The found object, Urban Art

The Found Object: on the 90 year relationship between Graffiti and Photography

Found object is a translation of the French phrase “objêt trouvé”; it is used to describe an object (or product which is not normally considered material from which art is made) found by an artist, which with minimal modification is then presented as a work of art. Pablo Picasso is believed to be the first artist to utilize the idea publicly when he used a printed image of chair caning in his painting titled Still Life with Chair Caning in 1912.

Pablo Picasso – Still-life with Chair Caning, Spring 1912

In 1919, exactly 100 years ago, as Europe emerged from the dark horror of WWI, new ideas about art, creativity and art-making flourished as the strictures of Academe seemed moribund, irrelevant and inadequate to express the horror of war, or the fears, hope, reality and challenges of modern society. In Germany, Kurt Schwitters asserted that common items, such as string, wire mesh, and even discarded newsprint, were just as valid for the making of fine art as oil paint or marble, in effect reasserting Picasso’s ‘statement’ made in 1912. In France, Marcel Duchamp exhibited a porcelain urinal as “readymade sculpture” to challenge the Academe’s constraints on creativity. Gradually, as more artists embraced the concept (Ernst, Braque, Dali, Man Ray, Henry Moore), other terms such as: ‘found art”, and “found sculpture” came into use as well. I mention this in a photography blog because the concept was then embraced by the great Hungarian photographer Brassaï, who lived and made his nightlife images in Paris in the 1920-30s.

A year or so ago, while looking at the work of Brassaï, I  discovered his photographs of graffiti. While I had known of Brassaï as a photographer of Parisian nightlife, I had never heard of his graffiti images, even though they were first published in 1933. As I read an article that accompanied the images (Article 1 & Article 2), I discovered that he thought and wrote about his graffiti images as les objêts trouvé–found objects–which had evolved out of the concept of Art Trouvé.

In the 180 years since photography was invented in 1839, photographers and philosophers have contemplated the nature and significance of the photographic process. There is: its capture of a-moment-in-time aspect; its veracity; its endless reproducibility.  But my goal here is to recall to your mind the idea that something as ubiquitous as photography has had and does have a profound effect on our culture. Dorothea Lange put it well, “Photography takes an instant out of time, altering life by holding it still.”  In the process of photographing a physical object and cropping any reference to its size, place, or use, it is abstracted and transformed, a new object created: the photograph.

“Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with

still photographs, the image is also an object.” — Susan Sontag

I started photographing surfaces in the early 2000s. And while I was aware that many artists have found inspiration in the street: da Vinci, Schwitters, Basquiat, and Aaron Siskind all come to mind, I was still intrigued by my interest in walls. So for me, the idea of graffiti as found object was a revelation, flowing from the ‘logic’ of Schwitters’ assertion that ordinary materials are valid materials for making art, and Duchamp’s concept of found art, that clearly included the carved and scratched graffiti Brassaï found in the streets of Paris.

My photographs are of random paint, graffiti, faded handbills, and weathered surfaces that I have found on walls, lampposts, and doors in the streets of New York, Los Angeles, La Habana, Medellin and other cities.

“When you look at a wall spotted with stains or a mixture of stones… you may discover: landscapes, mountains, figures in action, strange faces, an endless variety of objects…” The Notebooks of Leonardo da Vinci

12 thoughts on “The Found Object: on the 90 year relationship between Graffiti and Photography

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