Essay Photography Photography and Culture Research Reviewing Practice

Immersive Photographic Realities

Since its incep­tion pho­tog­ra­phy has been tasked with the preser­va­tion of our col­lec­tive human mem­o­ry. Whether through the record­ing of his­toric, cur­rent and life events or the artis­tic works that cre­ate a col­lec­tive expres­sion of the human expe­ri­ence, pho­tog­ra­phy as a form of image mak­ing has been unique in its con­nec­tion with real­i­ty or truth. This con­nec­tion has always been rel­a­tive. Even with­out alter­ing the image, the pho­tog­ra­ph­er is free to manip­u­late the event cap­tured through their inter­ac­tion with time, fram­ing and expo­sure. Many aspects that con­tribute to the look of a pho­to­graph, which, to the audi­ence, can been seen as agnos­tic to their read­ing of the image, influ­ence their per­cep­tion of the events depict­ed.

In DL07, “Jens Liebchen co-opts the visu­al lan­guage of war pho­tog­ra­phy to cre­ate a men­ac­ing por­trait of a town that is actu­al­ly not engaged in war.” (Lens Cul­ture, August 2017) Jeff Wal­l’s Mim­ic depicts an Asian man walk­ing down the street at the same time as a Cau­casian cou­ple, a plau­si­ble if not every day scene were it not for the Cau­casian man flip­ping-off the Asian gen­tle­men, who looks gen­uine­ly uncom­fort­able. The polit­i­cal and social com­men­tary pours out of the reportage aes­thet­ic of the image. How­ev­er, Wal­l’s cin­e­mato­graph­ic approach to pho­tog­ra­phy reveals the true source of the image, whose actors rehearsed and played out the events until the right moments and com­po­si­tions aligned to be cap­tured and lat­er com­bined.

DL07 Stereo­types of war — a pho­to­graph­ic inves­ti­ga­tion

The human envi­ron­ment is evolv­ing expo­nen­tial­ly as cre­ative destruc­tion ven­tures through the con­struct­ed ambi­gu­i­ty of post-post­mod­ern eco­nom­ic cen­tres. Eugène Atget’s pho­tographs of Paris record a dis­ap­pear­ing urban char­ac­ter as it evolved through the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion. The same Parisian streets served as a play­ground for Carti­er-Bres­son to explore and record the world as it appeared to him. These matur­ing envi­ron­ments of the indus­tri­al rev­o­lu­tion which gave birth to the tech­no­log­i­cal rev­o­lu­tion we are expe­ri­enc­ing today bare lit­tle or no resem­blance to the vast dig­i­tal vis­tas with­in which humans now inter­act and engage with com­merce. Regard­less of how great these devel­op­ments are, pho­tog­ra­phy is still root­ed in the world of Atget and Carti­er-Bres­son, even if the index­i­cal­i­ty of the image has stretched into the re-enact­ments of the mind. How will the photographer’s roll trans­form as we move through the less tan­gi­ble sur­round­ings of our vir­tu­al habi­tat?

Eugène Atget

The Constructed Image

Pho­tographs either record an occur­rence, where some­thing human is hap­pen­ing or they are made in the absence of an occur­rence, where it may just be a place. In terms of pho­tog­ra­phy, both things are equal. Pho­tog­ra­phy is quite hap­py to record an occur­rence and pho­tog­ra­phy is quite hap­py to record this oth­er thing where there is no occur­rence. Both of those things hap­pen because pho­tog­ra­phy occurs.” (Wall, 2015)

Over­pass (Wall, 2001) takes the purest form of a snap­shot, which depicts four bag­gage laden indi­vid­u­als walk­ing in a group. As innocu­ous as it seems, the image does not tell the sto­ry of these four char­ac­ters as they repeat­ed­ly walk in front of Wall’s cam­era while they col­lab­o­rat­ed on the image. The result­ing mon­tage is the result of Wall’s expe­ri­ences or imag­i­na­tion, though Wall is reluc­tant to express his work in terms of imag­i­na­tion or fic­tion, relat­ing more to their intent and mean­ing.

Over­pass (Wall, 2001)

Commercial Photography

The clas­sic prod­uct pho­to­graph of a bot­tle of whisky with a poured glass beside it or a cook­ie falling into a glass of milk requires metic­u­lous plan­ning and prepa­ra­tion of assets. In order to achieve the creamy tex­ture of the milk in the pho­to­graph the milk was replaced with white paint in a large per­spex con­tain­er and the cook­ie replaced with a sculp­ture up to a meter in diam­e­ter and of suf­fi­cient mass to dis­place the paint. The result­ing image bears com­plete resem­blance to the pub­lic’s per­cep­tion of what a tasty cook­ie falling into milk should look and feel like; hope­ful­ly lead­ing to increased sales in cook­ies.

