It has often been claimed that photography became a popular means of presenting artistic images in the 1980s and 90s because the modernistic formalism of traditional media such as painting, sculpture and drawing had run its course. Photography took over because it gave us images that enabled art to re-establish contact with reality. When the Lillehammer Art Museum mounted a 1993 exhibition of photographs connected with the 1994 Winter Olympics, it was called “The World Is”, as though photography illustrated this for us. The shift from this view of photography as mere reflection, and the emerging emphasis on photographic images as visual and cultural constructions, arrived in the wake of the various strategies applied by postmodernism to deconstruct the concept of photography through staging, appropriating and manipulating photographs.
There is good reason to maintain that the dominating position of the photographic image in art institutions in recent decades is not, as is often asserted, a result of the view of the photograph as a reality machine, a technical process that results in a reproduction of reality in the form of pictures in convenient formats. On the contrary, it is due to the perception of photographic images as a way of constructing models of reality that are dependent on the programs we install in the machinery. Most institutions involved in the art scene have persisted in demanding that if pictures are to be regarded as art, they must not be identical with their original subject. We can see that in the practical administration of art, which on the part of photography involves being exhibited in galleries and museums, published in catalogues and books, registered in art databases and purchased by art museums, only an infinitesimal number of the photographic images available are integrated into the art system. When pictures are kneaded into the dough of the art system, it becomes apparent that pictures that are produced with the aid of photographic techniques, and that are presented within the contexts established for them by the art system, immediately distract the viewer from the spatial reality the pictures previously documented, focusing instead on the tools used to create them, the iconography implied by the subject matter of the pictures, how the genre to which the pictures belong is being managed, and identifying the maker. The photograph has, to a great degree, appropriated the place that was formerly assigned to paintings and prints, without generating any fundamental change in the way the system relates to the works that are produced.
During the past decade there has been a revolution in access to photographs, both old and new, in every genre. One result of this process is that the awareness of observing photographs on the basis of their original contexts, and the possible subsequent presentation of the photographs in new contexts, have become a prerequisite for being able to interpret them in a meaningful way. The same pictures are presented in contexts that are, as a result, interpreted in entirely different ways. The interpretation no longer depends on what the picture is in itself, but on what we do with it, and in what contexts we place it.
Geir M. Brungot has been careful to position his activities in relation to the art system and the contexts in which the system permits pictures to appear. He defines his own role as an artist by, among other things, showing his pictures in art galleries. In our context this is not without import. Brungot has expressed his view of the gallery thus: “The gallery can be an alternative to the life surrounding us; it does not need to be a mirror.” He could just as well have said that the photograph does not need to be a mirror, but an alternative to the life surrounding us. This viewpoint implies that to the degree to which the photograph relates to something that is seen, the picture represents an interpretation and a different reality.
Brungot invokes the logistics, concepts and judgments of the art system as a frame of reference for an understanding of his pictures, and rejects being placed in connection with other pictorial practices, interpretation frameworks and distribution systems. He does not write news reports about children, rubbish heaps, cemeteries, old cars, houses on the fjord, edges of piers, or tyres – but most of his pictures could illustrate such reports. In other words, the viewer's experience of Brungot's pictures is filtered through the narrow context of art institutions in which he lets his pictures be presented.
There has been a marked increase in knowledge of all the nuances of the history of photography. Today, through this wealth of information and knowledge, the various techniques, genres, practices and traditions that are associated with the photographic picture emerge as different filters through which we can view the pictures. The framework of the art institution becomes, in itself, such a filter. There are so many of these filters that they consolidate into an opaque surface upon which we see the individual pictures, rather than experiencing the pictures as transparent membranes through which we view the world.
At first glance Brungot's pictures seem to be reliable and uncomplicated. They seem to confirm the attitude held by many people that before one sees the photograph as a picture at all, one sees what it is a picture of. In a 1996 review Ina Blom writes that Brungot wants to make us see “how nature is formed by human beings, perhaps destroyed by human beings. Brungot works as though there is no such thing as a photographic filter, because where the fog lifts in his pictures the subject appears clearly, in starkly contrasting black and white, as if calling out, ‘Look!'” Is it really possible that Brungot, even after the post-modernists' radical transformation of the view of photography has taken effect, continues to present the message that the photograph is a facsimile of reality?
