caught the photographer’s attention regarding a certain motif. There must be a methodical approach to the motifs behind Brungot’s view of the world - an approach that is steered by other preferences than established conventions in the genres of landscape photography, nature photography, or the cultural-historical photograph.

The break with the premises for traditional genre-conventional photography is already apparent in his first important project: Manscape (first exhibited in 1991, Preus Museum), which he created while attending a workshop in Lofoten (Coastal North Norway), led by the American photographer Lewis Baltz. A key in Baltz’s approach to motif was that, if we are to see the motif naked and direct, it should not already be set in a pre-existing canonized form. Concerning the North-Norwegian landscape, for example, it’s difficult to ignore how the landscape has already been presented in an endless stream of tourists’ photographs, not to mention the paintings of Gunnar Bergh and Karl Erik Harr, which have shaped our perception of North Norway. The most important lesson Brungot learned from Baltz was how to methodically break with convention by ignoring the evident possibilities in the monumental profiles of the mountains against the sky, the beauty of crevices in the rock and the snow, or the dramatic meeting between sea and land. Baltz taught Brungot to tear his eyes away from all this that had already been over-hotographed,
and Brungot found the one site that had not yet been photographed: the garbage dump.

It’s no coincidence that it was Baltz who liberated Brungot as a photographer and provided him with a photographic means of expression. Art photography from the late nineteenth century until
today has been influenced by American photographers. Within this tradition exists the so-called straight photography, with its sober approach to surroundings and non-artistic, uncluttered photography - uncluttered in that it neither manipulates situations nor seeks artistic imagery that doesn’t already exist as a possibility in the motif itself and in the technical apparatus.

Brungot’s motif is first and foremost man-made surroundings. Photography is the medium that has, above all others, presented an image of the modern world. Photography grew from a need defined by the rapidly developing reproduction industry in the early 19th century. In its unique blend of being a product of research, industry, craftsmanship, and art, it has since become an integrated part of development within these areas. A result of thisis that photography, more than any other medium, has contributed to simultaneously creating, communicating, and reflecting upon the growth of the modern world.

In Brungot’s photographs from the past two decades, the motifs concern themselves to a great extent with images taken exploring varied locations while traveling in Europe. They lie far from conventional tourist photography, which to a large extent concerns itself with previously-known locations and faces. From the onset of photography, there sprang up projects which had the aim of recording world metropolises, sights, and monuments for the creation of educational posters aimed at an audience that sought information and entertainment. Gradually there developed a genre that specialized in images for the tourist market. Brungot’s view of the metropolises incorporates this heritage as a background, but can be viewed as a systematic denial of it, when he turns his gaze toward aspects of this type of motif; they are either ignored or lack sufficient amounts of the spectacular or monumental to awake immediate fascination and interest.

Because many of the photographs have come about in connection with travels, many concern themselves with impressions along the road, literally in how roads appear in the landscape, incorporating asphalt, surface stripes in yellow and white, lane markings and dotted lines, the tracks of tires that have worn away the asphalt; bridges, road lighting, and signs. The portrayal of life in town and between houses is one of the grand themes in modern visual arts from the middle of the 18th century until today. Photographers have fluctuated between providing us with descriptions of delighted fascination for the man-made world, to one of fear, loathing, and angst.

Brungot’s photographs of the urban world show us backdrops for an urban life. This is to a certain extent in contrast to the sociallyengaged photograph that ideally has attempted, via powerful and dramatic scenes, to give the impression of immediate presence, authenticity, and engagement. To the extent that Brungot’s images treat with socially loaded themes, they occur within a framework of composed impressions that lend a feeling of distance and that provide room for reflection. Neither do Brungot’s pictures fall under the category of social documentation. He is not on a crusade to make us aware of social injustice, human alienation, the destruction of the environment, human misery, happiness and grief, wealth, poverty, beauty or ugliness. There exists a coolness in the images which is spare and registered. Brungot has more in common with photographers who portray the urbane world as a social landscape - social in that it takes part in forming our conditions of life, at the same time as it is formed according to the technological level at which a society finds itself. The photographs as a unit act as a structural analysis of the city’s infrastructure, at the same time portraying the division into sectors that occurs as a result of varying functions, social interaction, and socioeconomic groups.

Brungot definitely does not belong to the group of photographers who practice treetphotography; he is no Helen Levitt, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, or Garry Winogrand, trolling the streets hunting for slices of life as it occurs on the street, in cafes, and in stores, with an eye for life as theater. He is more concerned with the street as a stage upon which life unfolds. When he works as a street photographer, he prefers to turn his camera toward a rank of parked cars in a deserted area of apartment buildings. It is the modern metropolis and its topography that is to be portrayed. If Brungot photographs a set of playground equipment, it is guaranteed that no children will be present. We can experience the equipment’s amusing and successful design, but it will be up to the viewer whether or not we see it as something that can provide happiness for a child, or more as something resembling a trap.

