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)

Vibeke Tandberg

Vibeke Tandberg is referenced on page 50 of the course notes and cited as a photographer who experiments with self-portraiture by employing photomontage techniques. (This link gives an indication of the type of work she makes.) An article by Inga Hanstveit describes the diversity of Tandberg’s practice with the artist explaining she is driven to work in different media (photography, conceptual art, writing) as she can become bored working with the same thing for a long time. I feel like there is much more to be inspired by in Tandberg’s work and frustrated that my research has only scratched the surface of this, I suspect she is an artist I will learn study further in the future.

Living Together (1996):

This series of seemingly innocent family snapshots show two women, who we assume are sisters because of their resemblance, in a series of everyday, domestic situations. Despite the way the images convince, at least initially, they are digital constructs with Tandberg paying the role of both ‘twins’ in the frame. On closer inspection it can be noted that there is a tension in the behaviour of the ‘twins’ that suggests spilt identity and forces questions about what is real and what is fantasy. Joan Fontcuberta (2014) has this to say:

“they add the diffuse fear that perhaps we can no longer distinguish between appearance and reality, reality and simulacrum, or original and reproduction.” (Fontcuberta, 2014: 97)

Line (1999):

At first glance the portraits from Tandberg’s series ‘Line’ appear to be straightforward, straight candid shots. However, digital technology has been used to merge Tandberg’s facial features with those of her friend – literally investing the image with an intimate connection between photographer and subject. Charlotte Cotton (2014) makes this analysis:

“there is a suggestion that the photographer’s relationship with the subject would be intimate, professional, detached, or a simulation of all these positions. In fact, Tandberg has used digital manipulation to blend fragments of her own facial features with those of her friend, illustrating how a photographic portrait, no matter how guileless it may seem, is partly the photographer’s projection of herself onto her subject. At the heart of this lie the possibilities that postmodernist practice represents for contemporary art photographers: to be able to knowingly shape the subjects that intrigue them, conscious of the heritage of the imagery into which they are entering, and to see the contemporary world through the pictures we already know.” (Cotton, 2014: 217)

For Inga Hanstveit (2018), Tandberg’s staged and manipulated self portraits problematise notions of the self at social, psychological and political levels. Lars Bang Larsen (2000) sees the series as a merging of personae which is aligned with a therapeutic acceptance of repressed elements in the psyche:

“In ‘Line’ the photographic merging reflects the artist’s conquest of desire and temporary ego loss, her split personality healed in chaste, almost painterly, monumental photography

Rather than portraying an authentic self caught up in a repertoire of simulacra, she deals with the slippage between me and you, privileging intimacy as an evolutionary hot-house for identity’s deviation. ‘Line’ is a rendition of what discreet psychodramas are enacted when you live under the same roof as your desire.” (Larsen, 2000)

Links:

Vibeke Tandberg: experimental self-portraiture employing photomontage techniques (link 9):

Bibliography:

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Fontcuberta, J. (2014) Fugitive identities. In pps. 90-103: Pandora’s camera: photogr@phy after photography. London: MACK

Hanstveit, I. I. (2018) Vibeke Tandberg – Where literature meets art at Turner Contemporary. Norwegian Arts. Available at: https://norwegianarts.org.uk/event/vibeke-tandberg/ (accessed 23rd February 2020)

Lange, C. (2005) Reviews: Vibeke Tandberg. Frieze. Available at: https://frieze.com/article/vibeke-tandberg-0 (accessed 1st March 2020)

Larsen, L. B. (2000) Reviews: Vibeke Tandberg. Frieze. Available at: https://norwegianarts.org.uk/event/vibeke-tandberg/ (accessed 23rd February 2020)

Hans Eijkelboom

Hans Eijkelboom says this about his practice:

“What I do is actually very unclear…As a form it seems like a very simple way to collect information about people’s behaviour. But the exhibitions and books that I make do not show any useful and coherent information at all.” (White, 2020)

Bakker (2020) believes Eijkelboom’s work asks questions about human identity, vulnerability and how this is shaped by the public space and interaction with society. His work is rooted in the conceptual photo art of the 1960s which is typified by seriality, repetition, typologies, performance and humour. He explains that he uses photography as a way of making notes about what he encounters and “to employ photography as an instrument to show how the world appears.” In the introduction to the catalogue for his 2017-18 retrospective he explains:

“I explore the world daily and register aspects of my voyage of discovery with a camera. I do this in a detached way, because the thought that I can predetermine what is or is not significant in the formation of my world perception should not exist. In this way a stream of observations of these not directly responsible formation aspects of my world perception emerge and are recorded” (Bakker, 2020)

With My Family (1973):

For this series, Eijkelboom places himself as the father figure in a series of family portraits that plays on the predictable uniformity of the family photograph. At first the images seem authentic and believable, but the presence of Eijkelboom in each one causes the viewer to question what they are seeing. Erik Kessels (2016) observes that the conventions of the family photography seek to deliberately obscure all of life’s imperfections:

“Photography is not only a form of documentation; it’s just as often a tool for manipulation.

Each individual family portrait is entirely believable. Eijkelboom never looks out of place. The persuasiveness of the image allows him to deceive us. And in doing so, he questions our ideas about identity and pokes fun at photographic clichés.” (Kessels, 2016: 137-144)

Identity (1976):

This series of self portraits show Eijkelboom acting out the profession that former school mates who had not seen him for ten years imagined him to now be engaged in. Eijkelboom contacted his former friends and asked them what they remembered about him and what they thought his occupation might be now. Sean O’Hagan says this about the series:

“Alongside the often expansive and hilariously uncomplimentary answers -“going by what I remember about him, I don’t think he has become anything special” – Eijkelboom poses in the clothes of the profession attributed to him. In one, he is a somewhat unlikely-looking businessman sitting behind a desk; in another, a forester in the traditional costume of plus-fours and gamekeepers feathered hat. One woman confesses to having “been in love with him for years”. Another man calls him “a real blackguard always willing to finish the discussion elsewhere – with his fists.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

The Ideal Man (1978):

For this series, Eijkelboom devised a questionnaire which he sent out to 100 women asking them to describes their ideal man in terms of appearance and clothing. He chose 10 of the most diverse of these and worked with a make up artist to transform himself into the ‘perfect man’. The author of the questionnaire was present at a photoshoot to capture the results and offer final direction. The images of the ‘ideal man’ alone, and then with their would be partner were presented alongside the questionnaires.

10 Euro Outfits:

For this series, Eijkelboom made a series of self-portraits wearing entire outfits bought for €10 or less. Sean O’Hagan observes:

“They range from the drab – pinstripe trousers, grey-striped polo shirt, pale cream sandals – to the plain weird: a swirly-patterned shirt made of green nylon and camouflage trousers. He emerges here as a kind of European everyman, and, as such, looks depressingly familiar. The series could be a critique of Europe in the age of austerity, or a wry look at the homogenisation of high-street budget labels. Either way, it’s another example of Eijkelboom’s deadpan, though-provoking take on identity and, like all his work, makes you think and smile simultaneously.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

Photo Notes (1992-2007):

From the early 1980s, Eijkelboom predominately stopped pointing the camera at himself and began to a number of experiments with street photography. The approach he chose are described as ‘Photo Notes’ and he uses a set of rigorous rules for making the work that have become his mode of working in every subsequent series. Dieter Roelstraete (2011) makes a link between Eijkelboom’s practice and August Sander’s ‘People of the Twentieth Century’, although he asserts that Eijkelboom’s series is only superficially similar:

“the artist takes to the street not only armed with his camera, but also with a set of rigorous, non-negotiable rules. Photographing only takes place in a precisely determined spot, for a precisely determined length of time (both facts are always included at the bottom of the resulting arrangement of photographs as crucial bits of information) and the ‘subject’ is correspondingly narrowly defined to ensure maximum sameness. Young girls with Spice Girls T-Shirts, young men with Che Guevara T-shirts … or middle-aged men with Rolling Stones T-shirts; topless types on rollerblades; middle-aged mothers and teenage daughters schlepping shopping bags while talking to their mobile phones; people who are not emergency workers yet still wear yellow coats – as a document of changing fashions, Photo Notes certainly creates the impression that what was in reality only a decade-and-a-half ago is light years away in time.” (Roelstraete, 2011)

Although the thousands of photographs from this project are of individuals, it is repetition, and sameness, that is the point of Eijkelboom’s visual anthropology. Marcel Feil (2007) notes the diaristic nature of the series and the way its visual development is shaped by repeated observations over an extended period of time: “like the stalagmites and stalactites in a cave, which have gained their shapes through the ceaseless repetition of falling drops of water.” Though Eijkelboom has used different conceptual strategies throughout his career, his work is unified by some key concerns:

“One common feature of the photo projects Eijkelboom has embarked on since the early 1970s is a profound interest in questions concerning our identity. How we see ourselves and how do others see us? Is there a connection between what we wear and what we are? How does each individual manifest his or her idea of identity? And – more fundamentally – what is the relationship between expression of our identity and our (self-) awareness?

