Penelope Umbrico

Penelope Umbrico is an artist who predominately works with found images from the internet and addresses the issues presented by the overwhelming amounts of these pictures we are faced with. Her goal however, is not to archive or collect these images, but to use them in the service of creating her own work which is often different, or even opposing, the intended meaning of the original. In response to a question about how her works de-contextualise and re-contextualise the images she uses she states:

“All photography is de-contextualization. And as soon as it can be viewed – by anyone, in any way, place or form – it’s re-contextualization. As photographers, the first thing we learn is how to frame the world. And when you put a frame around anything, you de-contextualize it. To not see the re-contextualization at this point is to normalize that framing, to make it invisible – in some ways, I’d say my work calls attention to this invisibility – makes it visible.” (Labey and Bick, 2011)

It is so frustrating to research an artist and find they do not have their own website and therefore refreshing that Umbrico’s website is so comprehensive and provides such a gateway into her practice. There is much I admire and am inspired by in her work – not least the eloquent and personal way her artists statements for each of her projects bring them to life. I have taken the liberty here of including extended quotes because of this, and also because I would aspire to be able to describe my own work in similar ways. Other notable points from her practice is how she expands an idea into subsequent projects – some of these I have signposted here. Something else that resonates with me is that despite working extensively with appropriated digital images, the physical manifestation of her work is extremely important to Umbrico. Responding to a question about this in an interview she says:

“to me…flatness is seductive, and I love the physicality of the print. I like the work to sit right on the edge between representation and abstraction, illusory 3-dimensional and 2-dimensional object. So yes, I am very particular about material and craft. It’s important to me, for example, that the sun photographs are produced via a mass-market process – 4″ x 6” Kodak “Easy Share” machine prints (Kodak actually calls them this) or that Broken Sets (eBay) are digital c-prints on metallic paper – the sheen and luminescence of that paper lends to the coolness of the subject matter (the technological breakdown derived from images of broken electronic displays sold on eBay). (Labey and Bick, 2011)

Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (2006-ongoing):

Umbrico describes the genesis and development of her ongoing project ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr’ on her website (as an aside, I particularly like the conversational tone and the way she still manages to incorporate the conceptual ideas of the project):

“I began the project, Suns from Sunsets from Flickr in 2006 when looking for the most photographed subject, I searched the photo-sharing website Flickr and found “sunsets” to be the most present (tagged) resulting in 541, 795 in 2006 hits. I thought it peculiar that the sun, the quintessential giver of life and warmth, constant in our lives, symbol of enlightenment, spirituality, eternity, all things unreachable and ephemeral, omnipotent provider of optimism an vitamin D … and so ubiquitously photographed, is now subsumed to the internet – this warm singular object made multiple in the electronic space of the web, and viewed within the cool light of the screen.

I collected those sunsets from Flickr that had the most defined suns in them, and cropped just the suns from these images … which I upload to consumer photo-labs to be printed as 4×6″ machine c-prints. For each installation the title reflects the number of hits I get searching “sunset” on Flickr at the time of installation – for example the first installation was 541, 795 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 01/23/06; a year later: 2, 303, 057 Suns from Sunsets from Flickr (Partial) 09/25/07 – the (Partial) in the title refers to the fact that the installation is only a fragment of the number of sunsets on Flickr at that time.

… the title itself becoming a comment on the ever increasing use of web-based photo communities and a reflection of the collective content there. And since this number only lasts an instant, its recording is analogous to the act of photographing the sunset itself.

Perhaps part of the beauty of taking a picture of a sunset is that while you are doing it it’s likely that a million other people are doing it as well – at exactly the same time. I love this idea of collective practice, something we all engage in despite any artistic concern, knowing that there have been millions before an there will be millions after. While the intent of photographing a sunset may be to capture something ephemeral or to assert an individual subjective point of view – the result is quite the opposite – through the technology of our common camera we experience the power of millions of synoptic views, all shared the same way, at the same moment. To claim individual authorship while photographing a sunset is to disengage from this collective practice and therefore negate a large part of why capturing a sunset is so irresistible in the first place.” (Umbrico, s.d. a)

David Bate (2015) sees Umbrico’s massive grids of appropriated images as demonstrating the universal appeal of the amateur sunset snapshot and how a space can be inhabited by the imagination more than any geometry of place:

