Post-Photography, Art, and its Contexts ~ Michael Chew
Introduction The advent and rise of new media technologies – video, television, expanded advertising practices and digital photography - has seen altered the context in which photography as a medium expresses itself and is received. The existence of photography alongside these new media revisits ontological questions concerning both the objective and subjective poles of photography; both regarding the objective truth or ‘reality’ value of the medium itself, and the subjective viewing context - which is sensitive to the reality effects of these new forms of media. This paper explores these underlying themes, and how some contemporary artists work critique and respond to these issues. Post-Photography There are many strands of thought surrounding the idea of ‘post-photography’. A main theme is the idea that new media forms - through both their ready temporal availability and ability to represent reality in new, and more seductive ways - disrupt the stillness of the photograph, and ‘liberate’ it from its traditional role in representing reality, allowing it to explore itself more self-reflectively, more ‘artfully’.1 The associated effect is photography’s decline as a standalone technique for the construction of social reality and meaning. An analogous situation occurred around the ‘crisis’ of painting arising when the advent of photography problematised painting’s role in articulating reality. In this era photography has gained the greatest acceptance as form of art, with many artists extolling the materiality of photography as opposed to virtual images, using digital techniques to mirror traditional photographic ones, mirroring again the situation with painting. 1
For a further elaboration of this idea, see Roberts 1998:216-228.
Of course, these specific trajectories in subjectivism and self-reflexivity have been key parts of photography since its inception; what is perhaps interesting in this case is that rather than influences coming from themes such as romanticism or photographic ontology, they are arising as part of a dialogue with competing modes of representation. This contemporary dialogue has produced a full spectrum of artistic responses ranging from the ‘techno-utopian’ currents that enlist the popular mythology of technological-progress, to the more nostalgic-ontological forms that elevate the materiality of the traditional photographic process. The more interesting of these responses are both critical enough to engage with popular mythologies and creative enough to genuinely engage with new artistic processes. It is this balance that is important to keep given the polarisation between the old and new that typically operates in times of transition and shifts in roles and process of media. Speed and slowness Perhaps the most striking aspect of the post-photography media environment2 is the sheer volume of images that surround us and their ‘speed’, in both interaction, absorption, and circulation. Getting past the often hyperbolic literature on the subject3, we must acknowledge the great extent to which visual stimuli presented to Western, urban societies (whose values are the core behind the key forces of cultural globalisation) that speeded up over the last few decades.4 Whether it is in the private home, in the form of the all-pervasive tele-video, or out in public with the encroachment of public space by every conceivable kind of advertising image, images are proliferating and continually demanding more of our attention. The reception time and processing of these images declines, as does the time and distance that critical thinking requires. At its worst case this can lead to what theorist Paul Virilio calls the ‘disappearance of consciousness’ as the external buffeting of invasive and persistent media serve to undermine the individual consciousness and erase any originality of human sensation.
This term refers to the post-WW2 environment that has steadily been colonised by differing media forms – television, video, mass advertising, multimedia. 3 Much of the uncritical theoretical literature still persists in progressive myth of emanicipatory technololigical utopia, see for instance Noll 1997, Zey 2000, a discussion of Druckery 1993:29. 4 This is not new – see for instance Simmel’s ‘Metropolis and Mental Life’ (Wolff 1959:89-102) but again we are identifying a trajectory that is coupled directly with the proliferation of media forms.
