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Maria Janina Vitale
James der Derian
From image to reality
There appears to be hardly anything that has not been seen in the age of the new media. The items stored in the collective memory range from spectacular images of natural catastrophes to mysterious crime scenes and brief glimpses into the private lives of perfect strangers. Perception of the outside world underwent radical change with the invention of photography and cinema, enabling human beings to witness events and phenomena taking place outside their immediate vicinity – and thus in a certain sense to transcend the boundaries of time and space. The spread of photography also led in 1839 to a
paradigm shift in the concept of reality. While paintings and drawings had represented the world on the basis of their authors’ experience, imagination and technical skill, the birth of photography now offered the possibility of a precise, authentic and complete reproduction of reality. Painting was instead confined to a “subjective” transformation of “objective” data of experience in its attempts to capture the real world. The immediate reaction of painters to this epochal change was a drive for art of the utmost realism.
The earliest permanent photograph still in existence, a heliograph taken by Joseph Nicéphore Niépce in 1826, shows the courtyard of a country house seen from a window in a village near Chalon. The reproduction of this image, the original of which was discovered in the 1950s, shows us a distorted reality, not least because the use of a high-contrast film produced a grainy effect that recalls a Pointillist painting by Georges Seurat rather than a photograph. In a certain sense, the subject of the image is a metaphor of the then widespread view of photography as a sort of “window onto the world” capable of showing things just as they are.
The natural scientist William Henry Fox Talbot described photography as a process whereby light reflected from the object is imprinted on the photosensitive support of the image. His conviction that whatever was visible in a photograph could be found in wholly identical form in the real world1 was one that scientists and theorists were to espouse for a long time. It was only about thirty years ago that the French philosopher Roland Barthes used the words “ça a été”2 (this has been) to pinpoint the noeme or essence of the photograph: the fact that its subject or referent must have existed once in a form identical to the one shown in the image. At the same time, this is wholly unlike the way in which painting and the mimetic arts in general work. With respect to other types of image, the purpose of the photograph, namely to provide a realistic reproduction of the world placed in front of the camera lens, endowed it with a new kind of veracity. Holding a photograph gave the impression of dealing with a duplication of reality. While the painting continued to be regarded as an interpretation of reality, expectations as regards the potential of the photographic image went far beyond this ambition. As Susan Sontag wrote, “such images are indeed able to usurp reality because first of all a photograph is not only an image, an interpretation of the real; it is also a trace, something directly stenciled off the real”.3
The photograph was thus attributed with an extraordinary degree of objectivity, not least due to the certainty that both the subject and the photographer were present on the spot at the time it was taken. Confidence in the photograph’s ability to represent reality was also supported by the mechanical procedure of its production. The photographer took a back seat with respect to the laws of nature and mechanics, being considered of scarce importance and influence. It was now natural light that “drew” the image rather than the individual, whose role was limited to pressing a button. This new, authentic and objective method of creating images made it possible to show a slice of reality and therefore differed from the other mimetic arts, which presented a subjective and emotive idea of the world.
The photograph as a model of reality
The widespread view of the photograph as an authentic reproduction of reality led Susan Sontag and others to express fears about the public falling back on the surrogates of photography and cinema instead of seeking authentic experience of the world.4 The view of the photograph as a model is bound up with two of the characteristics attributed to it, namely its ability to represent reality and susceptibility of limitless reproduction.
This long-dominant faith in the photographic image is based both on the relationship between image and reality and on the physical immediacy of the link between cause and effect. The French critic André Bazin described the photographic image in 1945, for example, as something produced “par la vertu d’une méchanique impassibile”:5 by means of a purely mechanical and physical process consisting in the chemical and physical traces left by the object on a photosensitive support.
According to Susan Sontag, the image is generally recognized as an integral part of the real6 or rather as part of its identity. As she also observes, “photographed images do not seem to be statements about the world so much as pieces of it, miniatures of reality”.7 The image would thus tend to replace reality and perception of the real to depend increasingly on its reproduction. Sontag therefore comes to see photography as a tool for the creation of an ersatz world. Cultural critics also take the ever-increasing mass circulation of photographic images as a symptom of the individual’s growing inability to distinguish between reality and appearance. By virtue of its “realistic” appearance, the photograph of an object is therefore elevated to the status of a substitute for the object itself. The fact that the photograph can be reproduced endlessly affords the object represented countless modes of existence. Crucial support for this effect comes from the mass circulation of the technological image and its consequent ubiquity. Representations born out of the influence of photographic images are increasingly present and widespread in the consciousness of the individual and society. Due to its apparent “fidelity to reality”, photography thus contributes to our representation of the world.
From photographs to images
It should be noted, however, that this presumed authenticity of photography has coexisted from the very outset with the possibility of manipulating its results. A German photographer presented a portrait in two different versions, one of which had been retouched, at the Exposition Universelle of 1855 in Paris, since when the possible ways of intervening in the photographic process so as to alter the end result have multiplied. The role of the photographer and hence the subjective aspect of the process of image production were for a long time overshadowed by the mechanical and therefore objective aspect. The decisions taken by the creator of the image cannot, however, be regarded as unimportant, since the subject, framing and the moment when the shot is actually taken all depend on them. Many of the configurative possibilities within the process of image production are left entirely to the photographer or the automatic camera settings. The person taking the photograph can thus play an active part in determining its effectiveness. In graphic terms, the right choice of moment and viewpoint can turn a bar-room politician into a professional orator addressing a packed house, a wide-angle lens can transform an allotment into the grounds of a stately home and suitable framing can make a ruined site look like an idyllic rural landscape. Given the additional resources made available by digital image processing, the possibilities of manipulation become practically limitless.
