Cao Fei

Blueprints

Essay by Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo

Following Cao Fei’s recent Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize ‘win’, Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo investigates the artist’s incorporation of science-fiction narratives and exploration of technology’s role in shaping our collective futures against the backdrop of China’s ongoing conquest of space.  


“We have a winner!” the Deutsche Börse website published after Cao Fei was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021, staged at The Photographers’ Gallery, London. For art world specialists, the reading is easy, perhaps too easy. But for the rest, a few questions quickly arise: who is Cao Fei; what is the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize; and who wins?

Cao Fei is probably one of the most innovative Chinese artists to emerge on the international scene. Her career has been meteoric. In 2000, Fei was still a student at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts when she was ‘discovered’ by curator Hou Hanru, who introduced her to the art world. Since then, Cao Fei, who is best known for her multimedia and video productions, has presented work at the Venice Biennale, Centre Pompidou, Paris, and Guggenheim Museum, New York, amongst many others. It was for her first large-scale solo exhibition in the UK, Blueprints (2020) at the Serpentine Gallery, London (supported by LUMA Foundation and Muse, the Rolls-Royce Art programme), that she was awarded the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021. The other nominees were Poulomi Basu, Alejandro Cartagena and Zineb Sedira.

The Deutsche Börse is of course an international exchange organisation and innovative market infrastructure provider, offering customers a wide range of products, services and technologies across the entire value chain of financial markets. Perhaps one of the broadest questions when thinking about the current global political context is: why did a Chinese artist win an award from a German exchange organisation at an English gallery for the exploration of photography?

In attempting to answer this question posed by the price of photography, one could start with the exhibition’s title. A blueprint is a reproduction of a technical or engineering drawing through a process of contact printing on light-sensitive sheets. It was introduced by the English scientist Sir John Herschel in 1842, and used widely for over a century. One might, in turn, ask: what is Cao Fei’s engineering project? Her presentation at the Serpentine Gallery came shortly after her latest commission was exhibited on the rooftop of the National Gallery of Singapore: a large-scale, kinetic sculptural installation entitled 浮槎 Fú Chá, alluding to a mythical Chinese raft that not only sails across the ocean, but also floats up towards Tianhe (both a translation of “Milky Way” as well as the name of the new Chinese space station, which recently launched its first module). At the top of Cao Fei’s rooftop structure flashed a neon message: “Almost Arriving”.

It is also helpful to go back in time. In October 1957, against the backdrop of the Cold War, the Russian satellite Sputnik triggered the Space Race. The launch ushered in a new era of political, military, technological and scientific advances. Today, half a century later, in the context of planetary crises which threaten our collective future – from climate and biodiversity to pollution and waste – many humans are re-thinking alternative ways of living, whilst others of continuing the conquest of space. In 2020, the 3D-printed building company ICON won a contract from NASA to develop a robotic, extraterrestrial construction system for the Moon. Furthermore, a well-known South African entrepreneur and business tycoon has founded an aerospace manufacturer and space transportation services company, SpaceX, that uses engines powered by cryogenic liquid methane and liquid oxygen. An American rover on Mars not only looks for signs of habitable conditions in the planet’s ancient past, but also for signs of microbial life in the present.

Following centuries of isolation, the Asian giant has undergone, in just a few decades, some of its most significant transformations in its very long history, particularly across coastal and industrial areas. However, China seems reluctant to choose between the innovations of the West and the traditional immobilities of the East, yet is determined to undertake the modernisation of its economy. Cao Fei’s characters navigate these chaotic realities with vigour and agency by harnessing the unique possibilities of technology. It is impossible not to think of Ursula K. Le Guin’s utopian science-fiction novel The Dispossessed: An Ambiguous Utopia (1974), Steven Spielberg’s film Real Player One (2018) or the young entrepreneur who bought a digital artwork for $69.3 million at Christie’s on 11 March 2021: the same person who owns millions of hectares of virtual land, who might soon begin building his foundation thanks to Frank Gehry; perhaps in a few months his new digital art archipelago will be ready to show his NFT collection.

Cao Fei’s research has a complex, open structure that corresponds to the irreducible depth of the themes she explores. Her conceptual approaches consist of making evident the fact that the subjects of representations of labour are not absent from art production. More specifically, her films suggest that the visual strategies of ironic simulation might not have come to an end as Benjamin Buchloh stated when The Forgotten Space (2010), one of the most important film essays by Noel Burch and Allan Sekula, came out. Cao Fei’s work presumes that simulacrum will serve the purpose of conveying workers’ aesthetic, social and political experiences. Whilst actual labour conditions are no mystery, Chinese workers pay a particularly heavy human price in enabling our civilisation to “go-green”, especially in the Heilongjiang province, where such activity occurs in an atmosphere saturated by hydrofluoric acid. China is the leader in the production and trading of rare substances crucial in the production of “clean” energy, electric vehicles and consumer electronics; the very same used by us every day and by Cao Fei in unveiling her narratives about development, love and technology.

The work of Cao Fei thus possesses a strong common thread: the denunciation of the communist utopias of the past, as well as China’s capitalist rise in the last twenty years. In charting the transitions that Chinese society is undergoing and benefiting from, is she merely criticising a culture ruled by video games and hyper-consumerism?

With policymakers recognising science-fiction as a potentially powerful tool for promoting state-sanctioned ideology, government agencies have encouraged Chinese filmmakers to incorporate such narratives which align with the regime’s broader ideological and technological ambitions. In other words, China uses mythology and science-fiction to sell itself to the world, as we can see today through its space programme. Cao Fei asks questions about technology’s shaping of a collective future, but who is part of this collective? The fantastical aspects of Fei’s work might explain why the science-fiction genre is being promoted internationally first and foremost over other commercial products that present images of China’s communist-capitalist regime. Unlike China’s expanding capabilities in space, which are seen by the world as a threat, the country’s fictional extraterrestrial developments pose no real-life risk. But none of this seems like science-fiction any more. It is impossible to forget that in January 2021, the UK’s Brexit transition period ended, culminating in exiting the EU after years of negotiations between London and Brussels. The effects of the country’s divorce from the Union have been felt everywhere, in economic, socio-political and scientific terms. Under the Brexit arrangements, the UK no longer participates in European satellite navigation systems, such as Galileo or EGNOS.

