Fontcuberta creates universes in which truth and fiction dialogue in a fine balance, in ways foreshadowing the radical impact of digital manipulation in contemporary photography. His photos question science, art, religion and politics, using irony to sow doubt where depiction deals in certainties. For the artist the fake is a “decisive moment” in a process of unmasking.
His work is underpinned by a theatricality, and his more narrative works address social functions and the use of images in art and museums where the photograph, not the context, matters. He sometimes introduces a playful slant through iconoclastic self-portraiture. Fontcuberta invites us to rethink the value of using and circulating images. Although his works question the idea of authorship, they cannot be assigned to the art-history chapter of “the death of the author”. Rather they caution us that reading is always a cultural practice.
The following explanations are never given in his exhibitions to avoid counteracting the very doubts he wishes to raise. We offer them here to allow for better assessment.
The first series, HERBARIUM, 1982 examines the scientific gaze through b&w photos of fake plants created from waste, which appear believable because they respect the system of scientific classification. Like Karl Blossfeldt’s Urformen der Kunst, the plants are photographed against a neutral ground to enable scientific classification.
Next are four false documentary works from FAUNA, 1985 composed of drawings, documents and photos of hybrid animals. The cinematographic quality of the gothic narrative, visual resources and end result create a disturbing suspense rarely seen in normative exhibition spaces. In Fauna certainties collide with expectations, bringing cultural psychology into play. The series is presented as Professor Ameiseuhaufen’s archive of expeditions to seek out exceptions to Darwin’s theory of evolution. We are asked to evaluate this material for its scientific interest, but also as a mirror held up to the documentary aesthetic of Modern Photography.
Though CONSTELLATIONS, 1993 portrays stars, they are not objective photographs of the night sky, but of a windscreen with dead insects. Constellations brings to mind stargazers searching for the future or tomorrow’s weather in the sky but it also connects with an age-old love for abstraction. It is hard to determine whether it is an homage to astronomical photography or a parody of monochrome painting. In any case, these unfathomable views of the universe also invite a rethinking of our relationship with images.
SPUTNIK, 1997, is a false documentary where a cosmonaut vanishes on a spacewalk during the Cold War, after which all photos of the cosmonaut were manipulated and a pact of silence was sealed. Sputnik is a kind of hackerism avant la lettre, an exploration of the dark side of contemporary history, the Cold War as agon and the distortion of photography.
In the psychological phenomenon of PAREIDOLIA, abstract images are perceived as recognisable forms, suggesting that images are a kind of déjà vu. Fontcuberta’s projects ask us to ward off the dangers of optical inertia and restore photography’s ability to become a fiction within fictions.