Back to the Future: The New Photograph Challenges Indexicality

Christoph Engel, from the Airports series, Untitled (AMS 06-07-11), 2011, archival pigment print, 59 x 82 inches. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Hagedorn Gallery’s current exhibition, The New Photograph, promises to show the viewer forward-thinking images that lead us into the future of photography, and it definitely delivers on this promise. This group exhibition of international photographers demands a reconception of the photograph as it incorporates digital technology and an abundance of available imagery to push photography into the twenty-first century. Drawing from techniques and explorations undertaken by artists such as Man Ray, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Hannah Hoch, and Rauol Hausmann, these artists bring full circle a series of disputes from the past. And as they employ new photographic technologies, they subvert photography’s indexical relationship to reality, calling into question what it means for something to be a “photograph.”

Installation view of The New Photograph. Photo courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

To absorb the full impact of this show, it’s helpful to understand the theoretical crisis photography has been undergoing since Roland Barthes published his seminal book, Camera Lucida. While at the time of publication, there were loose theories on the conception of photography presented by Walter Benjamin, Susan Sontag, and John Berger; they focused mainly on what the photograph captured, rather than the ontology of the medium. This was an important distinction to Barthes, and in Camera Lucida, he set out to “learn at all costs what photography was ‘in itself’, by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images.” Using language from Charles Peirce’s rules of semiotics, Barthes argued that the photograph is an index of the real world and carries with it two distinct features: the studium (factual information contained in the photograph) and the punctum (emotional content that elicits a response in the viewer).

Index is a semiotic term that when used in conjunction with photography describes the photograph’s relationship to and with the real world. In order to produce a photograph, light has to interact with a light-sensitive material (typically a collection of chemicals); in this way, the photograph comes in direct contact with a natural, real-world phenomenon: light. This separates it from other mediums in that there must be some type of chemical (or today digital) reaction with external light to produce imagery. Most often, this light is the reflection emanating from an object (the referent) in the real world; therefore, something from the real world touches the photograph, similar to how a grave rubbing (to use the standard example) offers proof of the grave itself. Even if the substance that touches the photograph is not tangible, one can still safely assume that the object in the photograph existed at some point. This is different from painting in that while a painting can depict objects in the world, it is not necessarily contained to what exists, or the exact likeness of that object. A painter can change hue and saturation, perspective and proportion, not to mention manifest images from the imagination. In this way, paintings are thought to be more like signs or symbols of the referent, not an index. Furthermore, in other mediums such as painting, the artist’s hand intervenes in the transfer from object to image; whereas with photography, the photographer and the photograph are limited to objects that exist.

Installation view of The New Photograph. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Of course, Barthes’s theory surfaced in the late 1970s when the digital revolution had yet to take place and film was still the dominant form of photography. Now, new photo-editing technologies make it easier to manipulate, alter, construct, and fake the photograph, threatening the traditional model of photography. And as these digital images enter the digital realm, shedding its physical form (as well as the physical imprint of light on the object), theorists, photographers, and historians alike fret over the loss of photography’s indexical relationship with the outside world. This lack of a physical, chemical interaction with light, for some critics, nullifies the photograph’s claims to objective documentation, compromising its position as the purveyor of truth.

The artists in The New Photograph address these critical concerns in exciting and inventive ways. They challenge photography by creating images that play with the medium’s indexical relationship. By appropriating imagery or constructing imagined realities from the glut of images available online, these artists problematize the division between photography as a mechanized art form and other traditional “handmade” media.

Christoph Engel from the Superficies series, Untitled (Aircraft 091130), 2009, archival pigment print, 43 x 51 inches. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Walking into the gallery, the viewer confronts one of Christoph Engel’s constructed aerial photographs. Engel’s Untitled (AMS 06-07-11) (2011) from his Airports series appears as an aerial shot of a modestly sized, indistinguishable, or perhaps unknown, airport. At a distance, this large scale photograph evokes an uneasy sense of nostalgia; the airport’s familiar forms recall views of any airport, anywhere, defying its placement and location. This play with the viewer’s knowledge becomes clear in the artist’s process: Engel constructs the images from hundreds of Google Earth(TM) and Google Weather(TM) satellite captures from different locations and varying times. His constructions result in photographic images that are everywhere, and nowhere simultaneously. The artist continues this theme in other works in the show, such as Untitled (Town 090511)(2009) from his Superficies series, in which he constructs a spiraling suburban neighborhood complete with artificial lakes and a golf course.

Christoph Engel, from the Superficies series, Untitled (Town 090511), 2009, archival pigment print, 43 x 51 inches. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Engel’s photographs confront the crisis of the index head on by breaking up the satellite images into composite pieces and reconstructing the pieces into a model he sees fit. This cut and paste approach to the referent creates an archetype of the form airport or suburb: It is not a known suburb, but rather one that Engel “sees.” In reorganizing the referent to suit the artist’s needs, Engel’s process is more akin to painting: He takes one of the most sacred vestiges of photography and renders it impotent by crafting photographs of pure imagination. This strips photography of its special relationship to the referent—making a mockery of the entire process.

Additionally, Engel employs sourced satellite images (which, arguably, were never photographs to begin with). Engel’s building-block images exist as solely digital data that has been captured in space, beamed down to Earth, compiled in a computer, and uploaded to the Internet. Even though the main component of photography, light, was used to capture the image, no physical form of the photograph existed until Engel printed his constructions. By transforming the once digital data into the physical reality of the print, Engel falsely fulfills the indexical promise of photography by providing the viewer with a false document of the world. The result is a series of uneasy questions regarding the truth of satellite images.