Over time, Cao Fei’s UK audience might become more comfortable with the notion of China as a global technological leader offering its customers a wide range of products, services and technologies. And this, in turn, might cultivate an interest either in the blueprints of the mythical Chinese devices floating through the Milky Way, or an awareness of the significance of memory and the ways in which the past can come to haunt the present: images are, in effect, the opium of the West.

I have one last question: who is the winner? ♦

All images courtesy artist, Vitamin Creative Space and Sprüth Magers © Cao Fei

Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2021 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London, ran from 25 June – 26 September 2021.

Sergio Valenzuela Escobedo is an artist and curator, currently completing his PhD at the École nationale supérieure de la photographie (ENSP), Arles. After one year at the National School of the Arts (NSA), Johannesburg, he graduated in Photography in Chile and completed his Masters of Fine Arts at the Villa Arson, Nice, in 2014. He has curated exhibitions including Mapuche at the Musée de l’Homme, Paris, and Monsanto: A Photographic Investigation at the Rencontres d’Arles, which has been on tour for four years under his permanent supervision. Valenzuela Escobedo is a guest tutor at international art schools and institutions, most recently at the Institut d’études supérieures des arts and Parsons, Paris, International Summer School of Photography, Latvia, and Atelier NOUA, Bodø. He is co-founder of Double Dummy studio, a platform that creates a space for producing and showcasing critical reflections on documentary photography.

Images:

1>4-Cao Fei, Nova, 2019.

5>7-Cao Fei, Asia One, 2018.

8-Cao Fei, Whose Utopia, 2006.

9-Cao Fei, Cosplayers, 2004.

1000 Words

City Guides

#1 London

Flowers Gallery
82 Kingsland Road, London, E2 8DP
+44 020 7920 7777
www.flowersgallery.com

Not exclusively a photography gallery, Flowers nonetheless exhibits work by a range of important photographers, among them, Tom Lovelace, Nadav Kander, Simon Roberts, Lorenzo Vitturi and Esther Teichmann. Founded in London’s West End by Angela Flowers in 1970, the gallery now has two spaces in London – on Cork Street in Mayfair and Kingsland Road, Shoreditch – as well as a space in New York. Its former London-based Director of Photography, Chris Littlewood, has been instrumental in masterminding Flowers’ direction, cultivating a programme of exhibitions that is challenging, bold and relevant, now overseen by Hannah Hughes and Lieve Beumer. Known for engaging with socio-cultural, political and environmental themes, Flowers stages between six and eight exhibitions per year.

Michael Hoppen Gallery
3 Jubilee Place, London, SW3 3TD
+44 020 7352 3649
www.michaelhoppengallery.com

Since 1992, Michael Hoppen Gallery has been at the forefront of photography in the UK. Nestled in the heart of Chelsea, the gallery prides itself on nurturing careers and showing new work alongside photographs by masters of the genre stretching back to the 19th century. Thanks to the efforts of founder and director Michael Hoppen, the gallery has established a strong relationship with Japan and now boasts one of the most extensive collections of post-war Japanese photography outside of Asia. Several important estates and photographers from Japan grace its roster and the gallery also runs online-only exhibitions to facilitate the sale of more affordable prints.

Seen Fifteen
Unit B1:1, Bussey Building, 133 Rye Lane, London, SE15 3SN
+44 07720 437100
www.seenfifteen.com

Located in Peckham’s Copeland Park, Seen Fifteen is rapidly establishing itself as a go-to place to see and experience contemporary photography, video and installation art in London. At three years old it may be young, but in that short time Seen Fifteen has presented an eclectic, dynamic programme featuring international artists that include Taisuke Koyama, Maya Rochat and Laura El-Tantawy. Focusing on artists who work within photography’s expanded field, gallery founder and director Vivienne Gamble also curated an exhibition at the Centre Culturel Irlandais during Paris Photo 2017, and is one of the driving forces behind Peckham 24, a festival of contemporary photography that takes place during Photo London.

The Photographers’ Gallery
6–18 Ramillies Street, London W1F 7LW
+44 020 7087 9300
www.thephotographersgallery.org.uk

Established in 1971, The Photographers’ Gallery is the UK’s longest running gallery devoted to photography. From its beginnings in Covent Garden to the current site in a converted textiles warehouse in Soho, the gallery has long championed photography’s myriad forms. After it re-opened in May 2012, the registered charity and its staff were in a stronger position to engage with the medium in diverse ways. Increased exhibition space across several floors, a print room, digital wall, bookshop and café allow experimentation and creativity to flourish. Perhaps best known for its association with the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize, the gallery also runs courses, workshops and talks.

Webber Gallery
18 Newman Street, London, W1T 1PE
+44 020 7439 0678
www.webberrepresents.com

Webber Represents is an artist agency with an enviable roster of cutting-edge talent. In November 2014, it launched its own gallery in Fitzrovia dedicated to showing work by represented artists such as Daniel Shea and Thomas Albdorf as well as affiliated artists. Led by Dominic Bell, the gallery’s aim is to explore contemporary photographic themes in an immersive and engaging manner, which it does through a carefully-curated programme of exhibitions, talks and book launches. With regular appearances at international fairs including Photo London and Unseen Amsterdam, Webber Gallery is rapidly making a name for itself in the art world.

Gemma Padley

Image: View of the exhibition Boo Moon at Flowers Gallery, 2014. Courtesy: Flowers Gallery London and New York

Monica Alcazar-Duarte

The New Colonists

Bemojake and The Photographers’ Gallery

The down-to-earth, all American surburban town of Mars, Pennsylvania, USA serves as the backdrop to Monica Alcazar-Duarte’s The New Colonists, … From here she builds out a narrative using additional sequences of images that chronicle how scientists are currently gathering data and doing extensive research in order to prepare ourselves for life on the red planet.

