Photography is Chaos
In her 2015 book, Photography is Magic, Charlotte Cotton places contemporary photography in the realm of magic, likening today’s artists to stage magicians who “conjure imaginative and open-ended experiences and trains of thought in the viewer”1 from the vast array of technological, conceptual, cultural, and social resources at their disposals. Cotton describes the practice of contemporary image-making as being the result of “active choices,”2 wherein artists navigate the frontier of visual language by making a series of determinations regarding the construction, presentation, and dissemination of an image. While these considerations have long been an integral part of photographic practice, the degree to which they can be manipulated grows increasingly subtler, affording artists ever more opportunity and authority as experiential orchestrators. Today’s photographers function less as hunters and more as gatherers, putting a personal spin on existing cultural data by culling together bits and pieces from a variety of places and making them into something emotionally tangible. The question of what constitutes a photograph has seceded to the questioning of the desire for medium-specificity and the notion that parameters need or can even exist in a field whose very inception was messy and contentious.
Upon my first reading of Cotton’s essay, I mistakenly read the word choices as chaos, and immediately thought “active chaos” was the perfect description of not only contemporary photography, but photography in general (imagine my sheepishness upon the realization that my lightbulb moment was the result of tired eyes and a case of mom-brain). The phrase might seem redundant—after all, isn’t activity already implied by the presence of chaos?—however, to me it represents the potential for chaos to result in significant shifts that have overall forward momentum. In almost 200 years of photography, the medium has routinely had a multifaceted existence with dynamic strides occurring simultaneously in cultural, artistic, and technological spheres. The strides have been uneven yet purposeful, with each informing the other with what could be described as logical unpredictability. Although the trajectory may seem linear when only one arena (i.e. art or journalism) is considered, the simple fact is that it is impossible to accurately chart the history of the medium without accounting for the myriad of applications for which it has been used. Photography’s bloodline is chaos, its impact tremendous, and its evolution continual. What is happening creatively at this moment is not radically different than anything that has happened before, but rather the acceptance of the falling away of the old guard—the desire to beat the dead horse of “what is a photograph?”—has resulted in a fundamental shift in attitude. By learning to love the chaos, photography has been liberated.
Not Photography, Installation view, Erin Cluley Gallery, 2016.
The six artists in NOT PHOTOGRAPHY represent just a fraction of what is being done with the medium at this particular point in time, but all are indicative of the experimental fervor that currently governs the field. While experimentation has long been the beating heart of photography, it has rarely been so visually transparent or dominant. Sure, there will always be the flak-jacket wearing brethren who pray to the Zone System gods and painstakingly spot-touch silver gelatin prints (and who among us doesn’t love a well-executed ode to Group f/64?), but the power they yield has been sapped by the Pandora’s box that digital technology and social media have unleashed over the land. The dispassionate representationalism that dictated much of the popular photographic imagery of the latter 20th century and early years of the 21st has given way to a new style that is buoyant, malleable, and self-reflexively reflexive. Making an image is no longer about demonstrating the technical prowess with which a camera can depict life or larger-than-life, or creating a fine objet d’art. It is about acknowledging the surreality of living a life in front of the lens and the absurdly microscopic degree to which we can build, break, re-build, and re-break visual language. Perhaps one reason contemporary photography seems so oddly unique is that contemporary life is so superficially bizarre.
With the Internet image morass perpetually at our fingertips, it’s no wonder that much of contemporary photography is obsessed with our own self-obsession. The audacity with which we live for the camera but persist in convincing ourselves otherwise, while simultaneously loving-to-hate people who shamelessly use this to their advantage, is ripe for the picking. Our cultural relationship to photography has grown so complicated we are practically at a chicken-egg situation wherein the image can almost pre-date the occurrence of an event because the content is relatively inconsequential. How many times have you shown someone a friend’s post on Facebook, only to be met with a less-than-enthusiastic “oh yeah” upon viewing? It’s as though telling someone that an image exists is more exciting than actually seeing it. Yet despite the continual devaluing of content as a currency, we still rely on photographs as validation of our existence.
This complex dynamic forms the basis for the work of Chivas Clem and Hillary Holsonback, who examine the act of performing for the camera and the duality of being an active participant ultimately rendered passive by the subjectivity of the viewer’s gaze, respectively. While Clem’s work focuses on the ridiculousness of self-made celebrities and the lengths to which they go to generate fame, Holsonback inserts herself into projected images of vintage cheesecake shots as a way to rectify the distance between perceived and actual femininity. In both cases, the artists are using found imagery—an increasingly commonplace practice in contemporary photography—to underscore the pervasive fetishistic narcissism with which we worship images of our own bodies and transpose fantasies of ourselves onto others who act in our place. For Holsonback and Clem, the predatory nature of body-driven commercial imagery stems largely from the insatiability with which we consume these pictures and the misguided ideologies of gender identity and body politics they propagate. In these instances the photographic content functions secondarily to the larger issues at hand, with the pictures serving less as representational objects, and more as vehicles for a broader conversation.