Penelope Umbrico, Suns (from Sunsets from Flickr), 2006-ongoing, archival pigment prints, collage of 4 x 6-inch photographs. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Another artist addressing the indexical problem, Penelope Umbrico uses sourced imagery from websites like Flickr to create her work. One particular installation of Umbrico’s consists of many small photographs of the most photographed subject in the world: the sunset. In this ongoing series, Suns from Flickr, Umbrico appropriates hundreds of sunset images and creates massive wall installations of small 4 x 6 prints. Lyle Rexer has described Umbrico’s use of the sunset in The Edge of Vision as “an enticement to experience another, more desirable world, controlled not by the regimented mechanisms of social and economic life but by the natural rhythms of day and night, sunrise and sunset.” What Rexer doesn’t comment on, however, are the indexical issues that Umbrico’s work manifests.

Just like Engel’s work, Umbrico uses appropriated imagery; but instead of applying a cut and paste technique, she chooses to produce massive installations of photographs she’s found—photographs taken by other people. Without crediting the photographer, Umbrico reproduces their work as her own, much like Sherrie Levine’s rephotographs of Walker Evans’s work. Unlike Levine, however, Umbrico alters the appearance of the images, choosing to print some of them in low resolution. The resulting imperfections only emphasize that the images were appropriated from the Internet.

Penelope Umbrico, 87 Suns from Flickr—29 Visible, 2009, archival pigment print, 11 x 14 inches. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

Again, appropriation is a major tool in the works of both of these artists; but the ways in which they harness their appropriations diverge. With Engel’s work, his process is more akin to painting, cutting off photography’s relationship to the index. Umbrico, on the other hand, challenges the lack of faith in photography’s index by showing the viewer a series of indexes of the same, mundane, over-photographed sunset. The adage, “if you’ve seen one, you’ve seen them all” rings false when confronting Umbrico’s installation. Each sunset becomes a unique look at the sun, in a particular place, at a particular time. Whereas Engel strips away the specificity of the scene, Umbrico’s obliterates authorship by allowing each subtle change in the sunset to stand on its own in comparison to the others. Tonal variations, composition choices, and other technical considerations are arranged side by side, showing that no one photograph or even photographer is the same.

By overwhelming the viewer with similar visual data, Umbrico instills a new visual literacy, which forces the viewer to seek out differences within similarity. By using the sun, the life force of photography, Umbrico directly recalls traditional ways of thinking about photography and how these differ in the digital age. Even with the knowledge that these images come from digital data, the range of each individual sunset begins to restore faith in the index. Instead of worrying whether or not the photograph is “real,” Umbrico’s installation teaches the viewer, that in the digital age, photography’s indexical promise is no longer solely about the physical contact between light and the object, but is apparent in the sheer number of people practicing the craft worldwide. This new way of seeing restores a small amount of faith in photography by revealing that even though photography as a practice may be different than it was fifty years ago, the indexical promise can still be fulfilled through digital data. Photography’s claim to truth resides in the amount of data available, not necessarily the process of photography itself. This differential knowledge helps the viewer digest the glut of imagery that they confront on a daily basis and make decisions about what to believe or what to discredit.

Penelope Umbrico, 79 Moons from Flickr—51 Visible, 2009, archival pigment print, 11 x 14 inches. Image courtesy Hagedorn Gallery.

While all of the artists in The New Photograph can be mined for theoretical arguments, each artist applies a different technique to solve the same problem: how to create photographs after the loss of the indexical relationship. Some, like Engel, eschew the notion all together, becoming a painter of pixels, while others, like Umbrico, use the same techniques to reinstill a certain amount of faith in photography. All of the artists in this exhibition push the direction of photography as a practice and the art form into the twenty-first century. They deliver what the “new” photograph can achieve and can be. By doing so, these artists open the way for further experimentation with the medium’s materials and the types of images that it can create—images that can distance photography from the index or find new ways of satisfying the indexical promise.

Hagedorn Gallery will be hosting an artist talk with Jason Salavon and Penelope Umbrico at 6:30PM on October 21, 2011. The New Photograph will remain up through October 22, 2011. Hagedorn Gallery is open Monday through Friday from 10AM to 5PM and Saturdays from 11AM to 4PM.

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    Jason Francisco
    October 25, 2011 at

    I appreciate this essay’s effort to wrestle with the ways that photography’s technologies pose difficult philosophical questions. As I see it, one of the key problems in linking the photographic index to a claim for the image’s ontological authority is that indexicality says nothing about how an image looks. A visually legible referent in a photograph has exactly the same indexical status as an illegible one: if I make a clear, conventional portrait of my mother, and then a portrait of her using a long enough exposure that no sharp detail appears, my mother has exactly the same indexical status in each picture. In the second case, it’s clear that the image must be coupled with something outside of itself–information taken as credible, words–to be awarded a privileged claim on the real. The second case also makes clear that the connection between realism and the real in the first case is not automatic, rather the product of a set of conventions that are deeply culturally internalized. Or to put it differently, what does it really mean to say that photographs offer us a “trace of the real?” How much can we really say about the cup that leaves a water ring on a table (a simple example of an index)? How much can we say about a person by the footprint she leaves in the sand? In this sense, photography’s purported truth-bearing status has much more to do with Peirce’s other key terms, icon and symbol, and is part of what Barthes means by deeming photography a “medium without a message.” Anyway, you may know that there is a very long tradition of non-straight photography using collage, sequential and repeated imagery, and the creation of pictures with no existing referent in the world (Rejlander, Robinson and Muybridge are key nineteenth century precedents, not to mention experimentation in “spirit photography”). It’s not clear to me that digital technologies don’t simply extend or reiterate these problems in new ways, which is different than innovating them.

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    October 22, 2011 at

    The more of your articles I read, the more I am convinced that “digital photography” is a wholly different medium than photography. Thanks for the insights.

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    robin bernat
    October 20, 2011 at

    Bravo, Ryan! Really well done.

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