As Dr Marek Kukula explains in his accompanying essay, the idea of Mars as a future territory for mankind has preoccupied our view of space ever since the 18th century. Triggered by our communal imagination and stimulated by technological innovation, we have managed to obtain compelling visual approximations and records. Indeed, as Kukula writes, ‘photography has played a key role in our exploration of Mars, transforming [it] into a real place that we might one day hope to visit or even go to live.’ In return, our species has long assumed that the gaze was to be returned; convinced that Martians were studying planet Earth and its creatures too.

Alcazar-Duarte’s straightforward yet atmospheric documentary images of everyday life in Mars have a certain alienating quality. The complimentary segments focusing on the scientific preparations for life on Mars, the planet, meanwhile hint at the ongoing, human need for disclosure of unknown terrain. Both these elements – our preoccupation with an extra-planetary expedition and the imagined extraterrestrial observation of us – are smartly interwoven in this publication, beautifully designed by Ramon Pez.

Clearly, photography as a fact-bearing medium is being ushered towards more undetermined uses within its cultural production today and a keen selection of creative people are finding alternative routes to arrive at new forms of reportage on current affairs. Alcazar-Duarte is one such artist working in this still erratic enclave, a sanctuary for avant-garde documentary photography often exploring fantastical subjects, slowly but surely finding recognition within the international art world with a forthcoming exhibition at the prestigious Les Rencontres d’Arles, France this summer.

Erik Vroons

All images courtesy of the artist and Bemojake. © Monica Alcazar-Duarte

Katrina Sluis

Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and Senior Lecturer

London South Bank University

The latest instalment in our Interviews series sees Lewis Bush speak with Digital Curator at The Photographers’ Gallery and Senior Lecturer in Photography at London South Bank University, Katrina Sluis. Sluis takes us into photography’s parallel – or not so parallel – world of networked culture, and discusses the challenges of exhibiting the vernacular digital-born image, how we might address questions of authorship, labour and cultural value in an age of photographic ubiquity, and how one might practically curate, disseminate and archive a photographic culture defined by viral reproduction and excess. Sluis also reflects on the manner in which the common binary between ‘immaterial’ and ‘physical’ mediums, which assumes the digital image has no materiality – is both problematic and political in her view, and the different set of tools or logic that are now required to consider the limits of semiotics or psychoanalysis in an age when machines (and not humans) are the dominant readers of images.

Lewis Bush: Hi Katrina, thanks for agreeing to this discussion. Having it at this moment seems fitting given what feels like a growing public awareness about the specifics of digital imaging and display, and also about the politics of data, networks, and technology more broadly, not least in the wake of events like the US election where these things have played important parts. To start off, perhaps you could you tell me a bit about how and why you first became interested in working specifically with digital images? I think I’m right in thinking your background as a photographer was originally working rather more traditionally with large format cameras and analogue film?

Katrina Sluis: That’s right – I originally trained as an artist in the 1990s in Sydney at the College of Fine Arts. I actually majored in painting, but defected to the Photomedia department in my final year, inspired by the amazing group of women teaching there – Debra Phillips, Rosemary Laing, Lynne Roberts-Goodwin, Maureen Burns, Paula Dawson and Simone Douglas. I was also drawn to photography for its richness as a conceptual tool – and the way Australian photographers were engaging with post-colonial, feminist and post-photographic discourses. There is also a strong history of experimental Media Art there, and staff in many departments – from painting to sculpture – were experimenting with new technologies. Sydney’s Museum of Contemporary Art even did a show of CD-ROM art in 1996! So I didn’t think anything of working with a large format camera in the morning, seeing a performance by Stelarc at lunch, then photoshopping in the computer labs in the evening.

On the weekends I would dial-up to my local BBS in order to play a MUD or teach myself HTML, and I later supported my practice working as tech support at CompuServe Pacific, an early internet service provider. However it actually took a long time for me to connect those specific spheres of my life – what I was doing in my art and what I was doing on the net – until the early 2000s.

LB: I am going to slightly show my age here by saying that for those of us who were growing up in the early stages of the internet, digital imaging and so on I think there is a tendency to retrospectively assume these things rather separated off from other areas of art practice so it’s fascinating to hear how fluidly you were moving between these things. Leaping forward to the present, amongst other roles you are now curator of the digital programme at The Photographers’ Gallery, a post which I believe was specifically created when the gallery reopened at its new location in 2012. Was its creation about audience engagement, or a response to a specific recognition at the gallery that digital photography was being somewhat neglected in favour of works which favoured more traditional modes of gallery display? Or was it perhaps something else entirely?

KS: I think there was an understanding at the gallery that photography’s collision with network culture created a number of technical and conceptual challenges they didn’t have the capacity to deal with. For example, how do you exhibit the vernacular digital-born image? How do you address questions of authorship, labour and cultural value in an age of photographic ubiquity? How do you practically curate, disseminate and archive a photographic culture defined by viral reproduction and excess? And what changes to institutional structures are required? As you indicate, the issue of audience(s) underpins many of these problems. If public cultural institutions have some claim to be ‘representational’ then there’s a need to engage with the photographic practices of our audiences which reflect in complex ways the changing meaning and agency of the medium.

LB: Yes, that makes absolute sense. Speaking as a teacher who often brings students to the gallery, I’ve found of these engagements with more vernacular digital imagery can sometimes act as a great gateway to complicated ideas and discussions. I also find it personally very refreshing because of the way an exhibition of say, ‘lolcats’, has something of a levelling effect when seen in conjunction with the often more conventional displays upstairs in the galleries. In a field where photographers are often keen to define themselves in opposition or difference to other photographers I find it a nice reminder that all photographic images have much more in common than in difference. Moving on from this thought though, do you find there are any particular challenges that come with working with an immaterial rather than physical medium, or for that matter particular opportunities that excite you about these types of media which you don’t find with physical photographs?

