by Joseph Gergel*
“NOW, WE’RE A SPECIES OF EDITORS. WE ALL RECYCLE, CLIP AND CUT, REMIX AND UPLOAD. WE CAN MAKE IMAGES DO ANYTHING. ALL WE NEED IS AN EYE, A BRAIN, A CAMERA, A PHONE, A LAPTOP, A SCANNER, A POINT OF VIEW. AND WHEN WE’RE NOT EDITING, WE’RE MAKING. WE’RE MAKING MORE THAN EVER, BECAUSE OUR RESOURCES ARE LIMITLESS AND THE POSSIBILITIES ENDLESS. WE HAVE AN INTERNET FULL OF INSPIRATION: THE PROFOUND, THE BEAUTIFUL, THE DISTURBING, THE RIDICULOUS, THE TRIVIAL, THE VERNACULAR AND THE INTIMATE. WE HAVE NEXT-TO-NOTHING CAMERAS THAT RECORD THE LIGHTEST LIGHT, THE DARKEST DARK. THIS TECHNOLOGICAL POTENTIAL HAS CREATIVE CONSEQUENCES. IT CHANGES OUR SENSE OF WHAT IT MEANS TO MAKE. IT RESULTS IN WORK THAT FEELS LIKE PLAY. WORK THAT TURNS OLD INTO NEW, ELEVATES THE BANAL. WORK THAT HAS A PAST BUT FEELS ABSOLUTELY PRESENT. WE WANT TO GIVE THIS WORK A NEW STATUS. THINGS WILL BE DIFFERENT FROM HERE ON…”
– Clement Cheroux, Joan Fontcuberta, Eric Kessels, Martin Parr, and Joachim Schmid, Joint Manifesto for From Here On, Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival, Arles, France, 2011
It is hard to imagine that just twenty years ago, the Internet was in its infancy. In two decades, the digital revolution has completely transformed our understanding of photography and its function in social practice, let alone its tangibility. If the personal snapshot was historically reserved for the family scrapbook or gilded frame in the intimate space of the private home, it is now immediately shareable, going from the screen of the digital camera to the screen of the computer without ever existing as a material object. It changes the kinds of photographs we take and our reasons for taking them, as they are meant for a drastically different audience and scope. At the same time, the digitalization of print journalism, visual encyclopedias, advertising, e-commerce, and personal diaries (in the form of blogs) have created a vast archive of images at instantaneous disposal, from the most iconic to the most mundane of generic product listings. Google Images was launched in 2001, followed by Google Maps, Facebook, and Flickr in 2004. While every enhancement in imaging technology has altered the visual landscape, from the influx of print media in the 1920s to the omnipresence of the television screen in the 1950s, the Internet has changed our cognitive sensory experience at an unprecedented speed.
The 2011 exhibition From Here On, presented as a manifesto at the Rencontres d’Arles Photography Festival in Arles, France, declared a decisive break in our understanding of photography and what constitutes the photographic as a result of the digital revolution. Rather than following the popular critiques of the 1990s that proclaimed the death of photography in its change from analogue to digital, From Here On examined a loose grouping of emerging artists who are concerned with methods of distribution and circulation that are more immediate and participatory. Jointly curated by Clément Chéroux, Joan Fontcuberta, Erik Kessels, Martin Parr, and Joachim Schmid, From Here On included the work of thirty-six international artists who appropriate popular imagery from the Internet using vernacular sources from social media, search engines, archives, and surveillance technologies. In a world where everyone is now a photographer, equipped with cell phone camera in pocket, and an infinite library of photographic images are available at the click of a button, these artists consider the collapsing boundaries of the private and the triumph of a philosophy of the public.
Of course, any investigation of image appropriation strategies inherently refers back to its legacy in the history of modern art. Marcel Duchamp’s concept of the readymade inaugurated a new method of artistic production that would come to figure heavily in artistic practice for the next century. By extension, if Duchamp’s objects could be considered art by virtue of the artist’s declaration, the plethora of available imagery in modern culture could similarly be mined as potential sources. Artists in the 1920s and 1930s used strategies of collage and montage to juxtapose imagery of conflicting ideological sources, from the ironic humor of Kurt Schwitter’s Merz collages to the overtly political photomontage of John Heartfield. While image appropriation has been associated with many artistic movements of the twentieth century, including Cubism, Dada, Surrealism, and Pop Art, it was not until the 1980s that image appropriation evolved into a medium in its own right. Artists associated with the Pictures Generation examined the psychology of the mass-circulated image and its effect on our understanding of reality and lived experience. By doing little more than lifting images out of their original context and into the discursive space of art, Pictures artists subtly subverted the media image by exposing its secondary connotations and re-motivating its meaning. Questioning notions of authorship, originality, and authenticity, their message relied on the shock of its initial reception and its status outside the accepted institutional embrace of the art world. However, as these techniques of image appropriation become a dominant force in the art world, and specifically the art market, their original message begins to lose critical steam. From Here On begins with a central curatorial conceit: What comes after Pictures art? If we are to consider post-modern image making of the 1980s as already historical, what then is the afterlife of this initial incarnation of image appropriation?
