For this series, Mayer appropriated female nude selfies from various sites on the internet, including revenge porn sites, and replaced the faces of the women in the images with her own. In an interview, Mayer describes being interested in how the selfie is inherently directed by the person in the photograph and how the majority of nude selfies are not intended to be mass distributed and are therefore not authorised – through her intervention, Mayer seeks to recapture and reclaim the images of the girls she features. (Byrd, 2014) In an interview, she expands on this idea:
“When these girls are taking these nude selfies, it’s interesting because they’re almost empowered. They’re the director, they’re the model, the editor and then the delivery vessel. They’ve created this while thing and then the minute it’s released, it becomes this item of vulnerability.” (Frank, 2014)
Vulnerability is something of a euphemism as the consequences for these women who have their nude selfies published online can be dangerous, far reaching, and life ruining – from public shame and damaged personal and professional relationships to suicide.
Reviewing the series’ exhibition at the 2014 Montreal Biennial, Cait Munro (2014) describes the public dissemination of nude photographs of women without consent as “probably the seediest underbelly of internet culture” but praises Mayer for reclaiming these from vengeance through her intervention:
“It’s a brave action that attempts to assuage some of the pain and humiliation many women have felt when they’ve found themselves compromised online in a way they never intended to be. It also opens a dialogue about the consequences of a culture that disseminates information without consent. Mayer recounts watching visitors approach her work during the opening reception, only to become visibly uncomfortable and back away. Part of it is just the natural response to encountering something sexually charged in a public space, but Mayer posits there’s something else at play too. “Because we are used to seeing nudity in a context where it is being taken from a woman, we feel we’re not supposed to be looking at these images, which in a way harms our [ability to enjoy] sexuality.” (Munro, 2014)
While praising the series for being a comment on visual oversaturation, Alicia Eler (2017) is less convinced about whether Mayer succeeds in reclaiming and anonymising the images from the malicious intent of whoever posted them to the internet:
“In making art out of actual revenge porn, Mayer further participates in the sharing and repurposing of intimate images that were never meant to be seen publicly. Within selfie culture, however, there is always an implied potential publicness, that this image could be shared. Selfies are taken with that awareness in mind. As an artist, is Mayer given leeway to use these images for the purposes of social commentary?
Mayer is both empathic to the women who originally shared these images, and fascinated by the images themselves. There is a certain sadness in all of these images. They are all evidence of betrayal. Once posted on the internet they join the glut of bodies as digital detritus or trash.” (Eler, 2017: 104-5)
Although Mayer states on her website that she went to great lengths to make convincing composites, the images I have looked at appear obviously fake. Aesthetically I do not have a problem with this in itself as it could be read as a comment on the other internet phenomenon where nude images of celebrities are faked. It is also of note that this series was first exhibited around the same time that a number of celebrities had their internet accounts hacked and nude images were posted online.
‘400 nudes’ is a challenging series that raises many issues that are important and deserve to be explored, I am not convinced that Mayer is successful with this however. The use of revenge porn to make art is problematic at best and most accurately unethical – there are strange contradictions concerned with empowerment and the fact that this is removed by the actions of a vengeful partner in an act that is a despicable betrayal of trust. Similarly to much rhetoric regarding rape when the survivor is portrayed as having behaved in some way that meant she deserved to be attacked, the victims of revenge porn are criticised for sending the images in the first place – an argument which fails to address the real issues and the fact that this sort of action is a form of sexual violence in itself. I am sure Mayer had positive intentions about being able to change this by her intervention, but she only adds to the problem by widening the audience. Ultimately I reach the same conclusion as Alicia Eler, and like her, I have chosen not to illustrate this post with any of the images from the series as I do not want to be complicit in showing images that were originally published to the internet with the purpose of humiliation.