KS: First of all, I think this binary between ‘immaterial’ and ‘physical’ mediums, which assumes the digital image has no materiality – is both problematic and political. In this respect, the key challenge of working as a digital curator is finding ways to make visible and intelligible the various techno-social infrastructures which sustain the photographic image today. This requires a shift in thinking about not only what an image represents, but how it is operationalised by both human and non-human actors. This is very hard for photographic institutions who have championed photography as an art form, as they had to downplay its role as a reproductive technology in order to emphasise the creative legitimacy of the photographer who pressed the shutter.

On the other hand, one fantastic aspect of working in a photography institution is that the practice of the artist is not the sole privileged site through which culture might be understood. One can take seriously the knowledge of amateur photography communities, computer scientists or even venture capitalists who increasingly influence the direction and shape of photographic culture and its curation.

But to return to your original point, when I joined the gallery there was definitely a sense that digital programming is somehow less expensive, less labour intensive and easier because you sidestep a set of problems concerning the specificities of archival prints, insurance, transport and so on. To some extent, this is true. However, having seen the number of all-nighters I’ve pulled trying to troubleshoot problems with video codecs, network issues, and the cost and logistics of running hundreds of metres of CAT 6 cables through five floors of the building I’m sure my colleagues would now beg to differ.

LB: Picking up your point about the way institutions have championed photography as an art form, and the gradual acceptance of this idea, do you think there are any parallels with the way people treat artworks which are primarily digital in nature? I have seen quite a few exhibitions in recent years where it seemed the curators didn’t really ‘get’ digital art works and were trying very hard to force them into the shape of more traditional analogue works. An example being an interactive digital artwork being displayed as a screen captured video, or even worse as a screenshot or print. To put the same question in another way, are people still basically very hung up on the idea of photographs as objects?

KS: These curatorial practices you describe are, essentially, a result of seeing photography primarily as ‘visual content’, a process which renders the computer interface as transparent or invisible. Worryingly, I think there is also sometimes a mistrust of the audience and a perception that they need the work to be presented to them in a familiar format in order to engage with it. A related problem is that there’s also (unsurprisingly) very little technical expertise in cultural institutions, especially from a curatorial perspective – it’s hard to find hybrid people who understand photography as both a technical and cultural language.

To take up your point about the fetishisation of photographs as objects, the nostalgia for the analogue in digital culture is something we directly addressed when we devoted our recent Geekender to the “Hyperanalogue”. I think the persistence of the object is both a product of a crisis of authorship felt keenly by a sector of the community, but also part of a wider desire to seek out allegedly ‘authentic’ forms of expression in an increasingly accelerated consumer culture.

LB: Yes, quite true about the transparency of the technologies that render the digital image. Although, to play devil’s advocate, one could perhaps say that is a consistent tendency in all forms of photography. How often do you hear analogue photographers consider the environmental consequences of the silver mining required to make their prints, for example. Your point about the authenticity of analogue culture is also interesting in that at least amongst my generation there also seems to be an interest in early internet culture and technology for similar reasons. Animated GIFs are one obvious example, a largely obsolete format which has experienced a strange revival. I wonder if you have any thoughts on that?

KS: I agree that analogue photography doesn’t somehow sidestep the politics of production. However, when the photographic image becomes the output of software, it requires a different set of tools or logic to unpack – consider the limits of semiotics or psychoanalysis in an age when machines (and not humans) are the dominant readers of images. In this respect, the networked photograph resembles a “two faced Janus”, which on the one hand points to the world of representation, and on the other to algorithmic reproduction and the cybernetic dynamics of pattern and randomness. And yet the answer in parts of the visual literacy and photography community to this problem is to “slow down” the image, and embrace “slow looking” in order to get an even more detailed reading of the the singular, enframed, image. In the gallery we have been running workshops with our PhD researcher, Nicolas Malevé, who is re-staging a California Institute of Technology experiment where participants are asked to describe images which have been shown to them for a number of milliseconds. This experiment became the model of visual perception underpinning the development of ImageNet, a database used to train machine vision algorithms. Resituating this experiment in The Photographers’ Gallery has been immensely productive in unpacking the cultural value of spectatorship and visual pedagogies for both humans and machines.

With respect to the resurgence of the Animated GIF around 2010-2012, I’m not sure this is the result of a younger generation suddenly longing for a more authentic web, or wanting to engage with the politics and aesthetics of early net culture. There are indeed projects like Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenscheid’s One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age – which uses Tumblr to circulate homepages from the Geocities archive – that have engaged a new audiences unfamiliar with the early amateur web. We were fortunate to show 10,000 of these web pages at the gallery over 3 months in 2013. At that time Olia gave a talk at the gallery about the specificity of early GIF culture, and how it was the format’s ability to support transparency as opposed to looping, which was crucial. She noted that transparency gives the image the ability to exist anywhere on the web – on any page or any background. In modern GIF culture the use of transparency has all but disappeared, and the dominant form of GIF is televisual or cinematic – consider the endless “reaction” GIFs plucked from popular TV or the fetishisation of the ‘cinemagraph’ by the Tumblr community. Its resurgence is also related to the the increasing pressure for cultural expressions to survive in an economy of attention, and the death of plug-ins such as Flash in a mobile web age.

LB: A key part of the digital programme is the Media Wall, which is also one of the first things visitors see when they enter The Photographers’ Gallery. How do you approach commissioning works for such a prominent display? Does this process occur in close collaboration with other curators at the gallery or do you have high level of autonomy to decide what appears here?

KS: Whilst the Media Wall is very prominent, the digital programme actually has a lot of autonomy – it has less status in the institution, for the practical and historic reasons we have already touched upon, and different aims to the rest of the programme. Within the limits of our resource we have always tried to work in a very lightweight and opportunistic way, trying out different approaches and working with partners (such as Animate Projects or Brighton Photo Biennial) to co-commission work where possible or taking the lead from online communities.