Brungot has been viewed as a between-the-generations photographer: a photographer wedged in between the modernists of the 1970s and the post-modernists of the 1990s. A photographer who has been caught in the gap between two generations: on the one hand, the generation that defined itself through a perception of a modernist photography that cultivated what modernists prescribed as its distinctive character – showing the world as it is – and, on the other, the post-modernists, the generation that defined itself through its rebellion against this perception, and maintained that photography had no distinctive characteristics or identity.
The most important lesson we can learn from the post-modern phase in photography during the 1970s and 80s is that we lost the illusion that what we saw in the picture was an uncoded message. We could no longer believe that the photograph presented reality to us straight up, without a filter. Brungot has probably never been particularly concerned about giving us the unvarnished truth anyway. When we examine his development as a photographer, his point of departure was not commercial, craftsmanship-based photography, nor was it the wish to depict his surroundings due to the need to tell a good story or the desire to give us the unadorned truth. Brungot is no journalist.
From the very beginning, Geir M. Brungot's photography oeuvre has aspired to artistry. The first phase consisted of creating a concept of the good picture. In this context, the good picture means a picture that is consistent with the conventions that have developed in the course of the history of the photographic image as to what a good photograph should look like. This tradition entailed that the photograph was inspired by the art of painting in its standards for good composition, choice of subject, cropping, and the use of light and shade. This type of artistic photographic practice, which has been cultivated by amateurs since the early stages of photographic development, resulted in a situation in which photography languished in the shadow of painting, with its long and prestigious history. Brungot worked his way through this tradition while a member of the Sykkylven Camera Club.
The second phase of Brungot's development occurred when the 23-year-old amateur photographer attended a workshop arranged by the Association of Fine Arts Photographers in Lofoten in 1985. Here he met the American photographer Lewis Baltz. His encounter with Baltz gave him an awareness of what he had been working on up to that point. In the pictures he took at this workshop, where he practically stood back-to-back with Baltz and photographed a rubbish heap, he finally discarded the old lessons, while simultaneously strengthening traditional elements in his confrontation with a different view of what a picture could be.
Like Baltz, Brungot's primary subject became sites that had no innate status or symbolic value, that had not previously been incorporated into the catalogue of typical artistic subject matter. The traces left by human beings, and the form and structure of these traces, became his subject matter. Baltz himself referred to the political aspect of his choice of the detritus of civilization as his main subject matter, while in Brungot's pictures of the same phenomenon one can sense a slightly poetic atmosphere.
Brungot's pictures differ from those of Baltz, with their unsentimental view of the new topography that is created by human intervention in and encroachment on nature, in that he extracts details that fulfil the function of compositional building blocks in well-composed pictures. As a person and an artist Brungot exudes a kind of confidence that also endows him with the rare quality of being totally unafraid of being conventional. As a result of his meeting with Baltz, he broke free of the camera clubs' attempts to create good pictures based on the many conventions that had dominated the clubs' view of photography. Instead, he recreated a tradition within the boundaries of modernism, covering the period from Stieglitz to Baltz.
Through Baltz, Brungot established contact with a world of subjects that did not seek their identity in the history of painting, but instead found their point of departure in the modernist view of photography as an independent and distinctive medium. In the modernist view of photography, what was distinctive about this medium was that the photograph showed us a picture of the world as it is.
One could ask whether it is possible to interpret Brungot's form of post-modernism as a way of appropriating elements taken from a photography genre that perceived itself as the modernist photography par excellence, a genre that was in accordance with what modernist photography defined as the essence of photography: the photographic image as physical evidence of reality itself. Brungot's pictures are related to a tradition that extends from Alfred Stieglitz to Robert Adams and Lewis Baltz. In Norway , Dag Alveng and Tom Sandberg have been exponents of this type of modernist photography. This is a photographic practice that has perceived itself as artistic as opposed to photography as it is practiced by commercial photographers who work within genres such as advertising, portraits and various forms of documentation.
By creating pictures that appear to represent an uninterrupted continuation of modernist photography, while they actually only simulate it, Brungot has created a free space in which he can explore the possibility of continuing to work within the medium of photography after a phase during which modernism became aware of itself through post-modernism's radical criticism and its tendency to overturn previous ideas and ideals of a medium as possessing an essence to which the artist must be faithful. Brungot's photographs are a part of the critical processing of the photographic legacy that took place in the 1970s-80s, which has helped form a basis for maintaining an artistic production of photography as a medium even after the post-modernist age. In the past few years we have seen a return to forms and genres that many people would claim represented stages in the history of photography that were a thing of the past, such as the recent revival of the documentary, or the cool, soberly factual photography in the tradition of German neo-objectivity, which has been one of Germany's major contributions to the international art scene in the past two decades.