In 2014, Amalia Ulman used her Instagram account to create a five month “performance” in which she blended fact and fiction to present a narrative which commented on the extreme makeover culture prevalent on Instagram at the time. Through a series of social media posts and selfies she created a semi-fictionalised version of herself, the background research for which she describes here:
“I began by researching the cosmetic gaze and the beauty myth, then I prepared a script and timeline that followed the rhythm of social media. I identified three popular trends: the Tumblr girl (an Urban Outfitters type); the sugar-baby ghetto girl; and the girl next door, someone like Miranda Kerr, who’s healthy and into yoga. Part of the project was about how photography can be a signifier of class, and how cultural capital is reflected in selfies.” (Eler, 2017: 242)
Although some aspects of the performance were carefully and elaborately orchestrated, such as pretending to have breast augmentation surgery, other parts were real – Ulman followed the strict Zao Dha Diet, went to pole dancing lessons and moved from London to Los Angeles. The introduction to the work on the New Museum website describes the series like this:
“Through judicious use of sets, props, and locations, Excellences and Perfection evoked a consumerist fantasy lifestyle. Ulman’s Instagram account is a parade of carefully arranged flowers and expensive lingerie and highly groomed interiors and perfectly plated brunches. These images are excessive, but also believable – because they’re so familiar. For many privileged users, social media is a way of selling one’s lifestyle, of building one’s brand. And Ulman went to great lengths to replicate the narrative conventions of these privileged feeds, from the use of captions and hashtags (#simple, #cutegasm), to the pace and timing of uploads, to the discerning inclusion of “authentic” intimate or emotional content (a photo of a lover or a moment of despair).”
When Ulman brought ‘Excellences and Perfections’ to an end in September 2014, many of her thousands of followers who were unaware of her performance, were so emotionally invested in her character that they felt hurt by what they perceived as her deception. Other commentators praised the way her project drew attention to the double standards that allow women to be simultaneously valued and shamed for the way they present their bodies online. Lucy Souter (2018: 103) describes how Ulman was praised by critics as “one of the internet’s sharpest infiltrators” and for “deconstructing the tyranny of smug social media bragging.” She regards ‘Excellences and Perfections’ as an example of parafictional artwork as it requires the belief of the audience to give them a jolt of reality. She makes this analysis:
“Who is to say where the line between fact and fiction lies in “Excellences and Perfections”? For after all, isn’t this the artist’s actual person? Ulman made real physical changes in her appearance for this project, to the point of exercising hours per day and having fillers injected into her face. Might not some of these experiences or emotions depicted also be at least partially genuine? And what of the unguarded responses of her followers? Are those invalidated when she “outs” the project as being staged? Once unveiled as a hoax, Ulman’s project is a fiction that remains provocative in its negotiation between authenticity and commodification as foregrounded by selfie culture. For indeed, we all encounter a degree of contradiction between our experience of ourselves and the way we present ourselves to the world. The internet has merely extended the reach and velocity of our self-imaging.” (Souter, 2018: 103)
In an interview Ulman addresses the controversy that ensued following the realisation that her social media was an art project rather than reality by drawing an analogy with the way people jumped from their seats when confronted with the Lumières first public film screening:
“in a way, everyone knows at that their core, that all reality online is fabricated. Maybe that’s where the bitterness came from (in relation to the performance) because that exposure not only involved me, but everyone who followed and saw themselves reflected in it.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)
When the interviweer makes a comment about the project being bound with “the ethics of suspending disbelief on social media”, Ulman makes a reply about the construction of media in general:
“I think it is important to offer skepticism about media in general. Even though it is well known, for example, that news networks are manipulated depending on their ideology and that women’s magazines are constantly censored by their advertisers (mainly the cosmetics industry), reminders are always worth generating. This is because they point out hierarchies of power and manipulation, they help the audience to become more analytical about their sources of information. If I generated a fiction, everything else could be a fiction too.” (Horning and Ulman, 2014)
Peggy Orenstein defines Ulman’s series as spoofing the language of Instagram by creating a “commercialized, one-dimensional, infinitely replicated, and, frankly, unimaginative vision of sexiness…[set to] perform rather than to feel sensuality.” (Winant, 2016) Carmen Winant makes this analysis which describes the fine line that Ulman successfully negotiates through the series:
“In a moment in which feminist art is defined primarily by its immediate context and authorial claims (Ulman does not describe practice as “feminist” or ascribing to any other political categorization), [Excellences and Perfections] could be considered incisive or lacking rigor. In any case, by revelling in the exhibitionism she seeks to critique, Ulman’s work gets to have it both ways.” (Winant, 2016)
I find ‘Excellences and Perfections’ a compelling series – completely convincing even when you know it is a construction, and complex in the way themes of gender politics and the gaze of the internet are explored. The series possesses the quality that all social media presentations of this type strive for – authenticity, something which ironically has no relationship at all to reality.
I came across the work of Haley Morris-Cafiero from her Instagram account and her series ‘The Bully Pulpit‘ immediately resonated with me because of its strong opposition and defiance to online bullying and trolling. On her website she describes herself as “Part performer, part artist, part spectator” and concerned with exploring the act of reflection in her photography.”