“The geometrical consciousness of place as an actual location in the world, for which photography is so renowned, is replaced by a luminary psychological effect, replete with all the imagination of human feeling. The sunsets, repeated as a variation on a theme, are used to enhance a set of emotive feelings. which are only tangentially grasped by aesthetic theories of the beautiful and the sublime. Put simply, a beautiful scene pacifies the spectator, whereas the sublime excites their desire. In the case of the sunset, it can usually do both at once, invoking the sun with feelings of melancholic passion. The sunset photograph is a classic example of how a psychological image can be imposed onto geometrical space: the effect exceeds the information provided about geographic place.” (Bate, 2015: 125)

See also: ‘Sun Burn (Screensaver)’ (2008)

See also: ‘Sunset Portraits from Sunset Pictures on Flickr’ (2010-ongoing)

Out of Order: Broken Sets/Bad Display (2007-ongoing):

For this series, Umbrico presents cropped images of broken monitors and TVs that are sold for spare parts on eBay. In order to show that the electronics behind the broken screens still work, the sellers present them switched on, for Umbrico, the abstract patterns of the displays show an “incidental beauty” which derives “from the failure of their own promising technology.” The images are printed and displayed in grid form which emphasises both their formal and abstract qualities. From her website, she elaborates on her intentions for the series:

“In all these works the medium that serves up the image (the screen) functions not only as a site of projection and reception, but also as a sifting mechanism, or a censor, letting some information through and keeping some out. As the substrate on which one sees images, the screen is invisible until something goes wrong. By focusing on the failed screen, I draw attention to its physical materiality. I make photographic prints of these transient images in order to draw attention to the materiality of the objects from which they come. The photographic print fixes them – makes them transient still, and serves to emphasize their stubborn physical presence.” (Umbrico, s.d d)

Moving Mountains (1850-2012) (2012):

This project is Umbrico’s response to a commission from Aperture where artists were asked to pay homage to work featured in a previous Aperture publication that culminated in an exhibition – Aperture Remix. She chose to focus on images of mountains featured in the Aperture Masters of Photography series, rephotographing pictures using an iPhone and a series of apps and filters. The text from her website summarises the presentation of the work in the gallery space:

“For the exhibition, Umbrico exhibited a grid of over eighty new images side-by-side with vintage prints of each of the images that had been photographed in reproduction, from the pages of the Masters series. In doing so, the expansive and elastic nature of contemporary photography was neatly illustrated – from the original, stable object of the Masters, to the ever mutating, fluctuating digital iterations possible today.”

See also: ‘Range’ (2012-ongoing)

Sun/Screen (2014):

See 46 second excerpt (of 35 mins.) of ‘Sun/Screen’ here.

‘Sun/Screen’ is a video installation which expands on the ideas explored by Umbrico in ‘Suns from Sunsets from Flickr’. Using an iPhone, a range of found images of the sun were rephotographed from her computer screen and then edited together as a slideshow. The conflict between the sensor of the iPhone and the computer screen resulted in as constantly shifting moiré pattern as the suns dissolved into each other. Umbrico says this about the work on her website:

Sun/Screen draws attention to the materiality of the screen and further distances us from the natural sunlight source of the original images. It is a meditation on simulated light activated to produce images of natural light derived from digital images found online of a natural light source (the sun) it is a dialogue between analogue and digital; natural and simulated; surface and screen; projection and reception.” (Umbrico, s.d. b)

The piece was shown in 2014 in the Photographer’s Gallery Media Wall exhibition space, this analysis is made on the gallery’s website:

“The shimmering hazy illusion of heat and light lends a material quality to the screen itself and conversely is more suggestive of natural sunlight than the original images, inviting questions about the nature of reproductions and verisimilitude.” (The Photographer’s Gallery, s.d)

Sun/Screen – installation view at The Photographer’s Gallery

TVs from Craigslist:

This deceptively simple series features images of TVs found by Umbrico for sale on Craigslist. The original pictures are cropped to show only the screen and printed at the scale of the TV being sold. The unintended reflections in the screens are amplified by the process and “offer inadvertent glimpses of intimacy and function as self-portraits of the sellers.” From her website, Umbrico explains further:

Although these images are purely utilitarian, taken only to sell a TV, they all have embedded in them the subjectivity and individuality of the photographer/seller. The inadvertent reflections of the sellers become the subject within the dark screens of their unwanted used-TVs for sale. I find gestures of intimate and private exposures, various states of undress, unmade beds, dirty laundry – all accessible to an entirely anonymous public.