Post-modern photography has created a consciousness of the importance of the attitude of the artist towards his surroundings as a decisive factor in his choice of subject matter and visual forms of expression. The emphasis placed on attitudes and choices results in the disintegration of the belief in an objective, neutral point of view. Trying to understand the reason why a photographer presents the world in a particular way becomes more decisive in understanding a picture than seeing pictures as a reflection of something that happened to be in front of the lenses at a particular moment.
Brungot's view of the world is based on a wish on the part of the artist to create metaphors for his own identity. Whereas the contemporary American photographer creates an identity through a masked and staged presentation, Brungot chooses to make use of scenes from his closest surroundings, where he himself plays the role of the man behind the camera.
His subject matter is often the traces and marks human beings leave behind them, but not necessarily those traces that are remarkable, grandiose, dramatic or unprecedented. Such prosaic traces are one of the classic subjects of photography. They are often merely an excuse for capturing a pattern of light, shadow and texture. Brungot's photographs have a wealth of nuances in the black-to-white range that make his pictures rich in visual imagery. His fondness for the visual is in direct conflict with the currently popular trend to avoid themes that may risk being perceived as nearly abstract patterns of light and dark. Brungot has a keen eye for lines and shapes in the motifs, which are accentuated and combined to form an abstract pattern that at one moment can be viewed as liberating itself from objects, and at the next moment as evoking the same objects with a greater sense of clarity. The visual structure is, however, not separated from structures outside the pictures. The structure of the pictures is connected with how the surroundings are organized on the part of both nature and man. The patterns that emerge often appear to be well balanced. They often express a sense of quiet seriousness. In a world where visual and auditory noise dominate, Brungot's pictures act as compartments where there is room for reflection.
Brungot's eye for his surroundings becomes a gate we pass though in order to enter into a world where he is our guide. We are confronted with places that are observed with an eye that reveals significant details, stories that are connected with the sites, surprises around the next corner. He also introduces us to the people who inhabit his world. The people we meet express the same serenity that marks the composition of the pictures. These are people who are confident in the roles they are playing at the places where they belong. Sometimes their stance indicates that they would like to tell us something important about a place, a thing, a house or a car with which they have been photographed. These are people who have been formed by, and who themselves have formed, their surroundings.
The interdependence between places and people in Brungot's world gives us the feeling that the places he shows us are important places. They are as important as all the other places he also could have shown us – if he had been there. When seen as stories about Brungot himself, these pictures tell us about a person who moves with a strong sense of confidence, and with the attitude that where he is, significant things are happening. What is really important are all the small trivial events of everyday life; they are the glue that binds existence together. The stories in the pictures are about the closed-in schoolyard, which suddenly feels like a prison exercise yard; they are about the transfigured light that strikes some wooden boards in a close-up of a wall in a chapel; they are about inscriptions chiselled in stone – inscriptions that speak to us of dreams, of yearnings to reach out to some other place, or that tell us that this particular person was here on this particular day, or relate the story of a small house that is connected with the outside world through telephone cables.
People are introduced into the pictures in the role of substitute observers. As a result, we direct our attention towards the traces left by the external world in our mental landscape. Instead of expressing himself through individual pictures, Brungot has made a point of creating thematic sequences, in which a story is told in the spaces between the pictures. This is evident in several of his works, such as “Heimsavn” (“Longing for Home”), in which the real theme is to be found in the traces of childhood scenes that are etched on the artist's soul, in the photographic diary “Verda ifylgje meg” (“The World According to Me”), and in “Evig eies kun det tapte” (“Only the Lost is Eternally Owned” – a quotation from Ibsen). The meaning of the spaces is underlined particularly in “Evig eies kun det tapte”, in which he has juxtaposed four photographs from the period 1986-96, two of which do not refer at all to the theme of death on which the series is based. But through the juxtaposition of the pictures the work emerges as a powerful but unsentimental narrative about the memory of a dead child.
Øivind Storm Bjerke