For this series, Morris-Cafiero set up a camera in a public space and photographed herself completing mundane tasks while passersby moved around her. She then selected images in which the strangers in the frame displayed a critical or questioning elements in their face or body language. From her artist statement, she has this to say about the series:
“I consider my photographs a social experiment and I reverse the gaze back on to the stranger and place the viewer in the position of being a witness to a moment in time. The project is a performative form of street photography. I place the camera on a tripod and take hundreds of photographs. The resulting images capture the gazer in a microsecond moment where the shutter, the scene, my actions and their body language align and are frozen on the frame. I do not know what the people in my photographs are looking at or reacting to. I present the images to the world to start a conversation about the gaze and how we use it to communicate our thoughts of others.”
‘Wait Watchers’ straddles many genres of photography, one of the attractions of the series is how it is difficult to define, something acknowledged by Morris-Cafiero who describes it as “technically street photography, documentary, self-portrait, conceptual and guerilla all at once.” (Cirla, s.d.) Asked if she was enraged or hurt by the response of the strangers she captures in her photographs, Morris-Cafiero says she had the opposite reaction:
“From the beginning, I was excited when I found an image as I am always surprised at how a camera can freeze an ephemeral moment that lasts only a microsecond. Every time I got a successful image I was motivated to shoot more.
I use humour to de-weaponise the aspects of an image that have the potential to hurt other people…I have learned that my ability to laugh at hateful reactions is true and deep – it’s not just a mindset that I tried to position for myself. If you think that someone will attack you, you like to believe you would be able to defend yourself, but until it happens, you never really know for sure. Now I know. I can handle it and respond to it in a witty and insightful way.” (Cresswell, 2018)
This series is a direct response to the cyberbullying and body-shaming Morris-Cafiero experienced after ‘Wait Watchers’ went viral online. She found photographs of the bullies online and then recreated their images and overlayered transcripts of the bullying comments in the frame in an attempt to challenge the fallacy that the internet will shield their identities. From her artist statement, she makes this point about her motivations:
“instead of responding to “deaf ears”, I realize that I can parody the bullies attempts by creating images and publishing them on the internet – the same vehicle used for their attacks – and the images would be seen by millions, and would live again, again, and again.”
Diane Smyth (2019) says this about the series:
“By using her critics’ words, Morris-Cafiero allows their behaviour to speak for itself; in the costumes she constructed, though, she allowed herself a dose of irony. Deliberately rough, verging on the grotesque, her costumes allude to “the false sense of protection that the internet provides these and other bullies” but also give a physical manifestation of the ugliness of their words – and, hopefully, give the viewer a laugh while encouraging them to think all this through.
“As I am interested in addressing difficult subjects in my work, I use humour to neutralise some of that negativity” says Morris-Cafiero. For Bully Pulpit, I wanted humour to be present in the photos because I always laugh when I receive or read one of these comments. I think it is such a waste of their time and electricity to write a comment that they think will hurt me stop what I am doing.” (Smyth, 2019)
Challenging the supposed anonymity of the internet and the power of the mob is a key point of the work with Morris-Cafiero believing few would have the courage to say the comments made to her online in person. Featuring the text in the images is not just a visual strategy but a practical one as comments can be deleted from the internet but images cannot so her response will be available online forever. In an interview, she explians this further:
“I wanted to out-smart and out-wit the people who were attacking me. It would have been easy to publish their names, addresses etc. but that would have been easy. We would have looked at the information and then reacted and then move on. But by taking advantage of the fact that they do not own their likeness, I am using it to amplify my voice. Their constructed image is very important to these people and I am using it to show the world what they say about me – and others.” (Cirla, s.d.)
For this post, I am concerned with Cindy Sherman’s recent Instagram work, thoughts about her other aspects of her practice can be found in my post on her exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery on 2019.
