Volume 6, Number 2 (July, 2009)
Book Review: Image Art and Photography
A Review of Uta Grosenick and Thomas Seelig. Photoart: The New world of Photography. London: Thames and Hudson, 2006.
Dr. Gerry Coulter
(Bishop’s University, Sherbrooke, Canada)
We are surrounded by many talented image makers today several of whom deeply challenge long held assumptions about photography. As I pass through the pages of Grosenick and Seelig’s Photoart: The New World of Photography I am struck by two things: 1) Many images being published today under the name of “photography” are, more accurately, digital image art, and 2) the vast majority of images of our time are, perhaps not surprisingly, concerned with the unhappiness of human existence and the sad environments we endure. Grosenick and Seelig’s book attempts to construct categories which merely gloss over important issues involving an important part of the visual background of an age which is becoming obsessed with the virtual (Baudrillard, 2006:92)
II. Why Take or Make This Image?
When we take a photograph we should ask ourselves: “why take this image?” Afterwards, in the darkroom or the screened light of the computer program, we should also ask: “why manipulate (make) this image?” At some point in the process we need to be able to answer these questions or else the final image has no raison d’etre. I am what the authors of this book would consider to be biased toward the “cerebral aspect of photography” which I see as central to the medium’s imaginative potential. The majority of images appearing in this book fall into a miserable category of (albeit well intentioned) visual pollution. This may itself be a good reason to publish them.
Other image makers and takers presented in this book are responding to the challenging problems posed by virtuality in interesting and important ways. Image making now proliferates over image taking but we could have said this about the majority of surrealist photographers of the 1920’s and 1930’s as well. As far as image “taking” (photography) is concerned, it appears that we can count on guerrilla actions from the margins to continue to take place for some time. As for image “making” goes it appears that only a small minority are attempting to avoid tumbling into the computer screen where technicity comes to defeat the photographic.
III. Categorizing Contemporary Images
Appearance is always victorious (Baudrillard, 1988:73).
By example more than analysis Grosenick and Seelig’s book illustrates how “Reality” weighs heavily on the minds of photographers and image makers who use cameras today. Like many “photography” publications at the present moment, it shows the enormous price we are paying for efforts to make images which are more real than the real (hyperreal). Olivo Barbieri’s often photographs from the air zeroing in on fragments
1. Olivo Barbieri. Site Specific – Shanghai (2004)
of the city before using digital manipulation to adjust colour effects and to introduce distortions. The result is far from photography but it is a lovely digital art – akin to a science fiction simulation – the kind of art which leaves behind it only a deeper distrust of the image. Barbieri tells us that it is impossible to grasp any urban environment in its entirety and reminds us never to trust the image. This however does not mean that because he uses a camera to record images which are heavily manipulated before they become final that what he produces are photographs.
Photography has never (nor has art) been about the “grasping of reality” (14) but about the recording of appearances – this is why it is possible to photograph any object 100 different ways as it is to paint one. Barbieri is one of many image makers who understand that photography is one more form of simulation (as is writing, or painting, or theorizing).
A problem photography faces today is that it has been taken on board the vehicle which it long chased after – the art world. This is why so many publications concerning contemporary photography merely record the extent of the globalization of the Western art world’s limited “aesthetic” understanding of photography. We are told that “photography has become an aesthetic force in this book” (18). The art market, a central aspect of today’s speculative Western art world, also plays a key role in the selection criteria of photographs which get exhibited and published through the promotional aspects of the roles of curators and critics.
Grosenick and Seelig attempt to categorize contemporary photographs using five concepts: the photography of fantasy, emotion, memory, association, and sensation. As these are overlapping categories the schematic proves weak and eventually dissolves despite a valiant effort on the part of the editors. Still, this is a highly valuable collection of images which does more than an adequate job of showing us a good picture of the diversity of image making (and taking) at the present moment. The book’s glaring weakness is its refusal to distinguish digital image-art from photography.
a) The photography of imagination
Many in this section of the book (like Barbieri) use digital manipulations to create pseudo-narratives with a hyper-real aesthetic. Imaginative? yes, – intellectual? yes, – real? no, – photography? partially, – image art? – clearly.