In Photo Notes Eijkelboom depicts the individual and unique in terms of the vast numbers of individuals who populate our cities. Because the photographs for Photo Notes were taken over such a long period and because of the constant repetitions and comparisons and the sheer quantity of visual material, the personal observations on the diary gradually acquire a universal validity. By looking at others, we also observe ourselves; subject and object become one, and the tension between the individual and the mass is highlighted.” (Feil, 2007)

Paris – NewYork – Shanghai (2007):

This series which culminated in an exhibition and book, sees Eijkelboom document everyday life in the cities of Paris, Shanghai and New York which he regards as the capitals of the nineteenth, twentieth and twenty-first centuries. These seemingly disparate cities are shown to be more similar than we would at first imagine, for Jim Caspar (s.d.) the project is driven by Eijkelboom’s obsessive search for anthropological-sociological typologies and provides proof that the differences in exotic cultures have already been conquered and eliminated by globalisation. He describes the design of the book as essentially three books in one, which allows the viewer to simultaneously compare and contrast images showing the similarities in France, America and China. From the introductory essay, Tony Godfrey makes this assessment:

“For a book of art photographs, there is an extraordinary array of images. Having opened it, I turn the pages of each volume simultaneously: I can see sixty photographs of men in striped shirts; turn again, and I see an army of seventy-two men in suits marching to work; turn again, and a panorama of empty civic spaces. What are we being told? That this is a small world after all? Is this a Family of Man on a minimal grid?” (Godfrey, 2007)

People of the Twenty-First Century:

For this ongoing project, which Eijkelboom has been engaged with since the 1990s, he captures “little points of commonality”, such as behaviour or dress, in various cities around the world. For Ryan White (2020), the series is “a fascinatingly simple sociological study into individuality in relation to collective behaviour.” Eijkelboom believes that the city is where society is most visible. He is not interested in pointing his camera at the extraordinary, but in recording slight differences in dress, appearance, body language and gesture – an unintended extra aspect to the series due to the length of time he has been engaged in it, is that he has also recorded how this has changed over time. Eijkelboom explains: “what becomes almost invisible due to its prevalence, the accumulation of coincidental phenomena of which the significance is not yet clear.” (Bakker, 2020)

Eijkelboom describes his photographs as “photo notes” and his process as:

“simply that I walk to the centre of the city where many people are. Then I walk around for 10 to 15 minutes. When something in the crowd intrigues me or touches me, I decide that will be the theme of the day. Then I start photographing for two hours. Many times, it goes wrong: I don’t see anything, do I don’t photograph that day; or I go to the city, see my subject, start photographing and, surprisingly, in the next two hours never see my subject again. And then, for that day, there is no photo note.” (Petridis, 2014)

Alex Petridis (2014) sees the work as simultaneously mundane and compelling with a hypnotic, repetitious quality. Despite the superficial similarities in the way people look however, it is significant that these accentuate the subtle differences in the individuals photographed: “the longer you look at them, the more nuances become apparent.” An article in the BJP expands the notion:

“The people depicted in each collage are wearing very similar outfits, making the images initially look like a comment on the loss of individuality; on closer inspection, each person has put their own stamp on the clothes, hinting at the persistence of each personality in our increasingly homogenous societies.” (British Journal of Photography, 2017)

Street Fusion: Bristol in 2019 (2019):

This series, commissioned by the Martin Parr Foundation and exhibited in 2020, is described by Eijkelboom as “a continuation and departure” from ‘People of the Twenty-First Century’. The work was made in Bristol over a period of 11 days when Eijkelboom made images around different themes each day. In an interview, he describes the difference in his methodology between this and the earlier project:

“For the first time, my photos are not on display in isolated groups, but as part of a continuous stream of observations during walks in the centre of Bristol. The basis of the exhibition is the question: which is more important for forming our image of the world — the isolated moment or the continuous flow of more or less repeating images that come to us every day? The exhibition has two ambitions: To show a moment from the stream of images that form my world view, and provide a fleeting snapshot of society in Bristol.” (White, 2020)

Martin Parr makes this comment on Eijkelboom’s work:

“If I were an anthropologist, the first photographer I would call upon is Hans Eijkelboom … Over a long career, he has photographed mainly in the street, observing people and places with the discipline, rigour and engagement that has all the hallmarks of anthropology. In fact, if I were a visitor from another planet looking for information on the nature of city life, I would engage the services of Eijkelboom.” (Williams, 2020)

Links:

Bibliography:

Bakker, T. H. (2020) The ideal man. British Journal of Photography, issue 7892, February 2020.

British Journal of Photography (2017) Hans Eijkelboom gets a major retrospective in The Hague. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/09/hans-eijkelboom-retrospective/ (accessed 7th February 2020)

Feil, M. (2007) Paris-New York-Shanghai. FOAM. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/FOAM-ENG.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Gierstberg, F. (2006) Hans Eijkelboom. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Museum-Rotterdam-ENG.pdf (acessed 11th February 2020)

Godfrey, T. (2007) The work of Hans Eijkelboom. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Tony%20Godfrey.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Kessels, E. (2016) Failed it! London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

O’Hagan, S. (2014) Arles 2014: Hans Eijkelboom and the unbearable Dutchness of being. The Guardian, 11th July 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/jul/11/arles-2014-hans-eijkelboom-dutch-group-show (accessed 11th February 2020)

Parr, M. (2007) Introduction in the book Paris – New York -Shanghai. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Martin-Parr.pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Pellerin, A. (2014) Hans Eijkelboom on photography for aliens. AnOther. Available at: https://www.anothermag.com/art-photography/4045/hans-eijkelboom-on-photography-for-aliens (accessed 3rd February 2020)

Petridis, A. (2014) Same but different: Hans Eijkelboom’s tribal street photography. The Guardian, 23rd October 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/oct/23/hans-eijkelboom-street-photography-tribes-people-twenty-first-century (accessed 11th February 2020)

Roelstraete, D. (2011) The mass ornament – revisited: reading from Hans Eijkelboom’s Photo Notes. Afterall. Available at: https://www.photonotebooks.com/PDF/Dieter%20Roelstraete(Afterall).pdf (accessed 11th February 2020)

Roelstraete, D. (2014) Hans Eijkelboom. Documenta 14. Available at: https://www.documenta14.de/en/artists/13568/hans-eijkelboom (accessed 11th February 2020)

White, R. (2020) The photographer proving we’re not so different after all. i-D. Available at: https://i-d.vice.com/en_uk/article/k7e83e/hans-eijkelboom-photographer-street-fusi-bristol-in-2019 (accessed 13th January 2020)

Williams, (2020) Hans Eijkelboom’s snapshot of Bristol. Creative Revoew. Available at: https://www.creativereview.co.uk/hans-eijkelboom-street-fusion/

Trish Morrissey

Trish Morrissey is a photographer/artist/filmmaker who predominately uses performative, self-portraiture to make images that are rich in narrative potential and with strong contextual underpinning. In an interview with David Chandler, Morrissey describes how she explores the language of photography through her work, particularly through stories about families and women.

Camilla Brown describes Trish Morrissey’s practice as being performative with the recurring strategy of role play while also being rooted in the tradition and language of photography, particularly vernacular photographs:

“Morrissey’s style could be described as narrative documentary as it uses the conventions of portraiture and snap-shot photography whilst collapsing the distinction between fact and fiction. The artist always appears in her work, although at times she is hard to recognize which mines the territory of the family photograph.” (Brown, 2010)

Collaboration is a major facet of Morrissey’s practice and her work is often made in conjunction with others – variously family members or strangers.