From reality to fiction
As a result of these various ways of operating on the configuration of the image, the supposedly authentic reproduction of reality can be deliberately altered. The photograph cannot therefore be regarded as an objective and hence realistic reproduction of the outside world but simply as an unfathomable complex of different observations and viewpoints on reality. A photograph does not ensure the possibility of observing reality as such but offers us at most a specific way of observing a reality. Nor should we overlook the role of the viewer in this connection, since this is also crucial to the message of a photograph. The French philosopher Roland Barthes outlined the paradox of the various levels of meaning of the photographic image as early as the 1960s, pointing out that every recipient of a message is inevitably subject to cultural influences and always recognizes a further symbolic meaning beneath the analogical content of an image. Moreover, perception always takes place in close relation to the cognitive, social and cultural conditioning of the recipient. As Andy Grundberg so aptly observed, “All we see is seen through the kaleidoscope of all that we have seen before”.8
From viewer to participating subject
On observing the works in this exhibition, it is impossible not to wonder about the veracity of the images, which cause visual irritation and force viewers to question their normal ways of seeing. While the photographs cover a vast range of subjects and procedures, they all share the characteristic of being constructed images. The individual subjects have been prepared, set up and staged. They are partly real objects and partly imaginary, thus giving rise to a fictitious sort of “photo-reality”. For all their great variety and focus on specific subjects, the photographs all present the same interface in addressing the complex of vision and cognition or rather, reality and perception.
From photographs to manipulated images
The precedents for the manipulation and staging of photographs stretch back a long way. The tendency to organize reality into fictitious constructs and hence to call into question the objectivity of the photographic image first manifested itself in the nineteenth-century allegorical images of figures like Oscar Gustave Rejlander. The works of the Dadaists and Surrealists can also be numbered among the precursors of the “constructed image” in the twentieth century. Awareness of the fact that the photograph is not an authentic record and that this one-dimensional interpretation fails to do justice to photography and its significance finally emerged with Conceptual photography in the 1960s and 1970s. The artists featured in this exhibition draw upon this approach and bring new dimensions into their works with the aim of exposing human perception and its mechanisms.
How artists manipulate the observer
A description of the viewer’s response to the works will help to illustrate these deep levels of meaning. It will thus become clear that the artists definitively undermine the widely held idea of the authenticity of the photographic image with their photographs and films, and do so at the very moment when they trick the viewer’s eye or prompt an erroneous interpretation. The works differ considerably as regards whether and how soon the viewer can discover their internal manipulation. While the content appears unquestionably clear from the very outset in some cases, others are only seen to represent a fictitious and artificially constructed reality on careful observation. The forms of manipulation range from digital processing (Andreas Gursky) and special focusing techniques (Olivio Barbieri) to the use of artificial models that appear completely identical to interiors (Thomas Demand) or landscapes (Sonja Braas). It is the artists themselves in most cases who lead the way to exposure of the true content of the image, since their objective is not to preserve the mimetic illusion of realistic representation intact. Doubts arise first as to the reality represented and then about the photographic image. The irritation aroused by manipulation of the image is an effect that the artists deliberately pursue. The viewer’s initial doubt, focused on the subject of the photograph, then shifts to the nature of photography itself, thus inevitably undermining the conventional assumption that there is an analogical relationship between real object and photographic image. On becoming aware of the manipulation practiced by the artist, viewers also discover a further level of meaning and really begin to get to grips with the image. Through the photographic process, objects are translated in representations that offer the beholder no access to reality, regardless of how this is understood.
From perception to reality
The message common to the photographs is that every image (of the world), be it “natural” or “artificial”, is a construction. This concept of construction and reconstruction also appears in some contemporary theories that examine the process whereby reality arises out of perception in the human consciousness. According to radical Constructivists, the brain is incapable of reproducing or representing reality as such. Due to the recognizedly selective way in which our perceptual apparatus works, the brain of the individual viewer necessarily “constructs”9 its image of the world. Perception is grounded on the ability to recognize, which is in turn made possible by past experience. As all individuals differ in terms of experience and knowledge, so do their perceptions of reality. On this view, reality is a specific construction developed by the individual out of various components. While differing greatly in subject matter, the works presented here reflect this conception. The artists construct, manipulate, stage or craft the image-object and thus create a photo-(un)reality of their own. The works exhibited provide a basis to address the question of the construction of reality, which hinges in turn on addressing the complex of vision and cognition or rather, reality and perception. The artists use experiences of reality based exclusively on images to show that the idea of these representations providing access to the world is a complete illusion. At the same time, it becomes evident not only that photographic images transmit a limited or even bastardized view of the world but also that the perceptual process of individuals is subjected to substantially different conditions. Perception moves within set boundaries. The world is a construction, both in a photograph and in the human consciousness. So, with Grundberg, we confirm that what we see now is seen through the kaleidoscope of all that we have already seen before.
1 See William H. Fox Talbot, The Pencil of Nature (1844–46) (New York, 1989).
2 Roland Barthes, La chambre claire (Paris, 1980).
3 Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York, 1977).
5 André Bazin, “Ontologie de l’image photographique” (1945), in Qu’est-ce que le cinema? (Paris, 1958).
6 It should be noted in this connection that Sontag at times uses the terms “real” and “true/veritable” as equivalents.
7 Sontag 1977.
8 Andy Grundberg, The Crisis of the Real: Writings on Photography since 1974 (New York, 1999), p. 16.
9 See Siegfried J. Schmidt, “Der Radikalen Konstruktivismus: Ein neues Paradigma im interdisziplinären Diskurs”, in Diskurs des Radikalen Konstruktivismus (Frankfurt, 1987), p. 15.
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