LB: Are there any particular commissions for the Media Wall or artists you have worked with as part of the digital programme that stand out for you?

KS: When the gallery’s exhibition programme has had a very clear theme or concern in a single season, it’s been productive to reflect on the digital context for those ideas with an artist’s commission. For example, alongside Human Rights Human Wrongs, we were able to commission James Bridle to work with Picture Plane, a company which specialises in CG architectural visualisations, to produce a work which made visible a series of ‘unphotographable’ sites of UK immigration detention. But alongside these artists’ commissions it has also been crucial to develop a strand of Media Wall programming which specifically deals with the networked image culture. These projects are incredibly labour intensive and raise all sorts of tricky curatorial problems, but have offered us the opportunity to work with cat photographers, the visual culture of motherhood, food photography and (in our next season) computer games and screenshot culture.

LB: You have also overseen the launch of unthinking photography, a fascinating online resource on the intersections of photography and algorithmic automation, networks and more. This site seems to mesh with your work at the Centre for the Study of the Networked Image at London South Bank University, which you also co-founded and co-direct. These topics feel like something of a wild frontier, with much happening but with little regulation or public awareness of them. What is the aim for you of engaging with them in this way?

KS: Unthinking Photography was born out of a desire to start mapping a very different ‘image’ of digital photography, which doesn’t originate with the age old issue of image manipulation but what might be called photography’s ‘softwareisation’. I was also aware of the need to generate a resource on these issues, given the number of frustrated photography students I kept meeting! And in contrast to the scathing rejection of Internet culture in some parts of the photographic community, I was also keen to take seriously the world wide web as a site through which photographic knowledge is produced. For example, what we can might learn about photography from YouTube and its users? What can we learn about machine vision through a TED Talk? How do we understand photographic education through YouTube?

LB: Lastly, perhaps I could ask how you feel about the term ‘photography’ in terms of what you do at the gallery, and outside of it. Is it particularly useful, or resilient, when photography no longer seems quite the clear-cut medium it was? Now it blurs into a whole range of other practices from light detection and ranging, to three-dimensional computer renders, and generative algorithms capable of creating original images without ever coming into contact with a camera.

KS: Photography was never a clear-cut medium, and it is no surprise it continues to be perplexing! I actually find the framing of photography immensely productive, with all its limits, and gives an important historical grounding to the debates. I’ve already mentioned that the tendency in our community to treat the photograph as a sign or picture has a tendency to render the computer interface invisible. Conversely, the computer sciences treat the photographic image as an uncomplicated and transparent window on the world, ignoring the politics of representation which photography scholars have unpacked. There is therefore a real need to create opportunities to escape our institutional silos and find ways of bringing commercial technologists, photographers, artists, scholars and our audiences into a productive dialogue. The challenge for both culturalists and technologists is to treat ‘the digital’ not as simply a tool but as a culture.

Image courtesy Katrina Sluis. © Simon Terrill

Luke Willis Thompson

Autoportrait

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The philosopher Byung-Chul Han writes that, ‘The demand for transparency grows loud precisely when trust no longer prevails. In a society based on trust, no intrusive need for transparency would surface. The society of transparency is a society of mistrust and suspicion; it relies on control because of vanishing confidence.’

The live-streamed video of Philando Castile’s murder by Minnesota Policeman Jeronimo Yanez, filmed by his partner Diamond Reynolds, was viewed over 6 million times across Facebook Live – where it was originally broadcast – and YouTube, where it has been shared. In the video, Reynolds, with remarkable poise, narrates Yanez’s shooting of her partner four times in front of their young daughter. Pulled over for a missing brake light, Reynolds recalls how Castile had calmly and voluntarily told the police of his legal possession of a firearm in the vehicle. Reaching for his licence, he was shot and killed. Reynolds speaks to camera in the absence of a reliable system of justice: indeed, Yanez was acquitted, despite video footage from both Reynolds and from the dashboard and sound mounted camera on the police car. Castile can be heard informing the police officer of his weapon: his honesty exists in stark contrast to the accountability of the juridical system.

The video’s large viewership now circulates with the story. Often used as a banal statistic, such information considered more closely opens up to thought the complex and challenging conditions of visibility which structure relations of power. It is not uncommon for social media videos to be valued by their quantitive measure, but this is not a simple or innocent act of accounting. We are encouraged to share images of ourselves – this, as Han points out is a form of control that we ourselves maintain – but at the very same time, there is a need to broadcast, because power acts often without consequence: despite it’s claims to transparency, the law and governance remain hidden. The viewing figures that have been grafted to Diamond Reynolds’ video tells us something valuable, but it needs to be unpacked, for it risks being a spectacular but meaningless statistic. First, there is Reynolds’ instinctual decision to broadcast: she shares the event, like protestors and others before her, as the only recourse to the unaccountable relationship that the police have to (especially black) subjects, who are routinely pulled over, questioned, and – more frequently than allows for the term ‘accidentally’ to be used other than disingenuously – murdered by an overzealous trigger finger. Second, there is the diffusion of the event as a collective protest or call to action: the dissemination, copying, and diffusion of the original video, preventing its shutting down or blocking on networks. Viral multiplication of imagery has become a frequently adopted strategy to counteract the censorship, which results from the digital contest of broadcasting and the logics of post-truth politics, where the event must be accessible for its actuality to remain known. Finally, there is the video as an object of the news, and its disconcerting proximity to becoming entertainment: viewers watch the video as it goes viral, as much for fear of missing out as for social and political concern. Such an image participates in a quest for spectacle: the continuity of violence is witnessed and quickly passed over by the click-driven attention economy.