In an exhibition review, Dan Rule describes Morrissey’s work as:

“performative, humorous and ultimately affecting…[the work] adopts a series of formal, familial and historical tropes, only to pick them apart at the seams.” (Rule, 2010)

Sharon Boothroyd describes Morrissey’s work as being situated between self-portraiture and performance:

“She is known for considering themes of identity with an arresting humour, and yet it is a humour underpinned with poignancy and pathos. So much so that the effect is sometimes one where the viewer doesn’t know whether to laugh or cry. It’s as if she tells us a joke, but the joke is a bit too close to home, so that it makes us wince as we recognise something of ourselves in the punchline.” (Boothroyd, 2016)

Seven Years (2001-4):

In ‘Seven Years’, Morrissey, in collaboration with her older sister, presents a series of ambiguous, constructed family snapshots staged in the 1970s and 80s. In an interview with Sharon Boothroyd, Morrissey explains that ‘Seven Years’ is only a personal project in the sense that she worked with her sister to make it:

“The pictures themselves are not related to my own personal pictures, but rather they are about generic family album photographs. They are moments when we all take pictures, i.e. the celebration, the new baby, the pet, the day out, the beach, the picnic. But they all have a dark twist. Humour is probably the first emotion encountered by the viewer, but I think that soon fades to a slow burning psychological affect. Secrets. The project is all about secrets.” (Boothroyd, 2016)

From ‘The Photograph as Contemporary Art’ by Charlotte Cotton:

Seven Years provides a link between Morrissey’s own family experiences, remembered through personal photographs, and the common tropes of domestic photography. Family snaps can be triggered for re-remembering and reappraising identities and familial relationships. In collaboration with her elder sister, who is the other performer in the series, Morrissey attempted to make the subject of Seven Years the subtexts of relationships that are embedded in family photographs. The props and clothing of objects found in Morrissey’s parents’ attic and secondhand items she collected for the staging of each photograph.” (Cotton, 2014 :196)

Alison Green observes that although the scenarios Morrissey shows in ‘Seven Years’ are only partially based on her personal, family history, they still have “the haunting (or stultifying) quality of one’s own memories of privately painful experiences of ordinary events.” (Green, 2006)

Camilla Brown believes Morrissey’s choice to stage ‘Seven Years’ in and around her family home rather than in a studio provides a crucial authenticity to the images which seek “to deconstruct family photographs by using various devices to render the familiar uncanny.”:

“Rarely do the sisters play themselves, but instead they appear in different guises and settings, across a decade. The gender of the characters changes as the young girl on the beach becomes a man with short hair and a moustache sat with his legs apart on a sofa. The androgyny of the characters is used to prevent the usual mimetic representation of family portraits that rely upon identifiable roles and positions. We cannot be sure who is the father, mother, daughter or brother. In this way despite the thread of autobiographical reference woven through the series there is a continual blurring of fact and fiction. It becomes clear that this series is less about one particular family but more an examination of the generic nature of family portraits and how they are interpreted.” (Brown, 2004)

Edward Welch discusses how Morrissey’s intricate reconstructions demonstrate not only the way the family album serves as an archive for the fashions and tastes of a period, but also, how it becomes a repository for family memory and history. Conventional signs of vernacular snapshot photography are recreated in a playful way, such as fingers in front of the lens. It is the way that feelings and emotions are betrayed by body language that is particularly fascinating howver:

“Our attention is drawn constantly in these photos to gestures and poses, and in particular to facial expressions, gazes and glances – whether it be the ones they address to the camera or to each other. We are invited to imagine narratives to which they point…Morrissey succeeds in making us reflect on how families are constructed, and how they present themselves for consumption.” (Welch, s.d.)

In an article for Lens Culture, Morrissey laments how the physical, family photo album has been replaced by digital images which are now shared electronically and rarely printed:

“In the past, looking through albums required a ritualized oral dialogue of storytelling, descriptions, memory-making, nostalgia and celebration – as well as denial, absences and secrecy. Family snapshots follow cultural conventions. Much of this is in flux as a result of digital intervention.

The family album presents an idealized version of family life that often belies the truth. Everyone has a special face they were for the camera. When we pause and pose for a snap, we usually smile – but the unconscious leaks out into the body, bypassing the face, which stands firm behind its mask. The instantaneous nature of photography isolates the small gestures that often go unnoticed in real life because they are too minute and commonplace to be discerned.

The photographs in “Seven Years” are the awkward pictures: fingers in front of lens, eyes shut, unattractive body language. Pictures that would normally ended up down the back of the sofa, or burned so that they would never see the light of day.” (Morrissey, s.d.)

August 8th, 1982
January 25th, 1979
October 1st, 1987

Front (2005):

‘Front’ is a series of 12 images showing different groups of people and shot on beaches in the UK during the summer. The work explores conventions of the family photograph with Morrissey taking the place of one of the women in the group and with the woman then replacing Morrissey as the artist/photographer. Camilla Brown observes that the participants become collaborators with Morrissey in making the final work: “As complicit participants the authorship of the work becomes shared.” Morrissey’s fascination with the family unit is the driving force and inherent tension in the series:

“We assume the groups are families and it is only when we see Morrissey in each shot that this presumption starts to unravel. Although these people are strangers to us, all of us will have similar photographs of our own families that are like this. The work touches on how family photographs operate in the vernacular context, and how they are also used to propagate the hegemony and stability of the nuclear family unit.” (Brown, 2010)

Alison Green sees ‘Front’ as a development in the themes of “doubling and displacement” that are concerns of Morrissey’s earlier work. In this series, she “courts the awkwardness, unhappiness or anguish displayed on the body in spite of the smile fixed for a conventional ‘happy image.”:

“[In] ‘Front’ Morrissey doesn’t merely sit for the picture, but takes on the persona-mother, sister, friend-of one of the group’s members, who herself becomes the photographer. These photographs become at once ordinary holiday snaps and very strange exchanges between public and private spaces (she usually tried to borrow an item of clothing from the woman she replaced). In a sense, Morrissey’s motivations are dual: she wants to bring photographic clichés into high relief, but also to open these dramas up, to create more play within them to counter the ossifying effects both of memory and group dynamics.” (Green, 2006)

Dan rule makes these observations:

“The series is almost disquieting in its believability. What makes Morrissey’s work impressive and convincing is its multiplicity. She doesn’t just comment on family and femininity and photographic mode; she steps inside and embodies the formal and cultural archetypes. These are as much family portraits with Morrissey, a stranger in them as they would be otherwise.” (Rule, 2010)

Marcus Bunyan states:

“These photographs subvert the idiom of the nuclear family, where conversational parties possess common cultural references. In Morrissey’s photographs the family photograph has become a site of resistance, a contested site, one that challenges the holistic whole of the family, the memory of the family photograph and the idea that without family nothing cohesive would exist at all.” (Bunyan, 2010)

Chloe Gwynne, May 30th, 2005
Hayley Coles, June 17th, 2006
Katy McDonnell, October 5th, 2007

The Failed Realist (2011):

This series was made in collaboration with her daughter when she was between four and five and came about through the rainy day activity of face painting. The title refers to psychologist George-Henri Luquet’s concept of child development which he termed The Failed Realist stage which refers to the desire of the child to represent their experiences visually which is hampered by their undeveloped motor skills. Morrissey also references the Romantic artists who strove for a return to innocence in their own painting and later modernist painters who saw the drawings of children as a pure way of seeing.

Siún Hanrahan makes these observations of the work:

“The painted faces recorded in the photographs are, thus, traces of a vivid fanciful play of imagination making sense of life’s narratives – real, fictional and imagined. Emerging through play, what was being depicted was entirely present in the moment it was being told and painted. That the abstract markings are not (for the child) deliberate, if clumsy, variations on the masks of Pierrot or Harlequin is suggested by the title of the series. As failed realists, children intend their drawings to represent something from life without yet being able to control the depiction nor yet having fully thought through the relationships between parts.

So far the suggestion is that what is met through the photographs has to do with childhood. And yet, we do not meet the child and this is not quite an encounter with her world. The photograph is of the mother. We are removed from the moment and the scenography of play. Disparate events are rendered temporally equivalent, in that incidental markers of the particular day have been removed – no clothing is evident, hairstyle is largely unchanging, and the backdrop is constant. The expression is neutral, as far as possible, and ‘confrontational’ as it expects to meet our gaze.

The photographs record ambivalence toward the iconic moments of childhood. But, removed as they are from the scene of play, the ambivalence is not necessarily toward the construction of childhood. The works do not particularly propose themselves as portraits of motherhood, and yet, it is the mother in the photograph.

The works call up the body but refuse access to the specific, embodied experience and sense-making of mother or child. They both acknowledge and resist the child’s authority – in wrestling agency within the face painting game and in the meanings to be made.” (Hanrahan, 2012)

Pretty Ogre
A Wild Cat Chasing a London Bird
Pocahontas

The Successful Realist‘ is a reprise of this project made six years later when Morrissey’s daughter was 11. The work follows the same rules as the earlier series and while the painting is much more refined, much can be inferred from her daughter’s development as a young person on the verge of becoming a teenager.

Emoji (Love Eyes)
Life and Death

Ten People in a Suitcase (2015):

This series was the result of a residency Morrissey was invited to participate in along with eight other artists at Gosta Serlachius Fine Art Foundation in Mantta, Finland. The brief was for each artist to make work about the town to be shown in a group exhibition with the aim of finding a way of getting to the essence of the place. Morrissey used the town archive of over 30,000 pictures as the basis of her work, picking ten images of that resonated with her in some way and re-imaging these with herself as the protagonist. Most of the images were anonymous and showed people engaged in everyday activities and Morrissey used them as guides, selecting the images to use based on instinct and because she felt some sort of visceral connection to them. From her artists statement she explains: “The photographs transcend mere re-enactments, they are embodiments of real individuals who are more than just their snap shot.”