2. Florian Maier–Aichen. Untitled (2005)
In the “photography of the imagination” we see that one of the future fates of the “photographer” (as image artist) is to become merely a double agent of the virtual. Still, against the buoyancy of the editors I wonder if the manipulation of digital images on the screen, while creative and imaginative, requires as much imagination as finding a perspective on an object that allows it to stand as a great photograph, in natural light, without post production. Taken together the “photographers” of the imagination selected for the book tell us less about the photographic imagination than they do the digital and the editorial imagination.
b) the photography of Emotion
A really good photographer or image artist helps us to consider the myth of identity. Yto Barrada’s images “record” the idea of elsewhere. At a time of shifting cultural (and sometimes national) borders, she has deeply problematized notions of the real and of movement. Some of the emotion Barrada’s images is one of indifference. An My-Lê is a photographer of simulations who’s Night Operations is a readymade simulation showing American troops involved in a virtual battle in an empty desert with an assured outcome – not very different from the tank battles of the first gulf war where American technological superiority saw tank battles end before the two combating sides could see each other. With the work of Kelli Connell we enter more into the terrorism of identity but Connell terrorizes only herself – making herself into her virtual double in her images. She becomes a fantasy person in her own life in what is an interesting contemporary elaboration on the narcissus story. Lukas Einsele travels the world interviewing and photographing survivors of landmine explosions. In this curious ritual of double-victimization disparate peoples from far off lands are forced into a strange kind of global “land mine survivor” identity. These four photographers of emotion are so in a negative sense as what they do best is to downplay emotion.
Natalie Czech’s image art concerns the spaces of emotions of loss, pain, and grief.
3. Natalie Czech. Win or Lose (2005)
Beate Gütschow makes disquieting digital montages which use elements found in the world to construct buildings and landscapes which are otherworldly. If any emotion is produced by these images it is a cool indifference and she is a better fit under “the photography of the imagination”. Gütschow’s images are very serious reminders of the despair of much large scale modern architecture.
Justine Kurland and Helen van Meene are young photographers of great promise neither of whom is as interested in image art but photography. Kurland’s Shipwreck is a brilliant image within an image and it is only we begin to look beyond the automobile and its inhabitants that we realize there actually is another wrecked “ship” in the picture. She seems to be a kind of dreamer wandering in and recording the deserts of our neo-romantic era.
4. Helen van Meene. Riga [Latvia] – 180 (2004)
Helen van Meene is a also photographer of adolescent women (non models) who also works with film and natural light. Against the globalizing culture of ambient pornography she preserves the nude image as one wherein the photographer and her subject/object maintain the woman’s secret. We travel up her body and find that we must search for it in her eyes – which remain indifferent to us. I do not understand this as the photography of identity but of a response to the identity mania of our time. While some of the body is revealed the woman’s arm, which conceals the front of her breast, is no more obscuring than the young woman’s eyes. This is an image which tells us only that we can never know this young woman or anyone.
The image art of Sonja Brass and Dirk Braeckman are deployed to fill out this category. Brass is an image artist who constructs images concerned with the power of nature (storms in particular). She is an interesting contemporary artist in that these are actual photographs (not digital collage) but they are not taken in nature – rather, they are photographs of replicas which exist on a very small scale in her studio. The methodology of science fiction modelling of the Star-Wars era has entered the photographers studio. Dirk Braeckman is one of the few traditional photographers appearing in this book (he uses the darkroom process of gelatine silver printing). His images possess an ethereal quality combined with a look that brings a very contemporary look to an historic medium. Emotion is represented by passion in N.P – I.K., by the other everyone seeks and this woman has found. Here we see that eye contact with the subject as object is not essential to creating an empathetic emotional image.
5. Dirk Braeckman. N.P – I.K. (2004)
c) the photography of memory
The photography of memory (focussing on the transitory and turbulent nature of our times and culture as living memory) is perhaps the best category used in the book. Grosenick and Seelig characterize it as concerning impressions, experiences and perceptions that are stored in our mind. Photographers today are often concerned with the “cultural function of memory” (23) which plays a different role in transitory and turbulent times.
Gabor Osz’s Prora Project takes us inside the repetitive interiors of twenty apartments in the kind of building Rem Koolhaas has characterized as “basic plan” (one floor of the same on top of the same), sadly a key architectural feature of modernity. OHIO are collectors who have produced an anti-magazine art project that works according to counter-intuitive and anti-hierarchical logics aiming to advocate neither good nor bad photography but to force questions concerning what we value (326). Challenges to authorship combines with a fascination with the commonplace in photographers such as Peter Piller, Rosangela Renno, and Tacita Dean. An important thrust of these images is that they will expand our collective memory while we negotiate with an ever problematic real. Sometimes these image makers show us that the poetic is right there under our feet. Roy Arden’s photographs taken in stores echo Andy Warhol’s first Pop works while pointing to our culture as one of by-products. In it places like Wal-Mart represent conduits (as do consumer homes) between nature and the landfill. One wonders if the role of our culture is accelerate this process until the world is turned into an boundless garbage dump. The cynicism of running forklifts through a store and leaving the product on wooden skids is telling of the accelerated pace of this process.