In 2017, Cindy Sherman caused a sensation in the art world by suddenly, and without explanation, making her previously private Instagram account public. For Noah Becker (2017), in a sense Sherman pioneered the idea of the “selfie” decades before social media with her dramatically stages self-portraiture. He describes the work:
“Sherman’s Instagram posts are a series of wildly distorted selfies, flower arrangements and disturbing hospital self-portraits, with oxygen tubes up her nostrils. There is a video shot from the perspective of someone lying in a hospital bed. The viewer is made to wonder how much of this is real, whether Sherman was actually hospitalized, or if it’s mere fabrication. The images are also affected by an array of decorative filters available on Instagram that animate or change the facial features of users. The line between real life and posed events that Instagram affords heightens the confusion as to what is actually happening.” (Becker, 2017)
Sherman is famously reticent in discussing the meaning of her work. Parul Sehgal (2018) quotes curator Darsie Alexander as saying, “[the] fact of her silence is now almost part of Cindy’s canon”. One thing Sherman has imparted about her work however is that her photographs are not self-portraits, nor do they depict her fantasies. She has also commented that she loathes selfies describing them as “so vulgar”, a comment that becomes loaded when read in conjunction with her Instagram work. Sehgal describes her thoughts on the series:
“with the Instagram series, Sherman isn’t riffing on recognizable archetypes. Her new mock self-portraits are of ordinary people, albeit cartoonishly caricatured. They are some of the first pure protagonists in Sherman’s work: These women are not metaphors, they are not waiting to be represented, rescued or destroyed. They are gloriously, catastrophically themselves, and we meet them on their own terms – as we so frequently meet each other – in stagy, embarrassing, endearing selfies launched into the world.
These are all photographs of subtle rebellions – the first thing being the demand, of women of a certain age, to be noticed, admired. Or do I have it backward? The longer I look at these photographs, the less sure I am of them. Are these women insisting on being seen or are they taunting us, mischievously playing on fears of female ugliness, of becoming old and absurd or just invisible? That slipperiness in her work – does she see people clearly out of kinship or cruelty? – becomes complicated here by her ambivalence about ageing.” (Sehgal, 2018)
In an interview with Andrew Russeth (2017), Sherman is humble about her intentions with her Instagram work, describing them as “silly sketches”:
“All these Instagram images are, for me, just playing around…I don’t think it at all competes with my serious work. They’re just fun, like a little distraction” (Russeth, 2017)
Russeth sees an irony in her use of Instagram however, as an artist who has constantly resisted autobiographical readings of her work to embrace a platform that thrives on the interplay of the personal and the artificial seems provocative. He also notes that many of Sherman’s images could be designated ‘plandids’ rather than selfies – that is, “carefully composed images of studious nonchalance; [that] capture subjects who are determinedly carefree.”
Jad Dashan (2019) makes a distinction between the tone of Sherman’s “official”, gallery exhibited work and the images she posts to Instagram:
“The very nature of the gallery valorizes the artwork, even in the case of art defined by institutional criticism. This might be an historical vestige of the exclusivity of salons and the art economy. Regardless, this is replaced on Instagram with the validation given by likes, comments, and follower counts. Opening up critique to a massive, unspecialized cyber-public seems to imbue her Instagram pictures with a sense of informality that is only bolstered by the fact that they are interspersed with more casual, perennial posts…In a way, the art is more democratic even more accessible when exhibition bureaucracies…are sidestepped and the art is no longer immured within the gallery.” (Dahshan, 2019)
Paddy Johnson (2017), while finding elements to admire in Sherman’s Instagram work, such as a post where she poses with her pet macaw in which she humorously appears like a 50 year old teenager, is suspicious of the near universal critical acclaim the work has received describing it as the result of a trend becoming more influential than the craft itself. Ultimately, she finds the works lacking in depth:
“As per usual, Sherman has transformed herself, but there’s no grand insight that comes from selfies altered with a couple of apps.
And that’s fine. As a platform for experimentation and play, Instagram is pretty great for artists at all levels of the game. But I don’t want to describe this as more than it is. It’s not an exhibition, these are not masterworks, and we definitely don’t need to hail Sherman’s selfies.” (Johnson, 2017)
While I can see Johnson’s point, and I can understand her railing against the sycophancy directed toward Sherman’s Instagram work, there is a suggestion of elitism that turns me off. Similarly to Stephen Shore, an artist who has recently been posting work to Instagram, the accessibility of these works is what makes them so appealing to me. To see the platform used as a kind of sketchbook is fascinating, and in the case of Sherman, the inclusion of personal posts alongside her manipulated images only adds to her enigma. Superficially, these posts offer an insight into her personal life that she has tried hard to keep private over the years, but it does not take much consideration to realise that we learn very little new, and definitely nothing of substance. Perhaps the surface nature of Sherman’s engagement with social media are the point of the exercise in itself. Personally, I find the work interesting and engaging on a number of levels especially since the type of performative self portraiture that Sherman has made her practice around is now available for anyone with access to a smartphone and the relevant apps.
