This Book is True Photobooks
Aug 29, 2018

A Perfect Imperfection


Edited: Aug 29, 2018


The Indian Quarterly : July–September 2018


Cristina de Middel’s latest photographic work focuses on India, drawing connections with Charlie Chaplin in a characteristically whimsical style, writes Lola Mac Dougall


Originally published in The Indian Quarterly


AdiPur, in Gujarat, is a town with a Charlie Chaplin fetish. Each year, on the 19th of April, it hosts the biggest known parade of Chaplin impersonators. Since 1973, children, well-to-do middle-aged women and retired men of humble origins have been congregating there under the uncomplicated motto of “be good, be happy” to celebrate the long-lasting spirit of Charlie Chaplin, in contrast to the easily consumed and quickly forgotten blockbusters of today.


During one of her trips to India, Spanish photographer Cristina de Middel came across the news of this celebration in an in-flight magazine, and was fascinated by the way fiction had indented the town’s reality.


De Middel’s ability to inhabit a documentary photography space while letting free her exuberant imagination has become one of her trademarks. In Party (2013–2014), she filtered the text of Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book —the most widely printed book in history after the Bible— till it became almost unrecognisable: she scratched out words from Mao’s well- known aphorisms and altered their original meaning by juxtaposing them with her own images of contemporary China.


Her interest in reinventing archives was again made patent in Currucucú (2016) for which the starting point was crime-scene photographs from the Mexican tabloid Alarma. She recreated these as drawings to which she added balloons with lyrics from rancheras, the popular Mexican musical genre. The result is a puzzling experience in which one is made to realise how the medium alters our experience of violence and our threshold of tolerance to it.


Who has not received one of those spam emails where an unknown person presents a dramatic situation in just a few lines to immediately offer both the possibility of redemption and the promise of immense riches? These emails —a literary genre in themselves— give us access to faraway lives worthy of plotlines in soap operas. In Polyspam (2009), the photographer used these appeals to “our mercy and greed” as inspiration for a series of por- traits of the imagined senders that remind you of film shots. The results are deliberately contrived, suggesting that de Middel is both the director of the cinematic production and a con artist herself.


The interplay between the real and the imagined is apparent in Jan Mayen (2015), where de Middel revisited the story of a 1911 failed Arctic expedition whose scientific explorers, upon realising they would not be able to reach their destination —the titular island on the east of Greenland— decided to stage the landing on the shores of Iceland instead. Pushing the pretence a step further, de Middel paired the fake vintage images with her own constructed images, shot this time on the Isle of Skye in Scotland.


This staging of history had already been explored in The Afronauts (2012) to great critical success. Much has been written about this self-published work, which was inspired by Zambia’s 1964 space programme. Of all the anecdotes regarding the production of this now cult book, my favourite is the one in which de Middel’s grandmother, who lives in Alicante, Spain, stitched the space suits made with African wax-printed cotton fabric produced in the Netherlands. It is amusing to imagine the grandmother as a collaborator in the creation of an African-inspired universe in southern Europe.


Perhaps in Adipur’s legion of Chaplin fans, de Middel found a similar instance of a fortuitous encounter of cultures, a geographical dislocation which had the potential to put forth more universal reflections, as I will argue a little later.





The body of photographs known as The Perfect Man is aesthetically inspired by the first 10 minutes of Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). To this, the Spanish photographer adds many genre -defying visual layers while superimposing other languages: her own hand-drawn illustrations coexist with diary-like written entries as well as vintage found photographs. In fact, this idea of borrowing is precisely one of its key subjects, which also investigates labour conditions in developing countries, imperfect men and the sense of touch.


The impersonators from the Chaplin Circle —founded by Ashok Aswani, a doctor who admits to having prescribed his favourite hero’s films as medicine— imitate Charlie to celebrate the positivity of his message. De Middel, similarly, uses the artistic device of parody to comment on, amongst other things, the working conditions of the underprivileged in India (and, at times, we have the feeling that we are inside a parody of a parody). Interestingly, Chaplin shared with the Spanish photographer a “suspicion of a picture with a message”, a refusal to use images for didactic purposes that put her off photojournalism, which has only benefited the fans of her more conceptual practice.