Fig. 0395GAS (TM) Aune Heimolainen, one of the best swimmer girls in Mantta Sporting Club. 1943/2015.
Fig. 08132KEL (TM) Tapani Kansa sang at Kirstinharju dance pavillion. Departure. 1970/2015.
Fig. 7510GAS (TM) Miss Tuula Jarvenpaa (The Serla Girl) domestic sales. 1961/2015.

Links:

Bibliography:

Boothroyd, S. (2016) Trish Morrissey. Photoparley blog. Available at: https://photoparley.wordpress.com/2016/09/12/trish-morrissey/ (accessed 30th January 2020)

Brown, C. (2004) Trish Morrissey, Seven Years. EAST International 2004, Catalogue  Essay. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/east-2004.html (accessed 28th January 2020)

Brown, C, (2010) Trish Morrissey. Portfolio, Issue No. 49. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/portfolio-2010.html (accessed 18th January 2020)

Bunyan, M. (2010) Review: Trish Morrissey, photographs and video at the Centre for Contemporary Photography (CCP), Fitzroy, Melbourne. ArtBlart Blog, 2nd March 2010. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/reviews/review-artblart.html (accessed 30th January 2020)

Cotton, C. (2004) Seven Years part 1. Photoworks Issue 1. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/seven-years-part-1/ (accessed 30th January 2020)

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Green, A. (2006) Vitamin Ph, Survey of International Contemporary Photography. Phaidon Press. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/vit-ph-2006.html (accessed 28th January 2020)

Hanrahan, S. (2012) The failed realist. Source Magazine. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/essays/source-2012.html (accessed 28th January 2020)

Morrissey, T. (s.d.) Seven Years. Lens Culture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/trish-morrissey-seven-years (accessed 30th January 2020)

Phillips, S. (2013) Trish Morrissey’s best photograph: infiltrating a family on a Kent beach. The Guardian, 23rd January 2013. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2013/jan/23/trish-morrissey-best-shot (accessed 30th January 2020)

Welch, E. (s.d.) Family Remade. Source Magazine issue 40. Available at: http://www.trishmorrissey.com/articles/reviews/review-source-is40.html (accessed 30th January 2020)

Thomas Ruff

David Campany makes this summary of Thomas Ruff’s practice:

“At first glance, Thomas Ruff’s four-decade engagement with the photographic image appears remarkably varied. It runs from formal and carefully crafted photographs of domestic interiors, to the appropriation and re-presentation of old photographs; from highly detailed portraits made with a large-format camera, to blow-ups of low resolution image files found online; from the slow and considered photography of urban buildings, to the manipulation of images beamed from the surface of Mars; from resolutely analogue photographic practices to computer-generated images that stretch the definition of photography to breaking point.” (Blazwick, 2017: 190)

In an earlier article he says this about the effect of Ruff’s work:

“The photographic art of Thomas Ruff makes very particular demands on us and offers very particular kinds of pleasure, both aesthetic and intellectual. His work seems cold and dispassionate, wilful, searching and perverse but at times surprisingly beautiful. Whether he is working with found photographs or shooting his own, the results are similar. He makes images that are at once familiar clichés and estranged visions of our collective photographic order. Ruff’s art dramatises photography for us as an image form that is always as public as it is private, and as anonymous as it is personal. The viewer may find themselves switching between thinking about the particular image they see before them and contemplating the state of ‘all photography’ in its terrifying and sublime totality.” Campany (2008)

In the introduction to the catalogue to accompany his retrospective at the Whitechapel Gallery in 2017, curator Iwona Blazwick says this about Ruff:

“It is notable that the German artist Thomas Ruff does not say that he takes images, but rather that he works with them. Ruff makes art about photography and the way it mirrors the fast pace of technology, culture and politics, or the slow time of cosmic phenomena.” (Blazwick, 2017: 9)

She continues by impressing the importance of Dusseldorf to his work, partly due to his attendance at the Dusseldorf academy, partly due to the fact this is where he still lives and has his studio, and partly because of the city itself, having been rebuilt after 1945, Dusseldorf traces the evolution of modern architecture from the utopianism of the Bauhaus to corporate modernism:

“This backdrop helps us to understand much of the subject matter of Ruff’s work. Following in the footsteps of Bauhaus photographers he pictures the modern built environment – but it is uniform, alienating, blank. His portraits are billboard scaled yet refuse the dynamics of desire. He uses the history of photography as a bank of found images re-envisioned, to reflect on the picturing of current affairs, pornography, surveillance, history, disaster, publicity – and the relation of those pictures to the viewer. Ruff embraces rapid changes in digital technologies while recalling the analogue experiments of the early avant gardes. Travelling no further than his studio he embarks on an enquiry into the scientific observation of the extra terrestrial. And like so many sculptors of his generation, he pays close attention to the essential nature of the image itself, giving it the physicality of an object and the autonomy of the abstract.

At a moment when our mobile phones and devices offer a portal onto a twenty-four-hour deluge of photography, Thomas Ruff asks us to stop, experience and evaluate its histories and procedures, one image at a time.” (Blazwick, 2017: 9)

Although conceding his practice is both far reaching and wide ranging, Cotton (2014) describes Ruff’s as having a ‘deadpan aesthetic’, a depersonalised style which:

“Regardless of his ostensible subject matter, which includes architecture, stellar constellations and pornography…he brings a spectrum of photographic image types into play. Rather than a signature of his photographs being found in a single approach to the medium, Ruff raises a more interesting issue of how we comprehend different subjects through the photographic form. He experiments with the way we understand a subject because of our knowledge or expectation of how it represented pictorially.” (Cotton, 2014: 105)

Sarah E. James describes Ruff’s series as being self-consciously modern and modernist in their choice of subject matter as well as their representational modes. Ruff is a forensic interrogator of art’s modern genres such as portraits, landscapes, nudes abstracts and interiors and his recurring theme is their transformation by technologies of reproduction. (Blazwick, 2017: 178)

Sean O’Hagan has this to say about Ruff’s approcah to photography in general:

“There is nothing straightforward about Ruff’s engagement with the medium. Instead, his images are often oblique, referencing art history from modernism to the present, and increasingly engaging not so much with photography as with the image culture that it is now enmeshed in … Ruff makes photography about photography.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Interiors:

For ‘Interiors’, Ruff photographed the homes of his friends and family in an anonymous but competently professional style devoid of any personal flourish. There are no people featured in the images which suggest order and restraint through their impersonal style which follows through to their titling of a number followed by a letter. David Campany observes:

“In the subject matter and the photographic approach, there is a conformity to unspoken standards. Calm, serious and anonymous. Any competent photographer could have made these pictures, although only Thomas Ruff did. So much of photography is to do with the choice of motif.” (Blazwick: 190)

Rehberg notes:

“These middle-class interiors are visual cul-de-sacs: each mirror reflects a wall, every open door leads to another that is closed, corners block our gaze. Their impenetrable aspect is amplified by the physical absence of the inhabitants; human likeness is limited solely to the occasional portrait photograph, which, in retrospect, seem to be prophetic in character. Here, Ruff’s distanced objectivity, inherited from the Bechers, hold in ways it cannot hold in later images; perceptually, at least, we can go no further than the photographer allows us to see.” (Rehberg, s.d.)

Portraits (1981-2001):

Ruff studied under Bernd and Hiller Becher at the Academy of Fine Arts in Dusseldorf in the 1980s, and his ‘Portraits’ series can be read as a translation of the Becher’s deadpan, yet exacting, style but applied to people rather than industrial landscapes. Angier (2006) describes the series like this:

“large-format colour portraits stare at us from the centre of the frame. Their eyes are almost vacant. The lighting is flat. There are no shadows. The background is blank, often a kind of sickly white that suggests the way fluorescent light behaves with colour transparency film. The images are printed larger than life. The faces convey no sense of drama. The pictures are confrontational, but do not feel confrontational. They mimic the straightforward head-and-shoulders format of the familiar ID photo.” (Angier, 2006: 106-7)

The reading that the portraits are simultaneously blank and bland, while also have a confrontational tension is interesting and chimes with Ruff’s belief that a photograph is unable to accurately capture objective reality – the closest a photograph can get is imitation. Despite the fine detail, sharp focus and large size at which these photographs are printed, the subjects lack of expression and the lack of context means the personal presence of the sitter can only be guessed at: “Their faces are alive with textural detail, but they remain hidden.” (Angier, 2006: 111)

Foster (2012: 569-70) sees a counter conceptual approach in Ruff’s ‘Portraits’ – a direct response and refutation of the Neue Sachlichkeit/New Objectivity beliefs of earlier German photographers such as August Sander who believed subjective rendering of physiognomy could make claims towards identity and character.