Brungot’s images are mostly free of guidelines that steer our interpretation. The manner in which Brungot reveals the surroundings, landscape, and architecture in his photos, prevents them from falling into any established canon for what is beautiful or sublime. Though an image may not be beautiful, neither is it ugly. Brungot discovers locations that possess no established and defined status, but which play an important role in the everyday lives of most people. These are, with few
exceptions, public places; few of them possess any redeeming or charming architectural or artistic qualities, but are designed for play, sports, or other social activity. But Brungot photographs them devoid of the human beings who make use of them. The images register the activity of the users, such as the pattern of footprints on the ground where children have run. Often there has been created a ring of sand surrounding playground equipment, where the grass is never able to grow. Signs of human activity create geometric patterns and organic ornaments which become motifs for the photographer.

A strict symmetrical composition runs through the photographs. A figure, a pole, a window, or a building often stand on the central vertical axis as a lever, with the remaining portions of the image as balancing weights in their respective left- and right sides of the photograph. At other times the surface is divided into a checkered pattern, or strips that balance each other. The checkered surface is of course a typical element in the composition of modern cityscapes and facades. The architecture of the city has become a favorite theme for Brungot, but we can rarely identify entire buildings or well-known locations. Brungot highlights his attention on details that create patterns in a facade. It’s rarely that we feel a building as a defined shape, and one reason for this is that we only rarely are presented with a glimpse of the sky, or other elements that can help the building to define itself.

Along with his fondness for the daily and the simple, we have several unadorned workshops and sheds, container dwellings, and house trailers in Brungot’s world of imagery - many more of these than of palaces. If he has stayed in suites atop hotels, it’s not the panorama above a city, the view of tourist sights, or a sunset that have captured his interest. Rather, it’s the corrugated roof of a shed and a 90-degree shot of automobiles in the parking lot below. There dwells a clear wish in these photos to expose and lend meaning to that world in which the majority of us live. A business street with new and glittering glass facades constitutes another world than a street surrounded by heavy facades of cement, with windows that resemble firing ports in a fortress. Brungot’s photographs seen as a whole present us with varied lives and worlds, tales that chart and expose structures in towns he has visited, structures that have not created themselves, but that are results of intentions, will, interests, ideas. The structure of the modern city is an important theme in modern photography, aided by the new possibilities of being able to move both horizontally and vertically throughout the city spaces. The city’s space also presents a new topographical landscape, with its many forms of division: the long, straight streets, winding roads, urban and suburban housing, the squat and the towering, back alleys, parks, and functions. A central motif for Brungot in recent years has been how recently-developed building materials provide possibilities for new visual experiences in cities.

The photo series with motifs from la Bibliotheque Nationale Francois Mitterand (Reflexion de Paris) and the financial quarter La Defense (Hard City) in Paris came about during two study residences in Paris in 2004-05 and 2013. Photography as art is not only related to other images, but to theater. We are invited to enter the stage it creates. It’s no coincidence that photography became an art at a time when dioramas were popular. They functioned as entire spaces where one could enter and experience being in the midst of a park or a city. It was also a time when the naturalistic viewing machine was being created and developed to a high artistic level; different types of new viewing apparatuses provided the illusion of complete presence in the space the images created. The theatrical aspect of this photographical heritage is a strong element in Brungot’s images from Paris. Shape is created by the division of light and shadow on the surface
of the photograph. A series of Brungot’s photos of architecture reveal to us the reflections in varying types of materials. It is the visual effect of these reflections and not the materials as such
that attract our interest; it’s often barely possible to identify the material. At times it’s doubtful whether we are looking through a membrane, or if an object is being reflected onto a surface. It’s not until the image is placed in its surroundings that we are able to positively identify where it belongs in the physical space. In such cases we are challenged with the notion that photography represents a transparent presentation of a motif; we are unable to decide whether this is merely a representation of the motif or the motif itself. The idea of photography as a transparent medium is the reason why we often take a linguistic short cut in the description of photography, by saying that “we see here a wall”, instead of saying “we see here a photographical representation of a wall with defined physical qualities”.

The uncertainty of what we are actually seeing in many of the photographs, apart from the light and shadow that portray something more and less defined, leads our attention away from what the motifs are, and to how they are represented on the surface of the photograph. Our attention to these photographs is composed of equal parts of composition, shading, and the outline of the motifs. But it isn’t until Brungot places a figure in front of a wall and casts its shadow on the metal plate, that we with some degree of certainty can say that it has to do with a reflective wall and not a partially transparent surface.