In Modern Times, Chaplin denounced the use of machinery to subdue workers, and the missed opportunity for industrial progress to benefit mankind. It is believed that it was his encounter with Gandhi —who had never seen a Chaplin film till then— which sparked off the idea. The Mahatma, who impressed Chaplin in that London meeting of 1931 with his “will of iron”, had been campaigning against the use of “machinery with only the consideration of profit”. As luck would have it, one of the most striking images is a portrait of a cross-eyed boy (is de Middel suggesting a confluence of two perspectives, two cultures?) against a painted background of a khadi-clad Gandhi. Similarly, the abundance of portraits of parade participants whose costume is nothing but cheap, mass-produced cut-out Chaplin masks, echoes a certain alienation. The flatness of the masks, which obliterates individuality, produces —at least in this reader— a disturbing feeling of out-of-placeness. This awkwardness is emphasised by a bi-dimensionality inserted into a 3D world which, in turn, will be further flattened by its becoming a photograph.


One of the central issues of The Perfect Man seems to point to the idea of translation. The big chunk of imagery consists of black-and-white staged portraits of workers in factory settings, with their skins coloured blue. The hint at blue-collar workers will be lost on non-English speakers. The reference to the blue Hindu god Krishna will not imply, for non-Indian readers, that blue is just a convention, as the use of a darker colour would make it impossible to represent the god’s features. The above are just examples of how an apparently uncomplicated operation, like being able to tell one colour from another, can be lost in translation when deciphered by “the other”. On occasion, the unavoidable failures of translation are mocked: the sheep that Chaplin juxtaposes with workers exiting a factory at the beginning of Modern Times become goats and cows; the quasi-mythological image on the cover, half-Chaplin impersonator, half-chicken, reminds one of the famous scene of the roast duck in the restaurant in the film.


But the insecurities any outsider must grapple with when interpreting a foreign cul- ture become more apparent if The Perfect Man is seen as a catalogue of the myriad ways in which men touch other men in India. We see them through the hand resting on a friend’s shoulder in the vintage photographs. They are there in de Middel’s candid photographs as well as in the hand-drawn paintings of men holding hands, a sight that one so often observes on Indian streets and that have been —wrongly,in my opinion— understood by some Western reviewers as expressions of homoerotic desire or masculinity.


The Ring of the Dove is a love treatise written circa 1022 by Ibn Hazm which devotes many a page to the signs and tokens of love:


“After verbal allusion, and once the lover's advance has been accepted and mutually agreed, the next step is hinting with the eyes that play a laud- able part and achieve wonderful results. A glance can banish and attract, promise and threaten, reprimand and encourage, command and ban, look daggers at the servants, warn against spies, cry and laugh, concede and deny. Each one of these situations is reflected in a particular way in the eyes and yet, these signs cannot be defined, unless they are seen, and they can neither be painted or describedfor the most part.”


How graceful flirtation seems in these pages, how familiar it all appears despite having been penned by a Muslim novelist in the 11th century from Xativa, less than a hundred miles from de Middel’s home- town. How natural those thousand-year-old gestures seem even today.





Looking at The Perfect Man reminded me of that feeling since the fascination of the photographer with this “licence to touch” points towards the question of how gestures are to be read. Are some expressions of affection universal, while others remain culture-specific? Is this licence to touch —more apparent amongst

the “great unwashed” and young Indian males— encouraged by a society that bans any physical contact between men and women, save those within the bounds of the family?


When, towards the end of Modern Times, Chaplin finds his voice on screen for the first time, it is to sing a song in a nonsense verse:

“Se bella piu satore, je notre so catore, Je notre qui cavore, je la que, la qui, la quoi! Le spinash or le busho, cigaretto toto bello, ce rakish spagoletto, si la tu, la tu, la tua! Senora pelefima, voulez-vous le taximeter, Le zionta sur le tita, tulatulatulawa!”

The first words ever uttered by Chaplin in a film are in a language made up of French and Italian-sounding words that nobody can understand but —with the help of his pantomime act— everyone can grasp, as a storyline of seduction can be discerned unmistakably from the scene. Photography, too, communicates via suggestions and associations that the viewer can ignore or shuffle around, creating meanings the image-maker is unable to anticipate. De Middel’s preference for equivocal imagery parallels the musical scene in the film: it creates a succession of images that may not be fully comprehensible, but which nevertheless convey enough for one to get a sense of what has been alluded to while laughing along the way.