Bate (2015: 75-6) sees the series as an example of a ‘hyper-document’, a photograph which saturates the viewer with an excess of visual information. The size and detail of the images make it possible for the viewer to scrutinise the subjects, yet, they remain anonymous apart from the caption of their first name. The style and format are reminiscent of passport photographs which has connotations of nationhood, identity, state surveillance and control of free passage. Bate suggests that the effect of this is to place the viewer in the place of the passport officer and attempts to understand what the person is like through the limited information available is only possible by constructing our own meanings:

“The document seems blank, inert and denotative, despite the information it clearly contains. But it refuses to give up any meaning, unless we invest it with one ourselves.” (Bate, 2015: 76)

Unlike the earlier “social typology portraits” of August Sander, who drew a link between the appearance of his subjects and their profession, trade or class, Ruff’s portraits can not be read through the appearances of the sitters:

“Ruff’s work is postmodern, sceptical of certainty of meaning. It throws the idea of the document into question precisely through its excess of visual information claiming to be a document of something.” (Bate, 205: 76)

P. Stadtbäumer (1988)
Stoya (1986)

Stars (1989-92):

A boyhood obsession for Ruff was astronomy. For this series, he used negatives from the European Southern Observatory archive to make his own prints which he captioned using the reference accorded to them by the Observatory. Ruff employed industrial printing techniques normally used for advertising to print the images at a monumental scale measuring 260x188cm, the original images measured 30cm square. Despite Ruff’s “editorial interventions”, Dama (2018) points out that the images retain the original character of the negatives and look of a scientific document. Iona Blazwick observes:

“The epic format of each of Ruff’s starscapes asserts a phenomenological relation to the body of the viewer. We usually view the night sky looking up. Ruff tilts the galaxy onto the vertical plane so that we confront it face to face. The proportion and size of these photographs exceeds the scale of the body. We stand, enthralled, on terra firma. yet the immersive scene we survey is a vast, wheeling geological realm of zero gravity. It is also devoid of human presence, arguably of anything living at all. We are confronted with our complete absence. The stars glitter, radiant pinpoints of energy; yet are signals of extinction.” (Blazwick, 2017: 199-200)

Ruff selected which parts of the negatives to use for the final images carefully and deliberately:

“He selects each image to create a dynamic counterpoint between voids of darkness and clusters of light. The monochrome abstraction of white dots on a black background is punctuated by the eruption of cosmic flares, luminous nebulas and the geometric beauty of diamond-shaped or spiralling haloes.” (Blazwick, 2017: 200)

16h 30m / -50° (1989)

Newspaper Photographs (1990-1):

Throughout the 1980s Ruff collected photographs from German newspapers amassing around 2,500 by 1990 and decided to use them as the basis for a new series. The clippings were selected by Ruff if they caught his attention in some way as interesting or archetypal. He rephotographed the 400 images he selected from the larger set with a large format camera, removed all text and printed at a scale of 2:1. The images were captioned with a number between 1-400. The enlargement process meant that the materiality of the newsprint source material was accentuated with the printing process becoming particularly apparent. The subjects of the photographs varied from famous, if not notorious, leaders of the 20th century such as Hitler, Stalin and Mao, and, pictures of old film stars or even of industrial machinery. By removing context, the images are stripped of the intended meaning they had when presented in the news, and yet, gain new meaning in the way Ruff presents them.

Cameron Foote makes this analysis of the series:

“By removing the captions that had accompanied the photographs in their original context, Ruff ensured that the images could only be addressed on their own formal terms and with the tools of visual memory

By omitting the text caption, Ruff reveals the caption that persists within the image itself. What is the response that a newspaper photograph is supposed to induce? How do photographs in the media operate as tools for ‘visual persuasion’? … The same image of the same event might be reproduced in different newspapers of different political persuasions with a vastly divergent interpretation applied to them. Nevertheless, this repeated reproduction may often serve to re-inforce the public perception of a photograph’s testimonial value. Images of reported events are often privileged over other forms of documentation, which eventually disappear into archives.” (Blazwick, 2017: 204)

Other Portraits (1994-5):

These images reappropriate and reimagine Ruff’s earlier ‘Portrait’ works through the use of a Minolta Montage Unit that was used by German police in the 1970s. This device works by amalgamating multiple portraits into one composite which often leaves features out of sync and exaggerated – the overall effect is somewhere between humorous and disturbing. The works have connotations with the Stasi as well as being a comment on physiognomics, surveillance and eugenics.

Sean O’Hagan makes this response to viewing two images from ‘Other Portraits’ in a retrospective of Ruff’s work he attended in 2017:

“two large monochrome head-and-shoulders studies … on first glance appear to be of a man and a woman. They are in fact composites of the two, one set of features imposed on the other. The results are unsettling, recalling blown up passport photos or criminal mugshots, but with a haunting – and haunted – quality.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Other Portrait Nr. 122/55 (1994/1995)

Nudes (1999-2006):

Cotton (2014) has this to say about ‘Nudes’:

“In his Nudes series of the early 2000s, Thomas Ruff dowloaded phonographic images from the internet and enlarged and enhanced the digital pixellation, creating photographs that depict the remoteness of the actual sexual acts. With their saccharine tonal ranges, these are beautiful images that demonstrate how idealization is key to the representation of a subject, and that potentially any subject (and here a relatively new form of image-making and viewing) can become a meditation on aesthetic form.” (Cotton, 2014: 213-4)

Angier (2006) makes this assessment:

“[The] series is so disengaged from corporeality that it is almost abstract. It is of course paradoxical that imagery based on pornography should be so lacking in physical detail, so devoid of any sort of punctum. Perhaps this lack of disruption and surprise is in the nature of digital image-making, regardless of its content.” (Angier, 2006: 198)

Dickinson (2017) describes the series like this:

“[nudes] repurposes pornographic images downloaded from the web. Digitally blurred, the images have a woozy, painterly quality at odds with the starkness of the sex acts they depict – a sardonic assessment of the male gaze, perhaps, as well as a commentary on the proliferation of online porn.”

Nudes lk18 (2000)
dyk03 (1999)

Night (1992-6):

This series was inspired by TV coverage of the 1st Gulf War which showed night vision technology used by the military and typified by a green cast and low definition. Ruff used a light intensifier with his camera to make his own version and produced images of urban surveillance that are particularly powerful because of the truth value these images are imbued with. (Campany, 2013: 122) The scenes Ruff captures in this series are not of war zones however, but of suburban areas. Under normal circumstances these would be boring and banal, but through the prism of the night-vision goggles there is a sense of potential threat – a potential for a crime.

Sean O’Hagan argues the images possess an “unreal aura that is oddly beautiful [with] noirish streets and buildings [seemingly] shrouded in a misty aquamarine glow that recalls 1950s sci-fi films or noir thrillers.” (O’Hagan, 2017)

Night 10 II (1992)
Night 9 II (1992)

jpeg (2004):

For this series, Ruff appropriates anonymous electronic images from the internet and enlarges them to sizes far beyond the limits of their resolution to make an image that borders abstraction. The work can be read as a commentary on the ephemeral nature of a digital image that is never intended to take a physical form. The enlarged pixels have a resemblance to the way film grain was used as an expressionistic device to suggest immediacy and authenticity, but, the result is quite different, as David Campany observes:

“Pixels are quite different. They are grid-like, repetitive. When we glimpse pixels we do not think of authenticity. Instead, the pixels represent a cold technological limit, a confrontation with the virtual bureaucratic order that secretly unites all images in a homogenous electronic continuum, whether they are holiday snapshots or military surveillance.” (Blazwick, 2017: 196)

In an earlier analysis he states:

“Nearly all images are digital even if they originated in non-digital or pre-digital forms. Given this fact it is surprising how few of them ever wish to address the fact that they exist as masses of electronic information that take visual form as pixels. Ruff has done a great deal to introduce into photographic art what we might call an ‘art of the pixel’, allowing us to contemplate at an aesthetic and philosophical level the basic condition of the electronic image. Of course he does this not by showing us the images on screens but by making large scale photographic prints, blowing them up far beyond their photorealist resolution. This might be the first time some of these images have taken a material form.” (Campany, 2008)

In an interview, Ruff describes the genesis of the series:

“One day in 2000, I was downloading pictures from the internet to use in my work, and I noticed some of them were broken up into little squares. It created quite a painterly, impressionistic structure, and it rendered parts of what was often an ugly image very beautiful. I looked into it, and found the Jpeg file compression software was responsible.

