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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 http://www.tate.org.uk/art/work/T06951

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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https://www.lensculture.com/articles/jens-liebchen-dl-07-stereotypes-of-war, August 2017
https://www.moma.org/calendar/exhibitions/2429