Given this prognosis, the emerging media environment may seem like one unconducive of critical art responses. During transitional phases it is easy to mark the only innovation to be that of acceleration forward; that of amplifying the uniqueness of the new media, and creating the largest gap from techniques of the old.5 However acceleration is only one part of the logic of new media technologies – just as new technologies can lead to the onslaught of our senses, they can cause their slowing and magnification in various forms of self-conscious ‘deceleration’. It is in these logics that the richness of artistic endeavour emerges. While there are definitely no shortage of new media artists relying on the uncritical forms of high speed, low-IQ material, the more innovative practitioners employ various forms of discursive deceleration in the new media to critically reinhabit these new terrains. This deceleration often amounts to holding back information streams to allow the spectator’s imagination to fill the gap, the latter which is so often closed in the attempt to devise the total mediated experience (IMAX films, immersive VR and so forth). Bill Viola’s video collection ‘The Passions’ gives an illustration involving both a literal slowing and a metaphoric one. The two video pieces ‘Observance’ and ‘Dolorosa’ both feature slow motion scenes of people beset by grief. In ‘Observance’, a line of mourners slowly approach us to confront some terrible vision. Visibly flinching and grieving, they mourn collectively. This work derives much of its power from the ‘slowness’ that it cultivates.6 The actual slow motion of the film itself allows the moment of affect to swell, expand, and sink in, rather than shock us into feeling through sensory barrage. The feeling is underdetermined, rather than overdetermined; the ‘gap’ exists through the situation of what we do not see – the actual object of grief itself. Our only access to it is refracted and filtered through the faces and emotions of the onlookers. This distancing gives the space for us to enter more fully into the work. ‘Dolorosa’, uses this ‘slowness’ in a similar way, showing close-up slow motion footage of a man and a woman weeping continuously. A glance at the video reveals an almost still image – only through extended observation does the work unfold itself. Simpler in structure than Observance, Dorosa shows the bare minimum, the act of 5
For further discussion, see Koop 1995:86-7. This power, is the power of affect; Viola is rare amongst contempory artists to consistantly have an highly emotional effect on viewers, with his art frequently inducing tears. See Townsend 2004:8. 6
weeping by two individuals. This personal presentation encourages viewer’s identification and engagement with the work, while keeping the gap in representation – we still cannot fathom the actual object of the grief.7 Truth Although photography’s realism – it’s apparent truth-value in representing a piece of the world – was suspect from its inception (having always been contingent on controlled variables such as framing, aperture, exposure, printing techniques such as dodging or burning), it is with the arrival of digital photography that comes the power to manipulate images at will and without trace, to montage and create independent of referents. In doing so it uncovers the constructedness of all images and opens up new visual registers. In the context of the contemporary media environment, this power of manipulation sees the most application in the fashioning of advertising images. While people and products in these images have always been represented in a stylised manner, airbrushed and perfected, digital manipulation greatly extends this practice - particularly with images of people - where individual hairs can be modified or removed, skin blemishes erased, models made (even) thinner. These imaging practices widen the gap between the ideal, represented body, and the viewer’s actual body, a gap that the appropriate products promise to fill. One artist to respond to this context is Inez van Lamsweerde. The ‘Thank you Thighmaster’ series addresses in an quite obvious manner the narrowing ideal of female beauty as presented in consumer society. One image depicts a typical model’s pose, with the crucial exception that her pubic hair, nipples, and genitalia are missing. While the sexual politics involved in this critique are not necessarily new (as the expansive feminist literature on embodiment and repression would attest), the digital intervention involved – the erasure of hair and sexual characteristics - is a disturbingly accurate and contemporary mirror to the current post-production digital touch up processes that women’s bodies are subjected to in both fashion and pornographic imaging. Not only are skin’s blemishes smoothed over, but in the case of pornography, often ‘unruly’ female 7
Cythia Freeland attributes this break or rupture of representation in Viola’s work as a mechanism of the sublime - it passes beyond representation. Read in this fashion, the slow motion presentation could fit in with the idea of vastness (in this case, of a moment of grief) inherit in the sublime. For further reading see Townsend 2004:24-44.
genitalia – clitoria which protrude ‘excessively’ are pruned back in an image-editing program, enacting a form of a digital castration. By taking this processes to their logical extreme van Lamsweerde makes plainly visible their disturbing implications. Women becomes a freely managed construction site for the cultivation of desire and selling of commodities. The digital alterations also mirror plastic surgery, that other kind of external body sculpting, eluded to in the title ‘thankyou thighmaster’. The fact that the pose in the work is read as either fashion or pornography highlights the conflation of the two, where the (re)constructed female body becomes the site of failed identification for the female gaze, and failed appropriation with the male gaze (where male sexual desire is steadily remapped away from the real and to effectively imaginary bodies).