I started experimenting to see if I could create whole images like this myself. I found that when you blow them up to about 2.5 metres by 1.8 metres, it creates a nice effect: when you see it from about 10 or 15 metres away, you think you are looking at a precise photograph, but if you look closer, to within about five metres, you can’t recognise anything at all: you’re just standing in front of thousands of pixels.” (Benedictus, 2009)

ky01 (2002)

ma.r.s. (2010-ongoing):

The source material for this series is images captured by the NASA space probe the Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter. Ruff appropriates the images from the NASA website, cropping them and altering the colours before printing them at giant proportions similarly to the earlier ‘Stars’ series. Iwona Blazwick makes this analysis:

“Ruff translates the data gathered by an unmanned machine and its complex interface of optical instruments into a singular image of great beauty. It is both alien and familiar, representing a kind of interstellar commonality with our own terrain. At the same time, it enters the territory of painterly biomorphic abstraction.” (Blazwick, 2017: 201)

ma.r.s. 01_III (2011)

Photograms (2012-15):

This series reworks and remodels the abstract photographic approach of Bauhaus artists such as Làszlo Moholy-Nagy, defined as ‘New Vision’ photography, that was radical at the time but soon became popularised through fashion and advertising photography. Rather than making his photograms in the traditional sense, with objects placed on photosensitive paper in the darkroom, Ruff’s interpretations are made entirely in the digital darkroom using 3D modelling software. Despite the obvious differences in Ruff’s work and that the “classic photograms” made by artists such as Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray, David Campany observes that starting points appear to be similar objects:

“Ruff’s photograms, are a testament to the grip that modernist image making still has on the contemporary photographic imagination, even when that imagination is attempting to go beyond what we think of as photography.” (Blazwick, 2017: 197)

In an interview, Ruff describes the process of making ‘Photograms’:

“We create virtual objects like curved paper, lenses, glasses – any kind of objects I want … You don’t have gravity, so I can have objects floating around each other. And I project coloured light within the programme, so that the photograms are in colour … The 3D objects are hidden in the final artwork – you can only see the shadows they create on virtual paper. It is the perfect simulation of an old analogue darkroom … You have to ‘render’ the image … Rendering for 2,000 hours creates a high-resolution image. With a network of ten computers it still took us a couple of weeks to create one work. [It’s only when the image is printed] that it becomes a photograph.” (Sherwin, 2017)

phg.07_II (2014)
phg.02 (2011)

press++ (2016-ongoing):

This series is a return to the concerns about the construction of the press image that Ruff first explored in his earlier series ‘Newspaper Photographs’, except for ‘press++’ Ruff foregrounds this by digitally adding the editorial markings that are on the reverse of the photographs to the images. For the series, Ruff acquired photographs from the press agency archives of newspapers – many press outlets began to sell off these physical archives as digital scanning and storage meant that they became obsolete. Printed large, as is Ruff’s signature style, these marks gain a texture but meaning is difficult to divine as they often show an internal mode of communication between news desk, typesetter and picture editor that is now lost. As Cameron Foote observes:

“Divested of intentionality, the marks can only be read for their expressive characteristics, the sole unique and authored element of an image , which in its material form existed as a multiple, distributed to many different news outlets and interpreted by each in its own way.” (Blazwick, 2017:207)

press++ – 21.11 (2016)

Links:

Bibliography:

Angier, R. (2006) Train your gaze: (a practical and theoretical introduction to portrait photography). Lausanne: AVA Academia

Badger, G. (2001) The genius of photography: How photography has changed our lives. London: Quadrille Publishing.

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

Benedictus, L. (2009) Thomas Ruff’s best shot. The Guardian, 11th June 2009. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2009/jun/11/my-best-shot-thomas-ruff (accessed 26th January 2020)

Blazwick, I. (2017) Thomas Ruff 1979-2017. London: Whitechapel Gallery.

Campany, D. (2008) Thomas Ruff: Aesthetic of the pixel. IANN Magazine, No.2, 2008. Available at: https://davidcampany.com/thomas-ruff-the-aesthetics-of-the-pixel/ (acessed 13th January 2020)

Campany, D. (2013) Art and Photography. London: Phaidon Press Limited.

Cofield, C. (2016) Spaceflight photo collages bring editors into the spotlight. Space.com. Available at: https://www.space.com/32488-art-exhibit-spaceflight-photo-collages.html (accessed 13th January 2020)

Cotton, C. (2014) The Photograph as Contemporary Art (3rd Ed.) London: Thames and Hudson

Dama, F. (2018) How the cosmos has inspired a photographer’s vision. Hyperallergic. Available at: https://hyperallergic.com/410966/how-the-cosmos-has-inspired-a-photographers-vision/ (accessed 13th January 2020)

Dickinson, A. (2017) Passport photos and online porn: the dizzying world of Thomas Ruff. The New York Times, 5th October 2017. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/10/05/arts/design/thomas-ruff-whitechapel-gallery.html?_r=0 (accessed 13th January 2020)

Famighetti, M. (2013) Thomas Ruff: photograms for the new age. Aperture Magazine, Summer 2013. Available at: https://aperture.org/blog/thomas-ruff-photograms-for-the-new-age/ (accessed 13th January 2020)

Gefter, P. (2009) Photography After Frank. New York: Aperture.

Foster, H. et al. (2012) Art since 1900: Modernism * Antimodernism * Postmodernism. (2nd ed.) London: Thames & Hudson.

Jobey, L. (2017) An interview with the artist Thomas Ruff. Financial Times, 15th September 2017. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/6fbd0cfa-9746-11e7-a652-cde3f882dd7b (accessed 13th January 2020)

McDermott, E. (2016) Thomas Ruff in time and space. Interview Magazine. Available at: https://www.interviewmagazine.com/art/thomas-ruff-press (accessed 13th January 2020)

O’ Hagan, S. (2017) Blurred porn and Mars in 3D: the unsettling visions of Thomas Ruff. The Guardian, 26th September 2017. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2017/sep/26/thomas-ruff-photographs-whitechapel-retrospective-profile (accessed 13th January 2020)

Rehberg, V. (s.d.) Surface Tension. Tate Website. Available at: https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artists/thomas-ruff-2602/surface-tension (accessed 13th January 2020)

Sherwin, S. (2017) 10 Computers, 2000 hours, one photograph: making pictures with Thomas Ruff. RA Magazine, Autumn 2017. Available at: https://www.royalacademy.org.uk/article/magazine-thomas-ruff-photography-whitechapel-gallery (accessed 13th January 2020)

Warner Marien, M. (2014) Photography: A Cultural History (4th ed) London: Laurence King Publishing Ltd.

Erik Kessels

Erik Kessels is described by Francesco Zanot in her essay ‘The Many Lives of Erik Kessels’ as a “designer, photographer, artist, curator, publisher and creative director of the communication company KesselsKramer.” (Kessels, 2017: 9) In his art practice, Kessels is fascinated with vernacular photography and exploring “imperfection in a ‘perfect’ world.” In his essay ‘Pausing Photographs’, Kessels describes what motivates him:

“In design and advertising the perfect image is widely perceived as the only acceptable image. That has always bored me. I guess in a reaction to these beautiful but boring images I went in search of real and imperfect photographs: accidents, incongruity, frowns, wrinkles, fat rolls, blood, bruises, overexposure, double exposure, awkward poses, odd composition, bad lighting, and fingers in frame. It’s the faults, foibles and mistakes that make the images I collect feel authentic and human.” (Kessels, 2017: 5)

Kessels sources his images from flea markets and online and often finds the same imperfections, clichés and patterns repeating. He notes however a paradigm shift in amateur photography brought about by the move to digital photography – not only are more images being shot than ever before, but, the ability to instantly review means that images are reshot until they are ‘perfect’. The overconsumption of images is a symptom of modernity that Kessels likens to fast food – designed to look perfect but devoid of substance and leaving our retinas “overfed and undernourished”:

“As a result we have become remarkable editors. We have developed the ability to filter images; to discern in a spit second, a blink, or a click which are relevant or interesting to us and which ones to discard. Thanks to this remarkable skill, the bulk of these images wash over us like water off a duck’s back; we barely register most of them. The downside is that this current image culture is potentially breeding a generation of visual illeterates, passive consumers who don’t read, interpret, or process the bulk of the images they are force-fed on a daily basis. Quality is drowning in a sea of quantity.” (Kessels, 2017: 6)

Kessels makes an impassioned, compelling and provocative argument here, however, I am not sure if I agree with him completely – perhaps his intention is to provoke consideration of the points he raises? There is a suggestion that some sort of visual literacy has been lost due to the amount of images we are faced with today – I am not sure that viewers were more able to read an image before digital. However, the amount of images we are faced with does mean being able to process them is much more challenging. There is also an issue that images are becoming more homogenised due to conventions in style being established, for example, individual representation through social media. This again is no different to the days of analogue photography – proof of this being the recurring themes and conventions of presentation that Kessels has found in the many orphaned family photo albums he has acquired over the years. The fact that virtually everyone with a smart phone now possesses the technological means to produce images of a high technical quality is significant however.