Evan Roth originally trained as an architect but became interested in the world of the internet during the heyday of torrenting, experimenting with code and making websites in the early 2000s. He engaged in various activist collectives such as Graffiti Research Lab and Free Art and Technology/F.A.T. Lab before becoming an artist working with new media. He describes the work he makes as, “[wrestling] with a desire to create net art as a cultural object while staying critical of it.” He describes himself as having a “hacker philosophy” means playing within rule structures where you are not meant to have agency:
“A hacker tweaks these small moments of power you do have into something bigger. My interest in this philosophy is as a problem-solving technique for artists and activists. Actually, a lot of my work deals with personal empowerment issues, looking for those rare moments when users can gain power that makes us feel bigger than we are.” (Small, 2018)
This artists talk by Evan Roth, although predominately about his project ‘Red Lines‘ gives an excellent overview of his development as an artist and his passion for internet activism. When I initially looked at Roth’s work I almost discounted studying it further, however, as I read more about I became drawn to both his strategies and philosophy. Rather than being an academic exercise, Roth demonstrates a great deal experimentation in his work and context is essential to fully understanding it.
These series’ expand on the idea of transforming the activity of using a computer/device into a visual artwork. With ‘9 to 5 Paintings’, Roth created a visual representation of daily computing routines. (This video shows how the images came together.) The resulting ‘paintings’ are simple abstracts that are more successful conceptually than aesthetically.
With ‘Level Cleared’, ‘Angry Birds All Levels’ and ‘Multi-Touch Paintings’, Roth extends the idea into the arena of touch screen devices that had become prevalent in the time since the earlier work. The painting are made as Roth plays the popular game Angry Birds using inked fingers on tracing paper. The screen sized paintings are displayed as grid, the small scale of each individual image contrasting with the sheer number of them and forcing consideration of our relationship with our mobile devices. In the text from Roth’s website, the work is described as a comment on the rise of casual gaming, identity and our relationship with mobile devices:
“The series is a comment on computing and identity, but also creates an archive of this moment in history where we have started to manipulate pixels with gestures…In the end, the viewer is presented with a black and white representation of the gestures that have been prescribed to us in the form of user interaction design.”
The idea is further developed with the ‘Multi-Touch Paintings Series’ for which Roth enlarges the finger print smudges to huge dimensions which often dwarf the viewer. The detail of each fingerprint is enlarged to such an extent that the aesthetic beauty of each is accentuated both individually and as part of the larger composition which it becomes and further expanding on the idea of how our connected life is imposing over our real world experience.
This series features an uncensored stream of images collected from daily browsing, or “memories that were never intended to be saved” according to the artists statement on Roth’s website. Personal images are presented side by side with advertisements and corporate logos, something that Roth describes as an “attempt to reveal something human and intimate about us through our interactions online.”
This series takes inspiration from an 18th century technique of representing a subject cut as an outline into a single piece of black paper. Rather than the typical subject for this technique of a person in profile, Roth makes compositions based on the proportions of the internet such as his own browsing data or standardised internet advertising proportions which, according to his artists statement:
“[draws] into question whether these proportions are in reaction to or are a driving force behind the general shape of the web. Similar to its 18th century counterpart, the series eschew the content of the subject, leaving only the familiar outlines to represent the character.”
