Saturday, May 1, 2010

A Formal Reading of Emotion

Nermine Hammam’s photographs are characterized by their layers. Their true meaning is created not when the photo is snapped, but upon hours and hours spent painstakingly pouring over collections of images, colors, texts, assembling a final product that exists as an amalgamation of ideas and emotions.

This technical aspect of her work matches the emotional intensity of her subject matter. The two sides to her art create a tandem pair of layers. From Ashoura to Palimpsest, Apotheosis to Metamorphosis, her subjects are characterized by their shared portfolio of feelings –depictions of pain and anguish.

Her layering, which augments portions of her subjects, her choice of a warm color palette (red and orange dominating the added colors), and her choice of text, which spew words across the frames all increase the dramatization of the photography. It is as if they set the still image in motion, pulling it through the set of emotions actually expressed by the subjects themselves.

The photographs in Metanoia, her most recent exhibition, are created using the same method as Hammam’s previous works; each has been re-worked and colored. But instead of altering these images to complement the suffering, she has added patterns to walls, blankets, and clothes. She has, in contrary to her previous works, tried to soften the narrative of the images.


It is useful to explore the connection between technical choices and subject matter, as they are undoubtedly interconnected, consciously and subconsciously. Hammam’s trajectory of working leading to Metanoia is representative of this mixture of subconscious and conscious choices.

Through an exploration of two specific photographs, we will see just how much the psyche of an image can play in its ultimate display, from film to Adobe to print.

Metanoia: Rows of beds line the walls of a sparsely lit room. The image is overall dark and shadowy; it portrays a dim picture of life in the asylum. Sepia tones edge from the corners of the photograph and the blankets on the bed have an added pattern, therefore the reworking is present here. But the image retains a stark quality, a sterilization that undoubtedly parallels the life and the feelings that hang in rooms such as this one.

Ashoura: A man lifts his hands in offering, blood staining his white shirt and his hair drenched in sweat. But this is all we can discern as original from the image. His body is placed on a thickly layered background of yellow pattern, opaque coloring, distressed film, and text that scrawls along the bottom of the image. The warm tones vibrate the image, giving it life and mixing up the emotions, whether they are real or provoked.

The tumultuous nature of Ashoura, the intensity of the ritual, the visibility of human gore, is present in Hammam’s reworking of her original photograph. Similarly, the sheer pain, the stripped, bare humanity of live in the asylum, is visible in Metanoia. Her work is continuous; from the emotional experience that surrounds the initial capture of the image to the act of reprocessing, which then reveals the compressed emotion from within the photograph. This continuity makes her images all the more real, all the more present. Her manipulation changes the photographs, but instead of hiding the meaning, her formal choices mirror her emotional documentary experience. Such interconnectivity of art mediums to human emotion is not a new idea, but in Hammam’s work the specificity of choices and technical placement being a whole new meaning to the concept.

All images courtesy of the artist.

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