There is much humour and irreverence present in Kessels work that appears very much to be his character. (In the two Ted Talks I discovered by Kessels he comes across as likeable and full of infectious energy – something which appears to translate into his work. See here and here.) He has an ability to approach imagery from an oblique angle, something that is also evident in his advertising practice. See for example the marketing of the Hans Brinker Budget Hotel in Amsterdam which is advertised as ‘The Worst Hotel in the World’ – an audacious piece of truthful promotion that succeeded in making the hotel a cult destination:

“The strategy we followed is probably totally not OK for every company…But in this case everything else you could do to advertise that place would be a lie. So we came up with the idea that honesty is the only luxury they have.” (LBB Editorial, 2011)

Missing Links (1998):

This series, made in collaboration with Julian Germain, is made up of a series of Polaroid images of diverse subjects with possible narrative links and interpretations being left with the viewer. Francesco Zanot observes:

“Kessels does not entrap any image within a single possibility of interpretation, but rather he devises a mechanism which emphasizes its semantic depth and malleability. As such, the book is an ode to the free circulation of signs.” (Kessels, 2017: 11)

The Instant Men (1999):

For this series of 19 portraits, Kessels turned the camera on men who make a living peddling roses and taking polaroid snapshots of couples in restaurants. Kessels sheds light on a subject that usually remains in the shadows and the resulting images of these “forgotten photographers of the night” are melancholic and touching:

“They do not have blue eyes and blond hair, but just bunches of colourful flowers which punctuate the passing of their working hours like great clocks. Resigned and dead tired.” (Kessels, 2017: 11)

Useful Photography (2002-ongoing):

This project uses appropriated imagery which has all been made for a specific purpose, for example, from catalogues, manuals, packaging, brochures and textbooks. Kessels does not manipulate or change the images in any way, merely selects and presents them together which decontextualises them from their original meaning and makes the viewer reevaluate what they are seeing.

Useful Photography #001 (Catalogues)
Useful Photography #006 (Before and after)
Useful Photography #010 (Wedding photography)
Useful Photography #011 (Firing range targets)

In Almost Every Picture (2002-ongoing):

‘In Almost Every Picture’ is a numbered, series of books featuring found photography themed around a recurring subject, person or thing. These can be amusing such as family’s vain attempt to take a photograph of their black dog – every image is underexposed so only a dark blob is seen where the dog should be, that is until the final image which is so overexposed the dog is grey not black. (See ‘In Almost Every Picture 9‘) They can show the obsession of the photographer, such as the series of images made by husband and wife Fred and Valerie in which they pursue the strange fetish of photographing Valerie fully clothed in water. (See ‘In Almost Every Picture 11′) Most impressive and unexpected however is the series that shows a Dutch woman, Ria van Dijk, over a period of 60 years from aged 16 to 88, having her photograph taken at the fairground by a camera that is triggered when the target is hit on a shooting gallery. These images offer a bizarre biography of Ria by showing how both she, the world around her and photography have changed over the years from the unusual, fixed perspective of the fairground ‘selfie machine.’

In Almost Every Picture 9
In Almost Every Picture 11
In Almost Every Picture 7
In Almost Every Picture 7
In Almost Every Picture 7

For Francesco Zanot, both ‘Useful Photography’ and ‘In Almost Every Picture’ are the series’ in which Kessels developed the rules, intentions and characteristics of his practice and approach:

“The titles say it all, the accent is on the re-use of photographs originally produced with specific function and purposes, and the obsessive repetition of subject matters. Kessels dismantles the aura of the original images, often in a crude and irreverent manner, only to then highlight their renewed exceptionality.” (Dannemann, 2016: 46)

Stranger in my Photoalbum (2007):

For this project, Kessels uses his personal, family archive but focusses on the unknown people who happen to enter the frame. The family photoalbum has a reverential quality, however, with this strategy Kessels is making the simple but powerful observation that this sacred nature is only relevant if the album is yours. The chance encounters of unknown passersby who have accidentally ended up in the frame are as relevant for the casual viewer who has no connection to the family in the album than the family themselves.

My Family (2000-ongoing):

Again using his personal family archive, Kessels makes a provocative challenge to the notion that family portraits of children should be happy, benign, banal and sentimental. He subverts this notion by showing photographs of his children after they have hurt themselves, and the result is surprisingly shocking. Photographs of children suffering are seen as unrepresentable, even taboo, and although these images are the result of simple accidents they retain a unpleasant power because of the connotations with violence against children.

24hrs of Photos (2011):

In a response to the huge amount of images available on line, for this work, Kessels printed all of the photographs that were uploaded to Flickr over a 24 hour period and scattered these in the gallery space. Seeing the huge amount of photographs that are mainly intended only to be shown on the internet is truly staggering and brings into sharp focus the reality of how many images are now being taken on a daily basis. When asked to explain the project, Kessels eludes to the overwhelming nature of the sheer number of images he presenst:

“I visualize the feeling of drowning in representations of other people’s experiences.” (Cole, 2015)

The huge amount of prints that make up ’24hrs of Photos’ could be interpreted as a bewildering, perhaps even depressing state of affairs – not so for Kessels who responds to the seemingly unstoppable surge of digital imagery like this:

“It is what it is, and in a way, photography is flourishing even if some photographers are not. I read somewhere recently that the average person in the west sees more images before lunch than someone living in 1890 would see in their whole life. It’s hard to make sense of what that means. Everyone can make a picture look fantastic now just by using an app, so that is not the point any more. Ideas are the key. Ideas are the future.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

A central tenet of Kessels’ practice is the belief in failure being more interesting than perfection. This is partly a response to the pursuit of the perfect image that is part and parcel of his advertising business, partly a push back against ‘serious’ art photography, but mainly, it is characteristic of his irreverent personality and world view:

“serious photography has grown so boring and humourless…All these photographers with large-format cameras making big landscapes with a power plant in the background and everything so beautiful and perfect. That is something I really hate. What I am looking for is ordinary photographs that tell a bigger story.” (O’Hagan, 2014)

Unfinished Father (2015):

I must admit when I saw this series exhibited as part of the 2016 Deutsche Börse prize I was left unmoved and felt it was the weakest work out of the four short listed photographers. Strangely, it was the work that has stayed with me most since then and my opinion has changed significantly. It is a deeply personal sseries about Kessels father Piet who, after suffering a debilitating stroke, could no longer continue with his hobby of restoring old Fiat Topolino cars. The stroke happened part way through the restoration of what would have been Piet’s fifth Topolino and Kessels uses the unfinished carcass of the vehicle as the basis of his project showing it as if it were a sculpture in the gallery space. In the notes from the exhibition catalogue, Francesco Zanot describes the installation and compares the work to the ‘non finito’ – a phrase used to describe an artwork that is left deliberately unfinished:

“Transposing it as found, frozen in time like in a photograph, the body of the car is placed centrally, surrounded by documentation of the restoration work, some images of which had already been taken by his father. One wounded body thus substitutes another. Laid before our gaze with its clinical, calibrated exposure, the work reflects the sudden interruption of a relationship between father and son which may never be renewed and completed”. (Dannemann, 2016:45)

Now I know more about Kessels other work, I am impressed by the way he has made this personal work while keeping to his favoured methodology of editing, selection and recontextualistion – as Zanot observes, his practice is concerned with intervention through the process of editing rather than manipulation through strategies such as photomontage. Addressing the how the sculptural nature of the work adds a dimension different to Kessel’s other work, she continues:

“In Unfinished Father, the status of the photograph is further investigated and questioned through its recontextualisation into a sculptural space…the ready-made, the forerunner of all forms of appropriation in contemporary art, is transformed into a sort of not-ready-made, which stretched out in various directions, reflecting on time, form, personal history, the medium… Such are the infinite possibilities of the non-finito.” (Dannemann, 2016: 46)

Links:

Bibliography:

British Journal of Photography (2017) Photobook: The many lives of Erik Kessels. BJP online. Available at: https://www.bjp-online.com/2017/05/kessels-lives/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Clark, T. (2013) The vanishing art of the family photo album. Time.com. Available at: https://time.com/3801986/the-vanishing-art-of-the-family-photo-album/#22 (accessed 28th September 2019)

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)

Dannemann, A. (2016) Deutsche Börse photography foundation prize 2016. London: The Photographers’ Gallery.

Grieve, M. (2016) Any Answers Erik Kessels. British Journal of Photography. Available at: https://search-proquest-com.ucreative.idm.oclc.org/docview/1776308492?pq-origsite=summon (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Jacobs, L. C. (2019) Erik Kessels: It’s not the end of the world. 99u. Available at: https://99u.adobe.com/articles/60289/erik-kessels-its-not-the-end-of-the-world (accessed 24th October 2019)

Kessels, E. (S.D.) Useful photography #011. Lens Culture. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/erik-kessels-useful-photography-011#slideshow (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Kessels, E. (2012) A new age of storytelling. Ted Talk, 15th October 2012. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TahIMpxb5X0 (accessed 6th November 2019)

Kessels, E. (2017) The many lives of Erik Kessels. New York: Aperture Foundation.

Kessels, E. (2016) Failed it! London: Phaidon Press Ltd.