For this work, Roth printed all of the internet cache collected from four months of browsing onto a large piece of card before putting this into a trash compactor which creates a messy cube. This was then bound with chord and displayed as a sculpture in a gallery. The work is a physical manifestation of how web browsers track our behaviour – information unintended to be viewed. In a review of the piece, Josephine Bosma suggests Roth is making a comment on how the intricacies of the internet is dumbed to become a string of images not much different from a TV channel and concludes: “Evan Roth leaves is to wonder about the value, shape, and function of our extended memories with this deceptively simple work.” (Bosma, 2014)
Since 2014 Roth has documented coastal sites where undersea internet cables emerge from the water and into the ground using a modified digital camera that is capable of photographing infrared spectrum. The idea for the work came from increasing concerns Roth had about the internet and our relationship with it driven by issues such as the NSA surveillance controversy and crude, simplistic metaphors like ‘the cloud’. He began to question the specific dangers to the network:
“I became interested in visiting the internet somewhere. Others focus on the mines where the minerals come from, or maybe the data centres. I liked how the cables coming out from the ocean are at these strange transition points around the globe. You find yourself looking for these massive networks but end up finding yourself completely alone, because, by design these cables are isolated for safety reasons.” (Small, 2018)
The series is an attempt by Roth to depict both physical and hidden landscapes. 53 landing sites for fibre optic cables around the world were filmed by Roth where he created videos using his infrared adapted camera. The scenes show no indication that each is a hidden source for the world wide web, but the eerily beautiful red tones of each give an alien feel, the use of infrared is a direct reference to the fact that this is what is transmitted through the cables. The tranquility and remote nature of the locations gave Roth time to slow down and consider where his art practice was going – originally intended as some form of online activism in response to feeling jaded about the internet, Roth was able to slow down and “see through the digital noise” and gain a much needed moment of reflection. He comments:
“[The remote spots] provided a nice sanctuary for slowing down and so the work became about that…It wasn’t about seeing the cable and reporting back on it…these remote places…allowed me to think about the network in different ways, slower ways and ways that were more informed by the pace of nature rather than the pace of social media.” (Bland, s.d.)
For the exhibition ‘Red Lines with Landscapes’ at the Usher Gallery in 2019, Roth chose 18th and 19th century landscape paintings from the museums collection to show alongside his works. His website explains this further: “By contrasting the old and the new, this exhibition explores the history, power structures and ideologies that shape our visible and non-visible contemporary landscape.”
‘Red Lines’, commissioned by Artangel, is a way for Roth to bring ‘Landscapes’ out of the gallery space into peoples homes. Using peer to peer software (similar to that used by torrent sharing sites such as Pirate Bay) the work can be viewed on any internet enabled device, this allows most people the opportunity to live with the artwork in their own home.
As suggested by Roth, I set up an old smartphone to show ‘Red Lines’ and to ‘live’ with the work for a while. There is a strange, meditative nature to the work which is conducive to viewing just outside of peripheral vision. I had the screen displaying the work set up to next to my computer and found myself studying the scenes during moments where I was thinking – the work is a calming presence. I am attracted to the Roth’s ideas about accessibility for art and how this piece is essentially free for anyone to access by anyone with an appropriate device and an internet connection. Rather than being an artwork you own however, by displaying the work you become part of the network that displays it – a particularly poetic response to questions about the value of art and how ownership is accessible to the very few.
I first came across Chloe Juno and her series ‘Someones Rubbish’ via Instagram. The series is a longterm project documenting life in Juno’s home town of Brighton through the everyday items that are discarded. Juno makes this summary of the project on her website:
“Someones Rubbish over 2500 images on Instagram. Photos taken daily from 2014. Looking at everyday life in the centre of Brighton and Hove, East Sussex, Britain. The objects people use and discard, a street museum of now, looking at the cost of living, the things we need to use in this life for play, work, education, health, beauty, food, sex, love, drugs, debts, money, bills, general domestic life. Over time I have also realised, that many of the objects I am drawn too document, are things I have used or relate to in some way. As the collection builds patterns form, representing of a section of a city. A big picture of life now.” (Juno, s.d.)
Apart from being drawn to both the concept and execution of this series it has also now taken on a particular relevance as collecting photographs of rubbish and discarded items is something I have started to do as part of my ‘DailyWalkDiary’ project. This project came about as a way to motivate myself to do something creative during the recent Covid-19 lockdown. As I work in retail I found myself busier than ever so being stuck in the house was not a concern for me, in fact, I was working long hours and it felt like I was hardly ever at home. I started walking daily, and documenting what I saw as a way to decompress from the pressure of work and also to push myself to use photography as a creative outlet to support my mental health and well being. I did not intend to photograph rubbish as part of this project, it is just something that happened instinctively, but was perhaps subconsciously driven by my knowledge of Juno’s series. Since I have started doing this I can identify much more with the drive Juno has to follow her own project – the idea that these items can tell us something about human life now is a compelling one. In a recent blog post, Juno imagines how an archaeologist in the future could look back at items of the past and use them to build a picture of human life (Juno, 2020). Juno’s simple, yet effective concept succeeds because of the sheer number of items Juno has collected over the years and because each is charged with multiple potential narratives – I look at them and imagine the circumstances that led to the objects being left and am left with many possibilities ranging from the profound to the banal. Taking these images myself I feel a sense of quiet envy at some of the amazing finds Juno has had, and a jolt of memory from my own searches when I have come across something out of the ordinary and felt pleasure at photographing it.