6. Roy Arden. Wal-Mart Store (Tide),
Burnaby, Canada (1996).
Arno Nollen seeks out the women excluded by the porn and advertising industries – that is – the “average” woman rather than the digitalized wonders who appear in magazines, on billboards, or in mainstream pornography. The irony is that some of Nollen’s images are much more sensual and erotic than those produced by the porn industry. His is a subtle and respectful sensuality that understands an often overlooked aspect of woman’s power. His images take serve as illustrations perhaps of some aspects of Baudrillard’s idea of seduction. Among the everyday aspects of our culture worth recording (and we see this in Arden’s work as well), are the people who will not become part of the official archive.
7. Arno Nollen. Elke (2000)
Barbara Probst, Charles Freger, and the duo of Blommers and Schumm use their images to create memories of things that are not part of our time. These image makers produce some of the most banal images in the entire book and point (for me) to the dangers of a fascination with the banal – sometimes the photographer tumbles over the edge and produces only banal images. This is a risk which some negotiate better than others at the present moment. But in an era when Jeff Koons has risen to the top of the art world there is great incentive for photographers to make themselves in his image. Takashi Yasumura manages to make images of our time but in no less banal manner while Qingsong Wang stands between the two approaches as he brings art history into contemporary photographic image making.
Janaina Tschäpe asks women to consider how everything changes and could easily work out very differently than it has. This is also empowering to women who may end up like the woman pictured in Volva as it means they can change the course of current events that may lead them there through staying with abusive men. Finally, Elina Brotherus is the most interesting of the photographers of memory in this book as she is a master of photographing people in the prison cell of their modern lives. An important memory that both Tschäpe and Brotherus is the memory of how good things were not in our time (see Coulter, 2009).
8. Janaina Tschäpe. Volva (2004)
Culture as living memory is also recorded by Charlotte Dumas who takes portraits of animals in positions not usually photographed (a horse lying down or half way to standing), to question established customs of representation.
The significance of photographing the ephemera of our times is born out when we consider how little of the nineteenth century, for example, was actually photographed. The lens widened in the 20th century and now everything can be a photograph. People in the future (so long as they have the ability ot retain and read digital images), will be able to look into our attics and bedrooms the way we cannot assess the day to day lives of “average” people in the nineteenth century. Nonetheless, our heirs will have to wade through an enormous quantity of visual pollution.
d) the photography of association
The fourth major kind of contemporary photography for Grosenick and Seelig is what they call the photography of association – images that concern the dream world.
Roe Etheridge’s photographs of fish guts and close portraits are reminiscent of Wols to whom much of the photography of memories may be traced. Izima Kaoru merges fashion with kitsch and death in images of models posing dead on the floor of a restaurant. Jean-Pierre Khazem problematizes identity by photographing the face as a mask including a series of US presidential wives behind empty eyes. Ruud van Empel takes leave of photography entirely for the world of digital manipulation in making images of children. In an ironic way I suppose his work does serve to contest the real as in the digital we are left to negotiate, more than ever before, an exponential world of appearances. His work also points to the complexities this poses for the future as digitalization becomes ever more polished yet insipid. Rinko Kawauchi photographs fragments and in doing so captures and important aspect of epistemology. Here fragments of human faces and buildings take on an other worldly dimension – perhaps they are best seen as nostalgic on the eve of the posthuman.
Gonzalo Puch, Juul Hondius, Erik Steinbrecher, Alec Soth and Heidi Specker are also included as photographers of association but again the associations with banality are so close as to produce only banal images (the ones shown in the book). A marvellous exception is Marnix Goosens work which creates a dynamic tension between flat and three dimensional surfaces. His work demands an intense period of viewing before its layers (and it at first appears to have only one), begin to unfold.