Luke Willis Thompson’s silent video Autoportrait, commissioned by the Chisenhale Gallery and subsequently shortlisted for the Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018, was conceived as a sister-image or corrective to the widely viewed video of Reynolds. In the first of two long takes, Reynolds is set against a clear middle-grey background – perhaps the sky – whilst she holds her position, moving only slightly to raise or lower her head. In the second take, with a subtly different image, she is also calm and static, and speaks, though the sound is not captured. Her voice is withdrawn, just as the image’s colour is withheld. Autoportrait comments then on the long consequence, memory and implications of images and the events they represent, and how Reynolds became enveloped in this image. As Willis Thompson has done so in his Cemetery of Uniforms and Liveries (2016), he positions the image in relation to the language of film and media, and their relationship to our consciousness.

Autoportrait contains a strong reference to Warhol’s screen tests, with the cameras prolonged gaze and lack of narrative. Willis Thompson adopts this format to complicate our presumed understanding of Reynolds: silent and dignified, she maintains her calm balance, but here her demeanour resists the divulging of herself to the camera, which she is seen by but looks away from. Warhol’s videos gathered people from the circle of his studio, and participated in their fleeting celebrity: Reynolds too has been subject to a sudden thrusting into the spotlight, though her experience is a thoroughly contemporary manifestation, born of images from our networked reality. She encounters the camera, but it is with a contrast to that intuitive calling to record of her urgent live broadcast: she does not speak to the camera, so much as understand that it both presents and captures her simultaneously. It is for this reason that Willis Thompson has suggested that his collaboration with Reynolds proposed the taking back of her own representation. She is lit from acute angles on both the left and the right. It is a light that brings out detail on Reynolds skin, producing an intense detail that suggests an encounter where Reynolds retains some agency. Doubled highlights effect a sense of her as someone who has quickly become public at the same time as being unknown: she has been made, for the time being, double by her mediation. Autoportrait partakes in a critique of the visible, presenting it as both necessary and constraining at the same time.

Collaboration is an important facet of Willis Thompson’s practice, and his work with Reynolds constructs a representation that places the viewer in a position whereby it is not the producer so much as the recipient who must think and become involved. Willis Thompson’s practice is important for how it adds a complexity to the process of seeing and therefore witnessing. In many of his works, he has actively collaborated with performers to take viewers to locations to develop a personal experience which is detailed in not only narrative or historical, but also visceral and sensory information. For the New Museum Triennial in 2015, visitors were instructed to follow a black guide with a backpack and hoodie who wordlessly took them to poorer areas of New York, occasionally looking over their shoulder to ensure that visitors followed, at the same time turning them into pursuers (the work references the histories of stop and frisk in New York, and takes participants on paths that reference the histories of inequality and black culture). Upon arriving at the other end of the subway, the guide would end the piece without explanation, leaving the viewer to unpick the history of the walk and its resonances. The viewer’s embeddedness in a neighbourhood, at its remove from the safe parameters of the gallery in the gentrified Bowery, seeks a human encounter which places the body of the spectator into a site that most accurately relates to an experience which is told through the work. Autoportrait, though bound within the gallery space, affects an interesting inversion, taking a media representation, and making it static. There is something in its arrestedness – in the long take, and the slowed down gaze of both viewer and subject alike, that construct a space of different reflection.

If our culture seems to insist upon transparency and a logic of visibility, it is noteworthy that we regain control of our images by producing more complex, even secretive depictions. Willis Thompson and Reynolds recognise the necessary resistance that must be presented to us. If the culture of visibility is ultimately one where trust has been displaced in favour of total surveillance, the construction of new representations must account for the demands placed upon us to be visible, and the uneven representations of power, which hide in spite of its calls for openness. We might foster trust by not always being rendered subjects of an ideological visibility, but by retaining a private space that might allow for us to distinguish between where trust is deserved and unwarranted. The gallery must exist as a site that is made not for readily digestible imagery: it might become a space of difficult or counter narratives, as Willis Thompson proposes in his gesture to Reynolds to work with her to retrieve her image.

All images courtesy of the artist and The Photographers’ Gallery. © Andy Keate

Autoportrait was commissioned by Chisenhale Gallery and produced in partnership with Create. The Deutsche Börse Photography Foundation Prize 2018 opens on 23 February 2018 at The Photographers’ Gallery, London.


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also Course Director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Rosângela Rennó

Rio-Montevideo

Essay by Duncan Wooldridge

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

As the philosopher Vilém Flusser is keen to remind us, we are often complacent about our images. “They have grown familiar to us,” he wrote. “We no longer take notice of most photographs, concealed as they are by habit: in the same way, we ignore everything familiar in our environment and only notice what has changed.” In a world where the throwaway image is ever more dominant – and the capacities of storage are always increasing – it is rare that we have to make choices about what we might preserve.

Rosângela Rennó’s installation Rio-Montevideo, currently on display at The Photographers’ Gallery in London, presents images from the photographic archive of El Popular, a Uruguayan daily newspaper active from 1957 until 1973. In July 1973, deep within the structure of the newspaper’s office building, staff photographer Aurelio González concealed a total of 48,626 negatives. Seeking to save a record of the nation that would soon be under threat from an impending military coup, he single-handedly set about to preserve the newspaper’s account of post-war Uruguayan identity. But while González rescued the entire archive, retrieving it in 2006, we will never see it as the totality it seems to be. How does one go about representing its contents, which are so vast and multiplicitous? And how can the singularity of any one person’s encounter with it be represented? Acknowledging our always subjective and tangential relationships to cultural memory, Rennó was invited to respond to the collection, and made a selection of images – 32 in all. By choosing sparingly, she has charged these images with a sense of purpose, one that many do not have.