I came across the work of Gab Bois on Instagram in an article on the Elephant website while I was researching another artist and was immediately struck by the playful, witty, original yet simple nature of her work. The themes of consumerism, body image, aspiration and living in an always connected world that are often present in her work also resonated with me. Bois uses digital manipulation to reimagine alternative uses for everyday objects in a way that bends the line between real and imaginary. Andrew Lasane believes that the ideas are the reason the images work and that the way the photographs twist reality to illustrate bizarre, yet clever, concepts by depicting unnatural double entendres and impossible feats in a way that is seamless. (Lasane, 2019) Louise Benson has this to say about the work:
“With just a few smart visual cues, Bois has much to suggest about the state of our over-medicated, hyper-branded and self-obsessed contemporary reality – not to mention about our short attention spans. When it is all too easy to keep scrolling, Bois stops you short in your tracks.” (Benson, 2020)
Jyni Ong describes Bois’ work as being “visually impactful in an era of over-saturation [while] providing a point of difference.” She describes the images as having a ‘life-hack aesthetic’ (as an aside, life-hack is a phrase I cannot stand, although I do recognise the accuracy in Ong’s assertion and that this is a genuine phenomena on social media.) In response, Bois states that it is important to her that the work has a:
“raw feel [so it] doesn’t become too close to an ad, or like content from a clickbait site…It’s also important for my work to involve subjects that I know. Whether that’s my own body or familiar objects or food I like. The challenge of creating something new from something I’ve looked at thousands of times is really stimulating and satisfying.” (Ong, 2019)
In an interview she expands on these points and her inspiration:
“I like to get inspired by subjects that I know and have experienced…I work with parts of my everyday life because it’s the only way that it feels relevant. I mostly create for myself because a lot of my images have memories and meanings attached to them. It’s a very selfish process. If my followers and viewers relate to my images, then all the better. But there’s no specific reaction I’m aiming for…I look at Instagram as kind of a mood board and it’s just a way for me to put my thoughts into images.” (Douglas-Davies, 2018)
I came across the work of Nathan Bett reading the book ‘The Social Photo’ by Nathan Jurgenson. Jurgenson references the series ‘Learning to Disappear‘ which consists of composite street photographs in which the subject is captured grimacing into the camera, the series immediately resonated with me because of the work I made for Assignment 1. The images are shot in New York, somewhere Bett was desperate to visit and make street photographs having been inspired by the likes of Bruce Gilden and Garry Winogrand. The reality of taking images in the city was at odds with the romantic vision Bett had of what the process would be like – rather than capturing moments of poetry amongst the everyday bustle of life on the street, Bett was struck by how he was viewed as a nuisance or with suspicion, he comments:
“What you see in Learning to Disappear are not actual moments but they are a fair reflection of the collected interactions between the public and I. Each photograph is a composite of images made from multiple frames shot from the same spot.
Learning to Disappear is about the dynamic relationship between viewer and subject; specifically, the way in which people react to having their photograph taken, candidly, by a stranger, and without their consent.” (Bett, 2015)
This notion that a stronger truth can be demonstrated in a manipulated or staged image is one I find compelling. It reminds me of the work of Jeff Wall and how he often uses real experience to inform his constructed photographic narratives. The images made by Bett only exist because he has brought them together, and yet, there is a strong relationship to truth and reality – the stares from the people in his images strike a chord as feelings of being looked upon, judged or anxious in public are universal concerns for us all. Jurgenson makes this observation:
“True to the street photographer ethic, his response to these grimaces at being photographed without consent was to Photoshop the faces together to make a new image, a street photograph reduced to pure surveillant anxiety. The violation of privacy is not just something necessary for his art but is the art itself. Resistance to the street-photographer gaze becomes another element for it.” (Jurgenson, 2019: 93-4)
Apart from the strong aesthetic of this series, my attraction is the similarities it has with my assignment 1. Bett has succeeded in making something much more compelling however – the looks from his subjects make immediate impact on the viewer and also unify the set, something I attempted in my own work but have . The series is yet another example of how the direction of a project can develop organically from making the work – the output Bett eventually realised was far from what he initially intended and could only have resulted from the process itself.
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)
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)
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)
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 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)
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)
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)
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)