9. Marnix Goosens. Surfers Paradise (2007)
e) the photography of sensation
Grosenick and Seelig see the photography of sensation as dealing with the rejection of taboos or for symbols. Here they include the forceful work of Santiago Sierra who photographs his artistic actions (which in 2006 included the replication of Nazi gas chambers in a former synagogue in Pϋlheim Germany). Visitors to the action wore gas masks into the building which had been made into a deadly environment by piping in the exhaust of six automobiles. Sierra’s photographs serve as memories of such “actions” aimed at remembering tragic events by heightening the gravity of the physical experience of a deadly environment. While his actions deal with sensation his images deal more with memory. No reason is given by the editors as to why Sierra’s work was not included the section concerning the ”photography of memory”.
The GRAM Group (Gunter Holler-Schuster, Ron Walter, Armin Ranner, and Martin Behr) poke fun at celebrity culture, the Paparazzi and the Tabloid news industry by taking images of everyday people in public places which are then enlarged to give them a false significance. By copying the style of the popular press for equally banal ends GRAM raise questions concerning the way in which our collective memory is crammed with ocular effluence. Steven Gill’s work is also called upon at this point to probe the messier side of urban life – the garbage and abandoned automobiles of contemporary society. Often in Gill’s work we see a small bird somewhere in the image overwhelmed by the human culture it endures. One wonders how these fragile life forms persist among our detritus. Perhaps Gill sees them as poignant urban equivalents to the canary in a coal mine: when the birds disappear, we will soon follow.
10. Luc Delahaye. Taliban (2001)
Luc Delahaye is another image maker who deals in forcing us to hone our gaze. He recently abandoned photo journalism for art and the book contains his best image to date: Taliban (2001). The image is like many of his shots of urban faces (on the Paris Metro) or anonymous field photographs from war zones in that it brings us into immediate contact with an anonymous and uncertain entity.
Two women photographers who problematize gender included in the book are Maria Hahenkamp and Anikka von Hausswolff. Hahenkamp focuses on how we see the body and has merged her work with fragments from the work of Judith Butler to illustrate that how we represent the female body is the result of discursive practices. Von Hausswolff photographs women lying on the ground in beautiful landscapes to show how women are treated like trash (thrown out of a car window perhaps), in contemporary society.
Naoya Hatakeyama problematizes the real by photographing urban images reflected on water. His images make us ask “which real is more real?” – the one we see in the colours of dawn, noon, evening or night? He confronts us with the multiplicity of reals we encounter over and over within each Heraclitean space we encounter. We never step into the same image stream twice in this version. I think the best image in the whole book [Zwelethu Mthethwa’s Untitled (2001)] captures something that this book, whether it is intended to or not, is about. It is one of hundreds in the book which points to how unhappy we are – yet stoic holders of an indifference that matches the indifference of the world to us.
11. Zwelethu Mthethwa. Untitled (2001)
This book contains a thorough collection of 718 images (596 of which are in colour). I am often troubled by the categories into which Grosenick and Seelig attempt to force the work of contemporary image makers but I find it far more problematic that the book forces image art into photography – and vice versa. If we are looking for categories with which to attempt to define the present moment, perhaps we should forego the five chosen by the editors and focus our attention on photography vs. image art. I doubt there is much interest in doing this in the art world today which has only recently competed its hostile takeover of photography. Image making proliferates at the time when image taking is in rapid decline. This acceleration is the story of photography in our time and it is as important as the story of digital image art which can be told all the better alongside an explicit awareness of it.
In the form of one of its anti-destinies Grosenick and Seelig have brought together a marvellous collection of image art. I think that almost every image in this book is the result, not only of someone who once used a camera as part of the process of making even the most manipulated of images, but also of someone who asked “why this image” and / or “why manipulate it”. It results in what are a collection of fabulously artistic images – quite simply this is a book of art. When the camera is such a small part of the end result – as it is in most images shown – what we have is “image art”. I think it is important for this new body of work to stand on its own two legs and the authors do a disservice to it, as they do photography, by forcing image art into a now historical category where it does no longer recognizes itself. It is time that image art stopped travelling under the name of photography and it is the job of people like Grosenick and Seelig and quality publishers like Thames and Hudson to help get us there. Photoart is not, as the book’s subtitle says “the new world of photography”. What is considered to be "photoart" often no longer relies on photography at all, and much less than it does on computer programs.
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Robert M. Coates (1964). “The Art Galleries: Wither, Wither?”, The New Yorker, December 19: 152-155
Gerry Coulter (2009). “On Both sides Of The Lens – Five Contemporary Women Photographers” in Izinsiz Gosteri (forthcoming in 2009)