The urban environment Brungot photographs is not idyllic. There are massive apartment complexes with their surroundings, businesses and office buildings and city parks of newer development. His point of view is most often at street level. Because photography is based on light and the absence of light, the use of light plays a central role in all modern photography - including Brungot’s. Shifting light, light sources and their placing, and how objects reflect light are crucial when it comes to creating compositions, and they themselves become a motif. Brungot is careful to avoid creating effects with other foundations than the motif itself and the technological conditions inherent in the technology he employs.

When Brungot turns to the glittering financial palaces or the boastful new Parisian area of La Défense, we see them from the perspective of the pedestrian. This area consists of architecture organized with wide streets and large, open spaces; the enormous parking lots are hidden. Traffic here at street level is designed to occur on foot. Hard City was photographed from street level and upward, and was photographed daily at the same time in the afternoon. Brungot also made videos of people walking along the street, their reflections in buildings, and a beggar. From the same area he photographed landscapes and human beings morning and evening. The shifting shades of light then become their own motifs.

The series Inside Out has found its motifs in a decaying area outside Prague, an area populated by the dregs of society. The refuse portrayed in the photographs consists of the objects these individuals have thrown away or abandoned for some unknown reason, and which remain abandoned until they have fallen apart and rotted away. These objects have been photographed as they were found and in the light that was present then and there. Garbage and refuse is part and parcel of the urban world. It is also a symbolic expression for everything we have bandoned, whether we have used it up, worn it out, are tired of it, have given it up because it no longer is useful to us, or because it must give way for something new. Places that are filled with rubbish, either in the street, in buildings, or in rubbish dumps, belong traditionally to locations with the lowest status in the urban environment; they are seldom portrayed artistically. In recent decades, rubbish has achieved a new status in connection with idealogically-motivated recirculation; the ideal goal is to save the environment and create a sustainable development. But rubbish is still something most people object to. However, in an artistic context, rubbish has long appeared as a photographic motif; it appears in socially-engaged photography as a symbol of misery. The surrealists treated the photographic portrayal of rubbish as a picture of abject poverty - that which we cannot or will not speak of and refuse to admit its existence.

For Brungot, the photographing of rubbish played a special role in his own development as a photographer at the end of the 1980's. For him, the rubbish dump was the location where he made the artistic break with his background in the cultivation of beauty in the esthetics of amateur photography. With a background in amateur photography clubs, he has apparently acquired a sense of good composition and artistic effects in a motif. These have become a portion of his photographical identity, but his images present a larger degree of criticism toward the visual tradition within the picturesque, than they continue in that tradition.

Another site category lacking any especially positive status is the holiday campground. Brungot has systematically photographed camping trailers/caravans in idyllic Jomfruland. He chose a location that is difficult for Norwegians to mention without conjuring up the painter Kittelsen and idyllic images of coastal sun, summer, and charming young girls at the edge of the sea. Brungot photographed the camping vehicles in the autumn of 2005 in the rain, after the summer holidays were over and the campers had returned home.

Brungot himself has presented the photographs at exhibitions and shows both as individual images and as sequences, where the photos are mounted in a series with little space in between
- a series that cover up to four walls, and series spread over the wall without a clear system. He has also presented the series in books and catalogues, where the building of sequences plays a decisive role in the reading of the images.

Geir M. Brungot has, in the last 25 years, become both a distinct and a distinctive profile in Norwegian art photography. With his latest images in mind this impression is strengthened, of an artist with a distinct vision, precise and thoroughly developed ideas, and clear form. He is one of the artists among us, working with photography in the generation preceding the post-modern photograph, who has had most success with the transition from traditionally-based black and white photography to the use of colour as an esthetic agent in his art. This implies that colour is experienced as a mood-enhancing agent, and does not merely describe for us the actual colour itself.

Through choice of motifs, composition, and exposure, he manages to awake our feelings during our meeting with the images. Most of Brungot’s newer images possess an aura of quiet, wonder, and melancholy. This connects them to the art of the Romantic period; at the same time they are devoid of sentimentality, and can be connected to the tradition of the unmanipulated, sober straight photography. This was a strong artistic ideal among Norwegian art photographers in Brungot’s youth. Therefore there is a fascinating double approach in his art, and this is its fundamental strength. Here there are images that require seeing, capturing the viewed in his photographs; but the images are also to be seen as motifs themselves for photographs, and the sense of being objects for consideration and viewing.