Regard­less of their tech­ni­cal mas­tery, these teams of stu­dio artists have been replaced with CGI (Com­put­er-Gen­er­at­ed Imagery) artists who can achieve greater pho­to­re­al­ism with far greater flex­i­bil­i­ty. Light­ing setups, expo­sure cam­era type can be adjust­ed, brand­ing design can be swapped, changed and art direct­ed in real time. Prod­ucts can be visu­alised long before they are realised in a tan­gi­ble way. Once con­sid­ered vast­ly expen­sive, the clichéd auto­mo­bile com­mer­cials of heli­copter fly­overs of dra­mat­ic dri­ving sce­nar­ios, which required mul­ti­ple takes, stunt dri­vers and insur­ance, can be achieved in a few takes know­ing that the car is going to be added lat­er in post by a team of CGI artists with access to the orig­i­nal 3D designed assets, which are devel­oped and real­ized for pro­duc­tion in the same fam­i­ly of prod­ucts as their com­mer­cial out­puts. With the major­i­ty of com­mer­cial prod­ucts being realised in CGI pri­or to phys­i­cal pro­duc­tion, this form of vir­tu­al pho­tog­ra­phy has become cen­tral to the com­mu­ni­ca­tion of a prod­uct with its pub­lic, cre­at­ing a space for dis­course and devel­op­ment long before engag­ing in expen­sive pro­duc­tion. The images, mov­ing or still, live close­ly with­in their cul­tur­al code, main­tain­ing a rela­tion­ship to the ‘real’, desir­ing to deliv­er on their promise in order to main­tain their trust with their pub­lic, who may or may not have idea of the ori­gin of the images.

Fine Art Photography

Edward Steichen’s exhi­bi­tion The Fam­i­ly of Man opened in New York’s Muse­um of Mod­ern Art (MoMA) in 1955 ‘the exhi­bi­tion took the form of a pho­to essay cel­e­brat­ing the uni­ver­sal aspects of the human expe­ri­ence. Ste­ichen had invit­ed pho­tog­ra­phers to sub­mit pho­tographs for con­sid­er­a­tion, explain­ing that his aim was to cap­ture “the gamut of life from birth to death”—a task for which, he argued, pho­tog­ra­phy was unique­ly suit­ed.’ Seen by over 270,000 peo­ple in New York, more than half the pop­u­la­tion of Bel­grade also vis­it­ed the exhi­bi­tion as the exhi­bi­tion toured Europe.

Roland Barthes argued that The Fam­i­ly of Man aimed ‘to sup­press the deter­min­ing weight of His­to­ry’, dan­ger­ous­ly exclud­ing polit­i­cal issues and racial, class, or cul­tur­al dif­fer­ences. For Barthes, Steichen’s clas­sic human­ism failed because it wrong­ly pos­tu­lat­ed that ‘in scratch­ing the his­to­ry of men a lit­tle […] one very quick­ly reach­es the sol­id rock of uni­ver­sal human nature’.

In the 1970’s Ger­man con­text, sus­pi­cion towards a high­ly aes­thet­ic or roman­tic pho­tog­ra­phy led to a new cul­tur­al priv­i­leg­ing of photography’s par­tic­u­lar rela­tion­ship to the ‘real’, while their Anglo-Amer­i­can coun­ter­parts, whose work was large­ly defined by con­cep­tu­al­ism, became entan­gled in the cul­tur­al the­o­ry, semi­otics and post­struc­tural­ism that have formed the basis of post­mod­ernism. Ger­man prac­ti­tion­ers who engaged in sophis­ti­cat­ed con­cep­tu­al strate­gies, were unit­ed in their com­mit­ment to real­ism and the objects of pho­tog­ra­phy and the pos­si­bil­i­ties of the medium’s capac­i­ty for truth and frag­ile-objec­tiv­i­ty. “Autho­r­i­al pho­tog­ra­phy” an idea that goes beyond that of the sin­gu­lar pho­to­graph into the greater con­text of the photographer’s oeu­vre, is exem­pli­fied by the work of the Bech­ers where their over­all selec­tion of top­ics pro­duces the over­all con­text, which comes from a clos­er under­stand­ing of real­i­ty; this is a sub­jec­tive way of see­ing, which is under­stood as becom­ing objec­tive. “For the Anglo-Amer­i­can post­mod­ernist, what redeems pho­tog­ra­phy is its abil­i­ty to gen­er­ate and organ­ise mean­ing inde­pen­dent­ly of its object.”  (James, 2009)