Kessels, E. (2019) Make more sense with nonsense. Ted Talk, 22nd March 2019. Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3q7ll24CTXk (accessed 6th November 2019)

Lensculture (s.d.) A lifetime of self-portraits at a shooting gallery. Available at: https://www.lensculture.com/articles/erik-kesselskramer-a-lifetime-of-self-portraits-at-a-shooting-gallery (accessed 2nd November 2019)

LBB Editorial (2011) Erik Kessels’ adventures in imperfection. LBB online. Available at: https://lbbonline.com/news/erik-kessels-adventures-in-imperfection/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)

O’Hagan (2011) Why you are the future of photography. The Guardian, 13th July 2011. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2011/jul/13/from-here-on-photography-exhibition-arles (accessed 2nd November 2019)

O’Hagan, S. (2014) The world’s weirdest photo albums. The Observer, 20th March 2014. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2014/mar/30/the-worlds-weirdest-photo-albums (accessed 2nd November 2019)

O’ Hagan, S. (2016) Erik Kessels: ‘All the great photographs have already been taken.’ The Guardian, 15th April 2016. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2016/apr/15/erik-kessels-unfinished-father-deutsche-borse-photography-prize (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Parsons, E. (2019) Erik Kessels’ found photographs hint of jealousy, love and intrigue. Wallpaper*. Available at: https://www.wallpaper.com/art/erik-kessels-found-photographs-in-almost-every-picture (accessed 24th October 2019)

Pett, S. (2015) Mois de la Photo: making sense of the photograph in the web era. The Guardian, 15th September 2015. Available at: https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/2015/sep/15/mois-de-la-photo-making-sense-photography (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Photoworks (2006) Erik Kessels. Photoworks website. Available at: https://photoworks.org.uk/erik-kessels/ (accessed 2nd November 2019)

Dinh Q. Lê

The work of Dinh Q. Lê was referenced in my feedback for assignment 1 as being relevant to the work I had produced.

Lê is a Vietnamese artist who works in various media but is best known for applying the grass mat weaving technique that was taught to him by his aunt as a child to produce photographic collages. Lê, his mother and younger sibling, escaped Vietnam in the late 1970s, eventually settling in the US in 1978 after time in a refugee camp in Thailand. Many members of his family were not so fortunate and were either imprisoned or killed for trying to leave. His photo weavings, which often use both Vietnamese and Western war images, can be read as a comment on the duality of his American upbringing and Vietnamese heritage and show a desire to both remember and leave the past behind.

The introductory text from Lê’s exhibition ‘True Journey is Return’ at the San Jose Museum of Art says this about his practice:

“[Lê] explores themes of departure and return, the role of the artist during times of war, and reimagining symbols of American imperialism and recent histories of Vietnam through documentary videos and multichannel cinematic presentations, delicate watercolours and abstract paintings made by his artist/subjects, and architectural structures that compromise thousands of photographs abandoned by families fleeing from the ravages of war. Engaged with other Vietnamese voices and perspectives, Lê reshapes and generates new memories and images of the conflict by giving voice literally and metaphorically to those marginalized by history.”

Luong (2013) observes that identity, memory and history are the concepts that permeate Lê’s work and installations, describing him as an “artist-historian hybrid”. Much of Lê’s work is driven by a desire to preserve first hand knowledge of the Vietnam war – something that he believes the Vietnamese prefer to move on from. The current government also exert strict control on information from the war which often distorts the truth to fit its own version of past events. Tran (2015) sees Lê’s photo weaving technique and choice of source material as the antithesis of the simplistic and one sided narratives about Vietnam:

“the traditional weaving techniques act as a counter to reductionism by valuing ambivalence, being provocative but not judgemental, and both physically and intellectually breaking up the internal cohesion of the journalistic and cinematic gazes.”

Lê’s use of abstarction in his work is commented on by curator Rory Padeken:

“I’m a big fan of abstraction because I think it can speak to may issues, particularly difficult ones like loss, trauma, death. There’s no one image that’s dominating. It’s always in flux, because that’s how memory functions in the human mind.” (Myrow, 2016)

Lê is a fascinating artist and I am glad Wendy made me aware of his work in her feedback for assignment 1. It is frustrating however that he does not have his own website as I suspect there is much about his work I am missing. Lê is clearly driven by a personal desire to understand his personal history as well as explore his identity as a refugee from Vietnam. His desire to do this in a way that refutes the idea that there is a simple narrative is appealing to me as is his use of multimedia and physical presentation in his projects – this is something that can often seem superfluous but is an integral part of understanding Lê’s work.

Mot Coi Di Ve (1998):

The title of this work translates as “spending one’s life trying to find one’s way home” and was borne by Lê’s vain search to find photographs of his family when he returned to live in Vietnam in the 1990s. Unable to locate any, he instead used images of other families he acquired to produce a huge hanging quilt installation. The back of each image has either a literary quote or text taken from interviews with Vietnamese-Americans about the war.

From Vietnam to Hollywood (2003-5):

In this series of photo-tapestries, Lê juxtaposes images by photojournalists with stills from Hollywood films about the Vietnam war resulting in a composite that challenges and confronts fictionalised depictions of the war versus the reality. In an interview, Lê has this to say about his motivation to make the series:

“As a child growing up in Simi Valley, California with the distant memories of a country whose culture and imagery was being fed back to me via mainstream television and film, it was at times difficult to pinpoint which memories were mine or popularly inherited…I chose to return to Vietnam – to determine for myself my own memories and contexts of I was as a Vietnamese.” (Butt, 2010)

The Imaginary Country (2006):

‘The Imaginary Country’ is a three channel video installation which deals with Lê’s recurring concern about how the desires and fears he feels as a refugee from Vietnam is shared as a collective experience. These themes are approached metaphorically with portraits of Vietnamese clam diggers walking into the sea visualising notions of forced departure and dreams of return. (Seikaly, 2016)

Erasure (2011):

Using the same source material used by Lê to create ‘Mot Coi Di Ve’, this multimedia installation scatters the images through a bleak recreation of a shipwreck.

Light and Belief: Voices and Sketches of Life from the Vietnam War (2012):

This installation piece compromises a video documentary which is presented alongside over 100 drawings made by Vietnamese artist-soldiers during the war at moments of rest between battles. Butt (2013) reads the work as an attempt to explore the complex relationship between art, history and society using a methodology that both builds a collective memory and questions the purpose, structure and interpretability of cultural archives while probing the stereotypes generated by popular media and national myth. Myrow (2016) describes the work as simultaneously documentary and fiction – the resulting narratives that are built from the work being as fictional as Hollywood films such as ‘Apocalypse Now’. The the difference however is that these are not fictions from a Western perspective but depictions of how the men and women shown would want to be remembered in the event of the death in war – a genuine, if contested, version of history.

Crossing the Farther Shore (2014):

Video of Dinh Q. Lê discussing ‘Crossing the Farther Shore’ here.

This installation strings together thousands of found vernacular Vietnamese family photographs from the 1940s-1980s into structures that resemble mosquito nets. Seikaly (2016) has this to say about the work:

“Candid snapshots of tourists in front of monuments mingle with baby and wedding and school photos, all portraying relatable everyday events and underscoring the misery through which Vietnamese people lived as the conflict ground on. One armature is constructed of woven images that face inward. The “absent” images are all the more alluring when compared to other structures in which images facing outward and inward are woven together. It’s a visual experience akin to hearing a fragmented conversation; it leaves one wanting more, and the want is never satisfied.”

The Colony (2016):

This video installation explores the trade and colonial history of the guano trade – the practice of mining bird excrement to be used as fertiliser. Lê presents a number of different stories with the overarching theme of the battle for the worlds resources: guano covered islands are filmed by drones with grim evidence of how this was mined in the past being shown through abandoned areas and physical evidence; online footage showing disputes about territorial rights between Chinese and Vietnamese fishing boats are presented in small screens laid on the floor; the work is soundtracked with a cacophony of squawking birds, shouting sailors and arguments between American air crews and Chinese officials.

Links:

Bibliography:

Butt, Z. (2010) Interview with Dinh Q. Le, artist and co-founder of San Art, Ho Chi Minh City. POST: Independent Curators International. Available at: https://curatorsintl.org/posts/interview_with_dinh_q_le_artist_and_co_founder_of_san_art_ho_chi_minh_city [accessed 24th November 2019]

Butt, Z. (2013) Dinh Q. Lê in conversation with Zoe Butt. Guggenheim website. Available at: https://www.guggenheim.org/blogs/map/dinh-q-le-in-conversation-with-zoe-butt [accessed 24th November 2019]

Luong, R. (2013) Where I Work: Dinh Q. Lê. ArtAsiaPacific Magazine, Sep/Oct 2013. Available at: http://artasiapacific.com/Magazine/85/DinhQLe [accessed 24th November 2019]

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