For all of its playful characteristics, Pictures art could be said to have carried an implicit cultural critique in its attack of the alienating forces of the so-called “image world.” In many ways their artistic strategies aligned with Guy Debord’s activist philosophy of détournement, a process whereby the individual disrupts the image-mediated spectacle in order to reclaim authentic experience. Artists in From Here On do not attempt such a subversive scope, dealing with a drastic overabundance of images without the insertion of critical judgment, more in line with fictive play. In the catalogue essay for the exhibition, curator Clément Chéroux distinguishes this work from Pictures artists in a transformation from “newness” to “intensity,” arguing that “revolution are not their goals.”  Their message is not in the gesture of appropriation but rather in its presentation, no longer tied to the radical message of “stealing” because the images are viewed as collective cultural property. As the sheer amount of images provided by the Internet is so overwhelming, these artists are concerned with choosing, organizing, editing, and remixing, in a kind of cultural obsessive-compulsive disorder.
Artists such as Penelope Umbrico explore the multitude of the digital archive, producing work that changes in each presentation, echoing the growth of a rapidly expanding technology. In her Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, Umbrico constructs grids of 4 x 6 inch images of sunsets uploaded by users of Flickr, an image sharing website, creating an installation that envelops the room and overwhelms the viewer’s visual space. If each image represents a unique event, one that was considered important enough not only to capture but also to share, its presentation as a group reduces the photographs to mere cliché. Umbrico explains: “I think it’s peculiar that the sun, the quintessential life giver, constant in our lives, symbol of enlightenment, spirituality, eternity, all things unreachable and ephemeral, omnipotent provider of warmth, optimism and vitamin D, and so universally photographed, finds expression on the internet, the most virtual of spaces equally infinite but within a closed electrical circuit.” The title of each installation reflects the number of images available on the Internet on the day of printing. In her first iteration in September 2007, there were 2,303,057 suns. By her installation in February 2011, there were 8,730,221. In each iteration, Umbrico presents documentation of a particular moment, which, at this pace, has already become physically inconceivable.
Marco Bohr similarly looks to the archive of press clippings and groups them into classifiable configurations. In the Photography and the Dear Leader series, Bohr focuses on press photographs of Korean leader Kim Jong-il, choosing moments where he casually holds various objects. Whether posing with a shuck of corn, a stuffed animal, a bucket, a hat, or a radish, Bohr’s appropriated images, analogous to supplements left on the photographer’s memory card, are the antithesis of the photojournalistic “decisive moment” as articulated by Henri Cartier-Bresson. In Frank Schallmaier’s No Pic, No Point series, various fragments of the human form are cut out and collaged together on a single white background. The images, taken from online personal ads, show men at various states of undress – posing with underwear, flexing their biceps, showing off their calf muscles. In each image, the face of the subject is masked, either by cropping, blurring, or blocking with the flash. No Pic, No Point is an encyclopedia of the human anatomy, even though they are anonymous figures, floating freely in space. At the same time, these images function as advertisements for sex, a kind of self-promotion, and they use similar visual tropes in the hopes of finding a sexual partner.