The result is a book published last year by La Fábrica (Madrid) and the Images Festival in Vevey, in Switzerland. It contains two inserts with particularly intriguing photographs printed in a smaller size and in colour. Acquired by de Middel from a street vendor in Ahmedabad in the form of a slide box, they appear to be from the private archive of an orthopaedist. Most of them are medical photographs that follow the progress of patients, and the viewer becomes the photographer’s accomplice in breaching the confidentiality between doctor and patient. These are, above all, imperfect men, whose joints are being put back in place, echoing the nuts and bolts to be found everywhere in The Perfect Man. We see the patients’ scars and are made to remember the imperfect human machine. But this is no ordinary doctor, as images of late-night parties, women in underwear and a close- up of a broken bamboo shoot also comprise this idiosyncratic collection, creating a borrowed mini-narrative within the publication.


Would an orthopaedist, suffering from an occupational hazard, look at Chaplin’s bow legs without thinking of orthopaedic contraptions to correct them?


In a 1912 internal memo released by Universal Studios last year, the bosses advised that, in order for Chaplin to become successful in the United States, “the moustache must go.” He would also have to “change his name. Too easily confused with another comic, Charlie Chase. Also Chaplin sounds Jewish.” And just to show that an oversensitivity to the offence caused by humour is nothing new, the studio added: “Also, do not allow Chaplin to walk comically. This may look alright on English music hall stages but for mass audiences we must try to avoid offending people who are bow-legged or cripples.” One is grateful that political correctness did not deter Chaplin from building up his character. For what could be more universal, more inspiring, than a man making of his imperfection his greatness?


De Middel’s passage to India has produced a well-crafted work that playfully explores cultural misunderstandings and celebrates that which is fortunately imperfect.



The Perfect Man is available here.






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  • This Book is True Photobooks
    Oct 16, 2018