The Body So far we have examined the interplay between photography and the new media in the context of images. However the implications in the new mediascapes have a bodily dimension as well. The expansion and perfection of images around us ultimately serves to handicap us physically – our active psycho-motor orientation with the external world wanes with continuous consumption of audio-visual media, which streams past the passive consuming body.8 We are stimulated by increasingly advanced imagery, but without the corresponding physical stimulus to ground and locate such sensations.9 The more interactive media become, the less involved our bodies are we increasingly participate while excluding the bodily feedback and effects of these choices.10 There is resonances here with the type of transcendental thinking that deeply situates the Cartesian hierarchical dualisms of mind and body within Western philosophical tradition and culture, where we traditionally sought to rid ourselves of the
For further discussion of these psycho-somatic implications, see Druckery 1993:63-4. The content of the stimulation often lends this to having a specific effect; the common currency of sensationalised fear, desire, and violence flood us and evoke emotional responses that have no where to go. The physiological reaction is to build up addrenaline and our bodily capacity to react - but it has no release, and so we are left in a perpectually heightened but ultimately impetutant state. 10 The exception of this is of course immersive VR technologies which are designed to include bodily feedback and interactivity in their systems; however technology and demand is still in its infancy and there has been little widespread dispersal or usuage of this medium. 9
frail mortal body and transcend to heaven. Though religion’s fall from hegemony displaces this version of utopia, the various trajectories of techno-utopian thought provide new fertile ground for the same type of vision. This latter discourse, which exhibits a non-critical embracing of new media technology and cyberpunk literature (William Gibson’s Neuromancer often being central to the canon), shares the same desire - the need to take flight from our limited, physical selves into the transcendental realm of cyberspace. One artist, Alba D’Urbano responds to some of these ideas through her work ‘close to the skin’, in which she has scanned in 2D images of her body and processed them digitally with tonal depth cues to create a 3D ‘skin ‘of her body. The latter is handless, feetless, and headless, marking the helplessness of the body at the interface of digital mediums. All of our key somatic interfaces with the world, and its digital variant - eyes, ears, hands, feet - are gone. The skin as the outer bodily layer is the ground for any image of a person in the eyes of another, or a camera. Here as digitalised it can freely circulate with other images, whilst the final artistic act is to precipitate a 3D doppelganger which simulates weighted physicality of the first body – imperfectly of course – it is still a flat cloak of skin. The suit hangs melancholically on a coat hanger, a weighted, mortal husk generated from feather light, immaterial images the screen. It introduces a drag weight to the otherwise weightless images of bodies that circulate through electronic media networks. While gesturing to the helplessness of the body in these contexts, the work admits new possibilities. A wearer of the cloak can trade their own body for the artist, referring to the ancient desire to stare through another’s eyes, or live through their body. Identity precipitates to the surface, to the skin, the eye. Analogously, the psychological development of identity in an image saturated mediasphere - that is both ubiquitous and fragmented – can give rise to the identification of the body in pieces, the undoing of the Lacanian imaginary whole, as seen in the mirror.11
For further discussion of the Lacanian mirror stage and its effect the image saturation, seen Amelunxen 1996:27.
Photography We turn now to more traditional forms of photographic imaging to explore how themes within photography reveal patterns that respond and resist the various reality effects of new media forms. The material processes of traditional photography have a ‘slowness’ which resists the ‘acceleration’ of new media forms. The very basis of processing film and printing are constructed around notions of specific (chemical activation and exposure) times, while with say, digital photography, processing delay is always a hindrance, a frustrating gap in the imaging process which is promised to be reduced with the next faster computer. Photography’s power for fine detail is lost in temporal media such as cinematic film or video, and overlooked in interactive/immersive media. The static photographic image with its singular, fixed viewpoint perpetually invokes a certain detachment. Within photography’s diversity of genres, formalisms, and styles, a few that emphasise this difference are discussed below. One popular style within contemporary art photography that exemplifies this is the ‘deadpan’ aesthetic. The latter offers a cool, detached and keenly sharp image which is usually printed in epic proportions which emphasises the extreme visual clarity that photography offers. The photographer keeps an emotional distance from the subject, and presents to us a scene a seemingly detached manner. The work of one of the key practitioners of this form, Andreas Gurksy, is illustrative. In Prada I, a row of shoes are presented on a mammoth scale in exacting evenness – of lighting, form, and colour. The clinical objectivity highlights and cools the usual hyperbolic and fetishistic depiction of shoes in ubiquitous fashion photography, evoking an eerie barrenness. In ‘supermarket’ – a similar manoeuvre operates where the hyperreal jostling of consumer commodities that arrest the senses in supermarkets are levelled out and flattened to formal pattern-like arrangements. In this work and other works Gurksy digitally altered the images to increase the effect of the exact micro repetition of their component parts, feeding into the aesthetic as a whole. This type of photography on one hand closely references and competes with advertising imagery in its technical mastery – and on the other hand draws much of its power from the contrast that it ultimately yields from commercial images through its stillness and detachment.