In other works, artists examine the underside of a world of increasing surveillance. In Jens Sundheim’s Travelers series, Sundheim documents his travels by using publicly available webcams. If discourses of surveillance have often considered the alienation of the autonomous subject, Sundheim here uses the technology on his own terms and his own purposes. Yet, in the grainy images there also seems to be a kind of shouting out, an assertion of existence. In the images, Sundheim looks to the camera, but the camera could care less about him. There is no subjective operator; no moment when the shutter is clicked. The cameras continuously record, and Sundheim’s cameo appearance is just but a flicker of its archived footage. Similarly, Doug Rickard looks to the history of photojournalism by acting as a documentarian of American culture through the lens of Google Map’s Street View. In the grainy, blurred images of his New American Picture series, Rickard’s images are not that of technical perfection but rather unknowingly captured in orbit. Gilbert Hage’s Skin Phone(ethics) series uses a cell phone camera to take photographs of women’s cleavage while riding on the subway. Responding to a newfound sense of freedom in Beruit after the 2006 outbreak of hostilities between Israel and Lebanon, where women felt more comfortable sporting plunging necklines, Hage also raises ethical issues over notions of privacy and sexual violation. In Hage’s case, it is not even an issue of surveillance, of an authority looking down at its subjects as a method of control. A more appropriate model might be its pre-fix opposite, of sousveillance, which suggests that the recording and watching is happening from underneath, by its participants. Hage tolls the line between appropriate behavior and questions whether the sacredness of the private is any longer at stake.
Other artists play with the basic functions of image editing software to create specifically fictive environments. Thomas Mailaender’s Extreme Tourism series humorously combines the artist’s self-portrait with fantastical locales. Whether surfing on top of volcanic lava or cooking a pizza on top of clouds, Mailaender smiles to the camera, the classic tourist pose. In the Fatescapes series, Pavel Maria Smejkal appropriates iconic images of photojournalism and erases the foregrounded subject, leaving empty landscapes that suggest an erasure of history. Deleting the subjects of famous photographs such as Robert Capa’s falling soldier and Nick Ut’s napalm victims, Smejjkal leaves a vacant space, which with our knowledge of the original accrues an air of mystery. Corinne Vionett layers hundreds of touristic photographs of landmarks together to create composites that verge on the abstract. From the Eiffel Tower to Mecca, the results have a painterly quality, omitting the crowds of tourists and disrupting the familiar landscape.
Questions surrounding identity loom large in these artists’ work. While Pictures artists focused on the influence of advertising and print media as somehow acting upon our understanding of the idealized self, artists in From Here On examine how we actively participate in identity construction on a daily basis. In his essay “We Are Too Many,” Massomiliano Gioni writes: “we might say that for this generation of artists “I” is better written in the lower case, as it appears in the prefix of the iPhone or the iPod. It’s an individual voice, but one that is immediately shareable, interchangeable, highly compatible, and as such, hopelessly compromised, alienated, massified. It is an “I” that performs for the entertainment of others.” With social media applications, we can now essentially control how we want to be represented to others, choosing the photographs that fill our profiles and editing our hobbies, interests, and musical tastes. Yet, we must ask whether this digital concept of participation is one of autonomous experience or rather continuously influenced by a variety of media sources. In a more pessimistic portrayal of the self in a digital world, Edwoudt Boonstra’s Anonymous series is a collection of images where the subjects’ identities are withheld by blurring their faces. While in some images the reason for remaining anonymous is clearer, as with brides who sell their wedding dress after their wedding, others remain ambiguous in their intentions. In Boonstra’s faceless images, we are left to consider whether potentialities of image collaboration ultimately relapse to alienating effect.
If photography was historically thought about in terms of ‘writing with light,’ photography in the digital age could now be said to write with the algorithm of a machine. Images are produced without a camera and are sorted by artists through keywords and storage databanks. Yet, the curators point out that we are just at the cusp of this decisive break, not yet able to see the horizon. Because of this naïve stage in the digital revolution, many questions are left unanswered. For one, the issue of image rights and copyright protection remains ambiguous. While some would argue that just because the images are available does not mean that it is free and legal to use, others would suggest that the law is old-fashioned and needs to be rethought. While artists have historically been legally exempt in the “Fair Use” clause of the U.S. Copyright Law of 1976, this doctrine has been challenged in a recent Federal Court decision against appropriation artist Richard Prince. While copyright law concerns the rights of the owner, what about the rights of the subject? While this has always been an issue in the ethics of photojournalism, this question is expanded in an age where everyone is equipped with a camera and surveillance satellites float above. Fred Ritchin questions whether these new artistic strategies will help anything except for the art market. Others would argue that their insights are poignant, even if at times humorous and trivial. One could point to the Egyptian protests and the Arab Spring to argue for the political importance of investigating the circulation of images in a digital and interconnected world. We are left to consider whether From Here Onis a continuation of the ‘Pictures’ critique or of it is representative of a new-image society that is a fundamental departure from the appropriation of print media. As the curators suggest, we might just have to wait and see.