Post WWII two world dis­tinct approach­es to the imagery encod­ed in the numer­i­cal lan­guage of dig­i­tal pho­tog­ra­phy and its rela­tion­ship to Barthes’s descrip­tion of the pho­to­graph as sig­ni­fy­ing “What has been there”. An index­i­cal notion of the so-called verac­i­ty of the ana­logue pho­to­graph had hith­er­to been tak­en for grant­ed, unlike its dig­i­tal sib­ling. Andreas Gursky exem­pli­fies a brash will­ing­ness to dig­i­tal­ly manip­u­late the focus of his intent in order to gen­er­ate the appro­pri­ate expres­sion with­in the result­ing pho­to­graph. Gursky’s ouevre, like the Bech­ers who men­tored him, is autho­r­i­al, his sub­ject, ‘Glob­al­i­sa­tion’ and ‘Con­sumerism’ ide­al­ly suit­ed to the insti­tu­tion­al the­o­ret­i­cal chal­lenges of their time. The high-bitrate finan­cial exchanges and trans­ac­tion­al objects ful­fil the sub­ject-object rela­tion­ship of their dig­i­tal gen­e­sis.

Gursky’s Chica­go, Board of Trade II and 99 cent are the result of a mix of ana­logue pho­tog­ra­phy and dig­i­tal com­posit­ing, over­lay­ing and mask­ing mul­ti­ple expo­sures in order to gen­er­ate the desired lev­el of com­plex­i­ty and scale. 99 Cent, like many of Gursky’s images, uses rel­a­tive­ly sim­ple com­po­si­tion­al tools, mix­ing strong hor­i­zon­tal lines with­in which depth and per­spec­tive can be altered to deliv­er the scale and depth that would oth­er­wise be impos­si­ble to visu­alise at the time of their cre­ation. As con­struct­ed images, which are the result of dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion, they still point clear­ly to their source or real­i­ty.

Andreas Gursky 99 Cent

Cana­di­an Jeff Wall’s tech­ni­cal process mir­rors that of Gursky. Com­par­isons how­ev­er end here. Wall’s sub­ject bears no rela­tion­ship to dig­i­tal finan­cial exchanges, instead, it focus­es on the poet­ry of expe­ri­ence and occur­rences of the mind. Wall’s A Sud­den Gust of Wind (After Hoku­sai), 1993, shares an inher­ent com­plex­i­ty with Gursky, yet main­tains the spon­tane­ity of a snap­shot cap­tured in the moment. The com­plex­i­ty in the afore­men­tioned image is more organ­i­sa­tion­al than tech­ni­cal or visu­al. In order to achieve the com­po­si­tion of ele­ments caught in the gust of wind, each one need­ed to be col­lect­ed, pho­tographed and indexed before being com­pos­it­ed into the final image. This type of com­plex­i­ty lends itself to CGI/VFX (Visu­al Effects) method­olo­gies and it is arguable that had Wall access to the tech­nol­o­gy and skills to imple­ment it he might have tak­en advan­tage of the oppor­tu­ni­ty. Had Wall sub­sti­tut­ed the pho­tographed papers and leaves with dig­i­tal recre­ations, might that have impact­ed the image’s con­nec­tion with the real and there­fore its pho­to­graph­ic nature?

A Sud­den Gust of Wind (after Hoku­sai) 1993 Jeff Wall born 1946 Pur­chased with assis­tance from the Patrons of New Art through the Tate Gallery Foun­da­tion and from the Art Fund 1995

Born in Munich, Thomas Demand, attend­ed the Kun­stakademie Düs­sel­dorf to study as a sculp­tor where he inter­act­ed with Bernd Bech­er while mak­ing the con­nec­tions between his sculp­ture and its ulti­mate pre­sen­ta­tion as a pho­to­graph. While this inter­ac­tion is most­ly anec­do­tal the Kun­stakademie influ­ence on mod­ern fine art is unques­tion­able. Demand’s rela­tion­ship with pho­tog­ra­phy is some­what dif­fer­ent to Gursky’s or Wall’s who as pho­tog­ra­phers, engage with the cam­era to cre­ate their art. Demand on the oth­er hand is a sculp­tor who utilis­es a cam­era to dis­sem­i­nate his art in the form of a print. As he express­es in his con­ver­sa­tion with Jeff Wall for NVC Mel­bourne, the cam­era inhab­its his stu­dio and takes pho­tographs of what hap­pens to be in front of it at the time of the expo­sure, as if viewed through a win­dow.

In the gallery Demand’s images share the same large scale char­ac­ter­is­tics of Wall’s and Gursky’s. Their smooth glossy sur­faces con­trast the mate­r­i­al of their cre­ation. “In his 2008 book Why Pho­tog­ra­phy Mat­ters as Art as Nev­er Before, Michael Fried relates the often com­ment­ed upon two-stage reac­tion views expe­ri­ence when exam­in­ing Demand’s pho­tographs:

A first stage in which the image seems cold and abstract, but oth­er­wise unex­cep­tion­al, and a sec­ond stage in which the view­er sens­es that some­thing (indeed every­thing) is ‘off’ or wrong and pro­gres­sive­ly comes to rec­og­nize… The image is noth­ing more or less than a recon­struc­tion.