On the opposite end of the spectrum, Emily Peacock’s images delve into the deeply personal relationship we have to photography, with each picture an encapsulation of softly layered memories. Placing archival family photographs and collected visual memorabilia against swatches of fabric, wallpaper, and marble, Peacock crafts domestic narratives that—while being stories about her own family—tap into the collective warm and fuzzy thoughts we all associate with such objects. Capitalizing on the inherent connection between photography and memory, Peacock reminds us of our desire for immortality—to freeze time and live on through the images and ephemera we leave behind. The emotional weight is further emphasized through her placement of objects like Polaroids and postcards against the tactile surfaces of household interiors, calling to mind the physicality of time and place—the sights, sounds, smells, and feels associated with a particular memory. This trompe l’oeil effect also serves the purpose of simultaneously tugging at our heartstrings while withholding the satisfaction of seeing the actual objects in person—yet another way in which we allow ourselves to be taken in by the power of the photograph.
Adrián Fernández also taps into the notion that an image is imbued with symbolic authority of personal or cultural identity. Fernández photographs postage stamps that depict images of a media-publicized version of Cuban history, blowing them up so that the physicality of the mass-produced objects is given reverential treatment. Fernández uses the structural composition of these stamps to highlight the elements that come together to create a cultural identity, and how this identity is disseminated through visual propaganda. He dramatically crops the images, deliberately dropping out information, thereby rendering them ineffective as agents of their intended political power. Through his corruption of the original image, Fernández calls to mind the fact that history is not truthful or complete when told through a singular source.
Jason Willaford breaks visual language down even further by taking existing billboard vinyl and sewing it into anthropomorphic sculptures, which he then scans and presents as photographs, returning the flat glossy surface of the billboard back to a semblance of its original vestige, yet stripped of any sort of marketable content. Willaford’s process pokes fun at the fanaticism with which we create, devour, and recycle consumer products, selling our waste back to ourselves in an entirely new form. However, rather than recreate a tangible product from scrap material, Willaford turns it into a useless lump, a mass of presumably latent potential that will never be realized. The shapes are also indicative of a failed attempt to forge a human connection through commercialism. While Willaford’s sculptures have soft, vaguely biological forms, they are Frankensteinian in appearance—disturbing assemblages of random shapes and sizes, replete with jagged seams and unfinished threads. If consumer culture were a living, breathing beast, Willaford’s sculptures would be the organs keeping it alive.
Also working at the intersection of photography and sculpture is Kevin Todora, whose photographic sculptures blend art and photo history with commercial production through a tongue planted firmly in cheek. Todora builds and photographs studio sets, which he then alters with circular cut outs: an homage to RGB and Ben-Day dots (the building blocks of digital photography and commercial printing processes), as well as influential artists Sigmar Polke, Roy Lichtenstein, and John Baldessari. The images are then displayed with maximum attention paid to the act of looking, as though Todora is setting up a joke in which the punchline is getting the viewer to stand in awe of a fine art object whose dominant feature is an advertisement-esque picture of a pile of fruit. They are the product of an artist’s revelry in the pandemonium of contemporary image culture and the somewhat absurd practice of searching for metaphorical resonance within a work of art.
Installation view Kevin Todora and Adrian Fernandez
Personally, I find this absurdity to be one of the most fascinating aspects of current art photography. With the rise of digital technology and the prevalence of Photoshop and other editing software, the medium has shifted away from the field and into the studio. It has become common practice to make, rather than take, a photograph—to use our collective visual memory as the basis for constructing an experience, as opposed to seeking the representation of one in the natural world. In this sense, we are experiencing somewhat of a Surrealist renaissance: the conflation of the real and the unreal, a purposeful rallying against what we think we believe and the espousal of what we do not. The uncanny is king. The weird is sublime. It is the acknowledgement of the image glut; the acceptance of the validity of meme-speak; the realization that the hashtag #nofilter is completely pointless; that our lives are comprised of timelines and streams; and that you can and will live forever online because your social media accounts will never truly die. You are not a snowflake, but every selfie you post on Instagram is trying to prove otherwise. In short, photography is everything and nothing we want it to be. It is truthful, but it lies. It is subjectively representational. It is powerful and powerless. It is birth and death, cruelty and kindness, seeing and creating. It allows us to harness everything good within ourselves while presenting the most vapid distillations of human existence. Photography is magic. Photography is chaos. Photography is life.