    Originally published here . Cristina de Middel’s Perfect Man by Jörg M. Colberg I often think that the world of photography could use a little Dada . For the most part, it is relatively conservative, staid, and literal. Photographers go out into the world with their little machines, and they bring back truthful pictures that are intended to enlighten and/or delight the viewer. Discussions frequently center about to what extent the idea of truth depends on the photographer’s choices once the pictures are in their little boxes (whether as bytes or as undeveloped film), how to “properly” display something, or how terrible all the non-experts are with their desire to have fun with their own cameras. This is not to say that there’s no merit to this approach, but you’ll have to admit its utility ultimately is limited. And, frankly, it’s boring. Dada , in the words of the site the link will direct you to, is “often satirical and nonsensical in nature.” At a surface level, that’s certainly true, but it also misses the point. Or rather, it misdirects a reader who might raise an eyebrow coming across “satirical” and who will then just stop short once s/he arrives at “nonsensical in nature.” Don’t things have to make sense? What’s the point of doing something that seems to make no sense? Then again, what reactions are left to you in a world that itself is, well, Dada, a world that is so obscene in a very straight way that no reaction in kind will lead anywhere, certainly not to any deeper insight? That’s the position the original Dada was coming from. “While the guns rumbled in the distance,” Hans Arp is being quoted if you follow the link , “we sang, painted, made collages and wrote poems with all our might.” In the face of the obscenity of war aren’t such activities obscene? Well, sure. But what exactly would not be obscene? In the British sitcom The It Crowd , one of the running jokes is that the two main characters, Roy and Moss, when answering their phone will immediately ask “Have you tried switching it off and on again?” That often works for computers. But it doesn’t work for societies, cultures, or smaller aspects of societies and cultures, such as the world of photography. You cannot solve its problems or challenges by switching it off and on again. But you could embrace a Dada approach, something that is satirical and maybe so “nonsensical in nature” at first that a viewer’s autopilot will simply be forced to switch off old thoughts and deeply ingrained mechanisms how to react and then switch back on to possibly — even just for a short moment — be open to something different. For me, that’s the key to Dada: once you’re prepared to have it switch off and on your brain you might be able to see the world in a different way — however briefly. During that moment, the satirical parts of Dada will be thrown into sharp relief. It’s not that they will somehow be less satirical. Instead, it’s the complete opposite: their satirical bite will get vastly enhanced. And then you are presented with a choice: do I got back to the world I am so familiar with, ignore what I just saw, and proclaim I’m just confused about the nonsense — or do I take what I just saw at face value and let it guide me to new values? In other words, Dada is a means to an end. It resists being seen that way very strongly, in part because to acknowledge it would in part self-defeat the whole underlying idea. To acknowledge tit would pull Dada back into the world it proclaims to escape from (seen that way, Dada has much in common with a sulking teenager, who cares so much about the world that s/he pretends s/he couldn’t care less). Still, though, you can’t view Dada without its ultimate goal, the higher truth it’s attempting to get at. It might be tempting to think that I came up with my Dada reference for Cristina de Middel ‘s The Perfect Man because of the prominence of Charlie Chaplin in the book. For a start, Chaplin (the character) wasn’t Dada. More importantly, though, in the book, the idea of Charlie Chaplin, here in the form of Indian men acting as impersonators (hang in there, this will all make sense shortly), is a Dadesque misdirection of sorts, and that’s where it gets interesting. After all, what the book really is concerned with is the role of both masculinity in India and the visual depiction of the country itself. In other words, the book sits at the nexus of two huge topics that in one form or another for a few years have been plaguing the world of photography (or rather those of its members who have been paying attention to the various problems contained in the medium’s history). How would you go about making work that deals with this nexus? You could (the conservative approach) go to India and make earnest photographs around Indian men, trying to be very aware of the role of “the other” there (whether in the form of People of India or, more recently, around National Geographic-style photography done there ). That approach could work, but of course, it’s fraught with danger. Alternatively, and this is what de Middel does here, you could keep all that in your head as the background, and you could then, Dada style, make work around the topic that is so outlandish that a viewer will be thrown off balance, to approach the subject matter anew, freed from having to consider the various pitfalls (at least initially; also note that given the world of photography is so incredibly conservative, to produce something outlandish is a lot easier than in, say, painting). So the viewer gets to see a bunch of photographs of Indian men attempting to look like Charlie Chaplin first, and the other photographs initially don’t necessarily register quite as much. The relevance of those photographs will become clearer later once the viewer is sufficiently ill-prepared to deal with what is being thrown at her or him, in other words, once s/he has lowered her or his defenses enough, given there’s the expectation of a book about Charlie Chaplin. But it’s not about Charlie Chaplin, because the book proceeds to talk about ideas of masculinity in India: the jobs men might have and the expectations they have to deal with, given their culture. Borrowing ideas from Chaplin’s Modern Times , Indian men are shown at work, engaging in a variety of ways with the various machines near or around them. So the men now aren’t impersonating Chaplin through dress or masks any longer, they become Chaplinesque characters in their own world. This is a deft move by the artist, given that now the viewer is moved into the territory where s/he has to consider to what extent we all are products of the circumstances we find ourselves in and to what extent we are responsible ourselves. In the final section, the book moves out of this realm completely, having sufficiently disarmed the viewer, to describe with a few pithy pieces of text the other side of this masculinity, namely the role of women in India and the frequent and widely accepted abuse directed at them. Here, there is no more Charlie Chaplin. Instead, the pictures all center on aspects of masculinity. As can be expected for this particular artist, the book makes use of the various bells and whistles available for contemporary photobook makers. The various choices made are carefully considered — for example, the colour blue that is used widely refers both to blue-collar work and to a blue-skinned Indian deity associated with masculinity. The overall effect is one of playfulness, which adds to the initially disarming character of the book. On the surface, this is no book for the vast überconservative block that forms the heart of photography. There is a lack of (surface) seriousness here, but the book also doesn’t pull a Martin Parr where you know immediately where you’re at. Instead, what might come across as just some sort of silly superficial joke becomes very serious, to, as I noted above, discuss topics that are in dire need of being explored more deeply. And the book does this very well. The Perfect Man; photographs, text, and drawings by Cristina de Middel; 176 pages; La Fabrica; 2018 Rating: Photography 3.0, Book Concept 4.0, Edit 3.0, Production 4.5 – Overall 3.6 Ratings explained here .

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