The term recon­struc­tion alludes to the fact that Demand’s mod­els are based on — derived from, copied from, or direct­ly refer to — pho­tographs that have already entered the pub­lic con­scious­ness in some way.” (Nieberd­ing, 2017)

Back­yard, Thomas Demand (2014)

Indi­vid­u­al­ly sup­plied with an infor­ma­tion-laden press release, Demand’s work con­spic­u­ous­ly refus­es to eas­i­ly con­nect index­i­cal­ly to the orig­i­nal scene. Each work is the result of a metic­u­lous process of cre­at­ing life-size scenes sculpt­ed from paper which are then lit and pho­tographed. Back­yard (2014), care­ful­ly recre­ates the small gar­den and sec­tion of a house with steps lead­ing from what appears to be a back door. Behind the rear fence cher­ry blos­soms con­trast against the mat grey sky. The orig­i­nal New York Times image of Kather­ine Rus­sell Tsar­naev, pic­tures her out­side the build­ing in Cam­bridge, MA. where she lived with her hus­band Tamer­ian Tsar­naev, one of the Boston Marathon bombers. The Con­trol Room (2011), recre­ates the scene at Fukushi­ma after the earth­quake that trig­gered its nuclear melt­down. Unlike Demand’s ear­li­er works, these utilise com­put­erised laser cut­ting devices and a small team of assis­tants to cut, fold and assem­ble the more repet­i­tive and com­plex regions of the sculp­ture.

Con­trol Room, Demand (2011)

Demand’s sculp­tures offer a pho­to­graph­ic envi­ron­ment not dis­sim­i­lar to the CGI sub­jects cre­at­ed in vir­tu­al stu­dio envi­ron­ments of the com­mer­cial CGI pho­tog­ra­ph­er. The tan­gi­bil­i­ty of paper, con­trasts the poly­gons and algo­rithms of CGI mate­ri­als. In both cas­es the artis­tic moti­va­tion and mean­ing present them­selves to the cam­era to record their occur­rence, only the CGI cam­era does not have a phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion exist­ing only in soft­ware. Fil­ip Dujardin’s impos­si­ble archi­tec­tur­al pho­tographs merge this vir­tu­al cam­era with that of the prac­ti­cal cam­era cre­at­ing com­pos­it­ed images that bring their worlds togeth­er in one sin­gle image.

Fil­ip Dujardin

Richard Kolk­er series enti­tled The Game recre­ates the liv­ing spaces of gamers using CGI. As Gursky’s sub­ject relates to and enables his process as a form of artis­tic expres­sion, Kolker’s images look to their source for the method of their cre­ation. “While Kolker’s work is large­ly com­put­er-gen­er­at­ed, it is very much based on pho­to­graph­ic the­o­ry and prin­ci­ples […] his ulti­mate rep­re­sen­ta­tion is still a pho­to­graph, a sin­gle frame nar­ra­tive depict­ing a relat­able real world sce­nario.” (Body, 2012). In the case of this work by Kolk­er, it could eas­i­ly be con­sid­ered paint­ing for many of the rea­sons it is con­sid­ered pho­tog­ra­phy. CGI painters utilise the same tools in much the same way as their pho­to­graph­ic coun­ter­parts. Like the work of Demand the cre­ation of Kolker’s The Game is sculp­tur­al, three dimen­sion­al. The process engages the artist with the sub­ject, which is lat­er reimag­ined through the place­ment of cam­era, whose prop­er­ties focus the sub­ject with­in a pho­to­graph­ic com­po­si­tion, which is then pre­sent­ed as a pho­to­graph.

Bed, Richard Kolk­er

Each of these artists are root­ed in the ‘real’. The sub­jects of their works are enriched by their process­es. The tan­gi­ble con­nec­tion between the ana­logue pho­to­graph and its sub­ject has been extend­ed to include not only dig­i­tal manip­u­la­tion but cre­ation of new envi­ron­ment through the use of sculp­ture both phys­i­cal and vir­tu­al. Photography’s rela­tion­ship to the deci­sive moment has shift­ed from its foun­da­tions while main­tain­ing the spon­ta­neous nature of the snap­shot. The cam­era itself has evolved from its chem­i­cal foun­da­tions becom­ing dig­i­tal and ulti­mate­ly break­ing away from its phys­i­cal man­i­fes­ta­tion to record the vir­tu­al world around us. Pho­tog­ra­phers are push­ing the per­cep­tion of what is real, open­ing the door to visu­al­is­ing yet unex­plored real­i­ties.


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