Rio-Montevideo seeks not the defining image nor the metonymic symbols of Uruguay itself, but instead what appears to be three themes, moving from the universal to the particular. Most immediately, Rennó represents daily life: images of furniture removal and several family portraits assert a humanist language that draws quickly upon shared experience, rendering Uruguay as familiar. Secondly, she represents the political fight for equality, including the 1968 student protests against fascism. The murders of Susana Pintos and Hugo de los Santos are seen here – the image of a dead de los Santos echoes Jacques-Louis David’s revolutionary Marat Assassinated. The political protests of the late 1960s and early 1970s resonate globally, of course, but are especially acute in South America, where they are charged with the many subsequent dictatorships of the military right. Lastly, Rennó draws a little upon herself: as a Brazilian citizen, she draws interconnections between Brazil and Uruguay. And by moving from the shared to the personal, Rennó temporarily displaces the archive, drawing upon it a single continental axis, from Montevideo to her hometown of Rio de Janeiro. Her selection of subjects demonstrates her succinct critical and art historical way of seeing, and by building upon the two countries’ similar cultural histories, global struggles, and universal experiences, Rennó manages to weave a small selection of images into a complex web that mixes the specific and the general, prompting each viewer to see if they can establish a specific association with the archive as she has presented it.

Our typical experience of an image is rooted in its almost immediate redundancy: usually, photographs appear to us in quick succession, one after another. Flusser, who lived in Rio between 1950 and 1972 – when many of the images were taken – continuously urged his readers to slow their looking, and see images in their wider complexities. It is this that, in part, draws us to the otherwise unexamined acts of a photograph’s making, and its consequences as a quotidian or vernacular object. What is the significance of this image? What is its consequence? Who and what makes it? And at the end, what sustains our use of it? Such an expanded conception of the photograph provokes the realisation that no image is ever purely the result of an unmediated indexical effect, as a narrow view of photography is prone to claim. It is the product, as Flusser would go on to assert, of operators, apparatuses, and cultural conditions.

It could be argued that Rio-Montevideo takes viewing as its subject, attempting to slow it down. Its select images are presented as singular slides displayed on their own projectors. Not only do visitors see only one image at a time, they must switch the projector on by a button themselves, as if bringing each image to light. It is difficult to be passive in the face of images that are brought into being by our actions; in all but the busiest of moments, we must make the image visible. And we must also, vitally, come to terms with the root consequences of inaction: a quickly disappearing display threatens to vanish without our intervention, leaving a blank room behind.

Rennó came to international attention for her celebrated books on the archive and loss, but the familiar territory of the archival repository is not the limit of her concerns by any means, and indeed the projectors of Rio-Montevideo are significant. Her celebrated AO1[COD.19.1.1.43] – A27 [S|COD.23], which received the Paris Photo – Aperture Foundation Photobook Award in 2013, does not simply present an archive, but rather it calls attention to the movement of images, and the human actors who illicitly withdraw pictures from circulation and shared cultural memory, and that images are themselves agents of memory. Each projector in her installation carries a specific register and a sense of time: some are domestic, others industrial. Throughout, each image appears through a projector that is contemporary with what it displays.

Rennó’s concerns frequently lay with objects she calls – echoing Flusser – part of the universe of photography: cameras, photographic albums, and miscellaneous photographic paraphernalia. In Private Eye (1995) Rennó cut away the space inside of two adjacent hardback books, leaving a carefully moulded cavity so that a camera could be hidden away on a shelf. Such potential concealment reveals the usual conditions of photography as something oscillating between the visible and the invisible, echoed in the on/off condition of the projected image.

Projection is both a technical function, and an act of association. The projected image invites us to project ourselves onto the images we witness, as voyeurs, witnesses or as potential actors. What is displayed in Rio-Montevideo calls on us to participate, as active guardians of cultural memory. As such, we find ourselves written into the image, responsible for its passage through culture.

All images courtesy of The Photographers’ Gallery. © Aurelio González and Centro de Fotografía


Duncan Wooldridge is an artist, writer and curator. He is also course director of the BA(Hons) Photography at Camberwell College of Arts, University of the Arts London.

Saul Leiter

Retrospective

Essay by Francis Hodgson

The Photographers’ Gallery, London
22.01.16 — 03.04.16

Photographic history is pretty rum. It has become standard to read that William Eggleston was the first person to use colour as an ‘artistic choice’ and that his show at the MoMA in 1976 was the first show of colour at the museum. Both are nonsense. Alfred Stieglitz had of course made colour photographs by the Autochrome process and shown them at his 291 gallery as early as 1909. Edward Steichen worked in colour too, often brilliantly. And whether one considers such luminaries as Louise Dahl-Wolfe or Paul Outerbridge as ‘artists’ is a question for another place, but both certainly made work of high artistic intent to be distributed through commercial channels. And then there’s László Moholy-Nagy, of course, who was committed to working in colour after his arrival in the US in the late 1930s.

Eliot Porter showed colour photographs at MoMA, by the way, in 1943. Porter continues even now to be a photographer overlooked by fashion. It suits a certain number of people to overlook him, notably in the fine print market. Yet his commitment to environmental subjects much of interest today and his wonderful eye surely make him a candidate for a revival. And then there is Ernst Haas, who was a pioneer of another sort. That history is at long last beginning to be rewritten, as with Color Rush: American Photography from Stieglitz to Sherman, published by Aperture and the Milwaukee Art Museum in 2013, but it has been a long time coming.

Saul Leiter (1923-2013) almost vanished through this kind of sloppy thinking. Specialists knew he was included in Jane Livingston’s grouping of ‘New York School’ photographers in 1992. The great New York gallerist Howard Greenberg knew him from around that time. And there were others, too. Yet he only really took his place in public photographic history when the brilliant British historian Martin Harrison tracked him down for his monograph on Leiter’s Early Color in 2006. That book showed masterpiece after masterpiece – little views of New York, a miraculous combination of street photography and abstract art. Since then, many think they know Leiter. And a huge retrospective of some 400 pictures at the Deichtorhallen in Hamburg in 2012 (with a tome of a catalogue) did the rest. Leiter was firmly inserted, only months before his death, into the canon of photo-history.