The source images that these prints come from are very small: it’s likely that the seller has no idea that he or she is pictured there. But thinking about the promise, and ultimate absence, of intimacy that the internet fosters, I can’t help thinking there’s a subconscious undercurrent of exhibitionism here; a plea for attention.

Going from city to city on Craigslist in search of TVs has become a somewhat voyeuristic proceeding. It’s like I’m invited into people’s living rooms and bedroom to look at the TV they want to sell and there they are, with unmade bed, sometimes completely naked, reflected in the surface of a TV they no longer want. It’s sad really – at one time the centre of the family room, now rejected, the last picture of the TV that will exist holds on to a little ghostly image of its owner…. Or, the ghostly image is forever stuck in the machine its owner doesn’t want.” (Umbrico, s.d. c)

Barry Johnson (2012) says this about the series:

“While initially simple visually, Umbrico’s work TVs (from Craigslist) gradually illuminates a vast array of unintentional private interiors. The pieces are at once abstract and representational. The camera flash on each black-framed black print is blinding; but once your eyes adjust and focus, the subtle, hidden images of living rooms, garages, bedrooms, and their occupants become clear. So many people take pictures today and think nothing of it. Many of these photos are subsequently posted on the internet, at once swallowed up by indexical monsters that are Google Image Search, Flickr and Facebook. A few keystrokes can bring you to the shared visual creations of millions of photographers (whether professional or otherwise). So vast is the collective database that we can now search by ever more specific color, composition, subject and tag.” (Johnson, 2012)

See also: ‘Signals Still’ (2011-ongoing) which is a series of images of TVs from Craigslist which are switched on but show no image, only signal: “Emitting eerie light, they are present but mute, they hum or hiss but tell no story.” (Umbrico, s.d. e)

See also: ‘Pirouette for CRT’ (2012) – a video installation in which images from ‘TVs from Craigslist’ seem to spin round in the centre of the screen. On her website, Umbrico explains:

“the bulky CRT TVs that are pictured in profile seem like anthropomorphic characters that have been rejected by their owners and yet physically persist, dig in their heals and insist on being dealt with. They are the manifest dinosaurs of technology, physical bodies as symbols of their own obsolescence. Using these found images, Pirouette for CRT is a choreographed tribute to the mortality of the CRT, and of the image.” (Umbrico, s.d f)

Links:

Bibliography:

Bate, D. (2015) Art Photography. London: Tate Publishing.

Cole, T. (2015) On Photography. The New York Times Magazine, April 19, 2015. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/NYTM_Teju_Cole_2015_v3.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Evans, D. (2019) Penelope Umbrico: (Photographs). Elephant, 5th January 2019. Available at: https://elephant.art/penelope-umbrico-photographs/ (accessed 1st March 2020)

Hirsch, F. (2010) Penelope Umbrico: LMAK projects. Art in America, November 2010. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_ArtinAmerica_2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Johnson, B. (2012) Hoffman Gallery: Extreme photography and abstract sales. Oregon ArtsWatch Website. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Hoffman%20Gallery-Lewis%20and%20Clark.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

Labey, C. and Bick, E. (2011) The digital sublime: A dialogue with Penelope Umbrico. Conveyer Magazine, Spring 2011. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_Conveyor_v2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

The Photographer’s Gallery (s.d.) Penelope Umbrico: Sun/Screen. Available at: https://thephotographersgallery.org.uk/whats-on/digital-project/penelope-umbrico-sunscreen (accessed 1st March 2020)

Rutledge, V. (2013) The image world is flat: Penelope Umbrico in conversation with Virginia Rutledge. Aperture Magazine. Available at: https://www.markmoorefineart.com/attachment/en/581c5e0c84184e51358b4568/Press/581c5ea384184e51358b7f5f (accessed 1st March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)a Suns from Sunsets from Flickr. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/suns/ (accessed 1st March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)b Sun/Screen. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/sun-screen/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)c TVs from Craigslist. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/tvs-from-craigslist/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)d Out of Order: Broken sets and bad displays. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/broken-sets/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. (s.d.)e Signals Still. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/signal-still/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico P. (s.d.)f Pirouette for CRT. Available at: http://www.penelopeumbrico.net/index.php/project/pirouette-for-crt/ (accessed 10th March 2020)

Umbrico, P. and Haik, J. (2015) Flashes that have the character of ghosts. Conveyer Magazine, Fall 2013. Available at: http://penelopeumbrico.net/files/Umbrico_Conveyor_Spectrum2_v2.pdf (accessed 1st March 2020)

3 thoughts on “Penelope Umbrico

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