While the images discussed above share some of the same content as the images widely circulated in mass culture, and are different on a formal basis, other photographic styles illuminate areas traditionally excluded from popular representation. The diverse genre of the ‘everyday’ is one example - its banality is mostly ignored by the culture industry, which still holds faithful to the usual Hollywood ethos of sensationalism and drama.12 Art photography focussing on the everyday elevates daily seen items to significance, eroding barriers between the artistic process, the gallery, and the everyday life/world. While photographic imagery from consumer culture strives to invest mundane, everyday items (such as watches or shoes) with appealing and epically proportioned desires, this photographic genre celebrates these same items with a fleetingness, an ‘anti-sensationalism’. Gabriel Orozco’s ‘Breath on Piano’ depicts the fugitative trace of condensation on the surface of a piano. This fleeting evidence for vitality, traced out on the familiar shiny surface, contrasts with the injected sensationalism that accompanies mass cultural representations.13 At the same time the trace of breath on the surface underscores the fundamental ontology of photography - the image as an image, not as a privileged window to the everyday world.
Of course, this is nothing new to photography, fleeting
moments and gestures have long been the preoccupation of photographers, however in the current ‘post-photographic context this ‘escape from representation’ takes on new meanings. Another photographic series that registers the idea of fleetingness is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ untitled series of unmade beds. The images, which show only the traces of the absent occupants, through the fabrics’ folds, are displayed on commercial billboards. The intensely private scene is left open and undetermined, allowing the public viewer to connect and draw their own experiences into the image - a direct rupture from the closed and determined surrounding world of advertising images on adjacent billboards.14 The latter images, whose world Torres’s prints have invaded, must by their
This is consistant right through recent developments such as reality television, where the subject is everyday life in one form or another, but must be carefully edited, controlled, and sensationalised before broadcast. 13 The notion of fleetingness is refined and focussed in what George Alexander calls ‘poemogogical images’- images which are ‘vague, shadowy, imperfect and ultimately intriguing’(Koop 1995:24). 14 The fact that these were put up at the height of the AIDS awareness and fear in the US, added an extra dimension concerning the anxiety of what is difficult to represent, like the virus itself.
logic of advertising, be ultimately closed â€“ however ambiguous the images are, they always come back to the their logo for final corporate identification, stamping to this symbol the desire generated in the image. Conclusion The rising trajectory of new media technologies, their ubiquity and psychological impact, has changed the context in which photography practices operate, in both production and reception. Photography has emerged as increasingly uncoupled from former conventions of representation, particularly realism, with a deeper questioning of its truth-value and the shifting technologies that support the medium itself. Emerging currents in photography have must be seen in light of such developments. The speed of the mediasphere invites artists to explore creative ways of slowing the reception down and revealing what cannot be represented through speed, while its total flexibility , based on the infinite malleability of digital imaging, provide artists with the same tools to (re)construct images in ways that reveal their making, and the politics behind them. The body remains the site buffeted by the stimulation of the new media â€“ the locus for the conflicting desires; the lightness of the digital representations and the weight of embodiment. It is through engaging critically and creatively with all these facets that contemporary artists stand to create genuinely new and engaging possibilities that stand distinct and apart from the wave of images which immerse our daily lives. 2768 words
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