It is worth noting that Leiter’s father was a great Talmudic scholar and his family wanted him to be a rabbi. In Tomas Leach’s documentary film on the photographer, In No Great Hurry, Leiter is heard to say (his tones unmistakably rabbinical) “My father from time to time descended into unkindness. The Leiter family is not as familiar with the notion of kindness as I believe they might have been or should have been. Greatness was important. Great scholarship was important. Intellectual achievement was important. Knowing was important. Knowing a great deal was important. Kindness? Well, if kindness interfered with the pursuit of learning and greatness and scholarship – too bad. Get rid of it.” There’s sadness there, which might explain a lot. There is a loneliness about his photographs, which never quite disappears.

Born in Pittsburgh, Leiter arrived in New York with plans to become a painter; he knew already he would disappoint the expectations others had placed upon him. His standard view of life is from the outside of whatever he is looking at, shielded by multiple layers of glass (and that glass often steamed up or dripping condensation) or peeping between boards or blinds. It is here that he differs from other New Yorkers, the type of William Klein or Garry Winogrand, who were quite happy in the thickest press of the crowd. And he differs, too, from those, such as Helen Levitt, who made tableaux of the people she found on the streets, careful compositions with a story built into each. Leiter never did that. The word is overused, but nevertheless he is a kind of existentialist photographer, dealing in the lost moments between times. Leiter’s characters are almost never defined by the role they play or by their status in society. They simply are. They may be waiting for a bus or maybe a lover; they may be about to become bus riders or girlfriends; but Leiter finds them in between those roles.

He could be a marvellous painter. In one enormous respect he went against the grain of his Abstract Expressionist contemporaries in the East Village. He never painted big. Painting at the edge of abstraction in gaudy colours that I’m tempted to call Fauvist, he layered thickly but on tiny supports. Whether from poverty or from a kind of consciousness of the weight of surfaces, he often used what he had to hand and painted on that – packaging, printed materials, and in one spectacular case, on photographs.

The story goes that he was invited to make a book of photographic nudes, a book, which never materialised. Then, ten years later, in his studio, surrounded by the stack of unused prints, he started to paint on them. In the best of them, the paint acts to clothe the figures, not covering them entirely, but adding something more. The painted surfaces act as a caress – one almost sees the brush as stroking the body – but once the caressing is done, the body is clothed. Not all of the images, it must be said, are good. Leiter was a hoarder and too many of his tests and mistakes survive. It’s not quite clear why he persuaded so many young women to pose for him nude. In the documentary, he talks self-effacingly about his “secret life as a creep”, but it may not entirely be a joke. The unpainted nudes are not particularly good at all; although it is noticeable how relaxed the sitters always are. Leiter was a gentle man, devoid of any great ambition or drive. “I aspire to be unimportant”, he said.

Yet for a number of years he earned his living in fashion, at Harper’s Bazaar, no less, before his name began to get him gigs elsewhere. He made no great bones about fashion. His fellow New Yorker, Louis Faurer, was rather ashamed of working in the industry. Robert Frank wasn’t especially cut out for it, but he saw no shame in it. Unlike the street views and indeed his paintings, the fashion pictures were made for other people, but he clearly only modified his way of seeing. At their best, Leiter’s fashion photographs have the same shyly voyeuristic sense as his own work. He’s never openly pervy – like, say, Miroslav Tichy – but even in the magazines the pictures are often a little off-key. This is man who always preferred to see than be seen. Kate Stevens (of the HackelBury gallery in London) told me a story that Faurer once kept a model waiting a terribly long time at a meeting place out in the open. When he finally showed up, he dismissed her. He had already done the pictures while she was waiting for him. Was that cruelty? Or shyness? Or a bit of both?

By the time you read this, it will be too late to see the glorious HackelBury exhibition of his paintings. The Photographers’ Gallery show, which is a boiled-down version of the Hamburg show of a few years ago, is still on. It gives a nice overview of his whole career. But what to make of Saul Leiter himself? The colour street views are certainly the highpoint. They have something of the almost mystical gentleness of colour from the mournful little Polaroids André Kertész made of the glass objects on his window-sill high above Washington Square, after the death of his wife, Elizabeth.

Leiter’s effects owe much to Kodachrome (which was a slide film) and it may be for that reason that they have such a strong appeal right now. It used to be that viewing photographs backlit was a rare privilege reserved for professionals equipped with light-boxes. Only slide shows gave any chance of seeing pictures backlit (or seemingly so). That’s partly why Nan Goldin’s Ballad of Sexual Dependency was always originally shown as a slide show. Pictures just have much more intimacy that way – which obviously suits Goldin’s subject matter to perfection. But then along came digital, and almost all pictures were suddenly seen backlit on our screens. That may be why certain techniques that were hardly considered before now look so natural to us.

Leiter painted in mixed colours at the height of their brightness: turquoises, oranges, acid greens. But he photographed in primary colours, muted right down through misting and screens and that wonderful bloom of damped-down Kodachrome. His favourite colour was red. He returns to it again and again. These are Leiter’s colours: never shrill, never too loud. Once you recognise how he does it, there’s something about his manner, which lies well with his successors. It is hard, for example, to imagine that the influence of Saul Leiter is not lurking somewhere behind Paul Graham’s shift from clear factual seeing to his later, less overt manner.

Clearly, Leiter was a saddened man. He photographed mainly for himself and searched, through his pictures, for little bits of happiness where he could find them. He probably didn’t have the sheer bravura technical virtuosity and invention of an Erwin Blumenfeld (though, it would be interesting to show the two of them together), but he had absolute mastery of the emotional effects of colour. The splash of yellow, for example, of a passing taxi could be joy, if only for a moment. “There are,” he said, “the things that are out in the open and there are the things that are hidden; and life – the real world – has more to do with what is hidden.” That’s a subtle motto for a photographer; he was a subtle man, working brilliantly in colour, long before Eggleston.

All images courtesy of Howard Greenberg Gallery. © Saul Leiter


Francis Hodgson is Professor in the Culture of Photography at The University of Brighton. His former roles include photography critic for the Financial Times, and Head of Photographs at Sotheby’s, London. He is also a co-founder of the leading photography prize the Prix Pictet