13 March 2015 . By Tristan Hooper
And so it was that I found myself tackling the London Underground at rush hour, attempting to reach The Photographer’s Gallery by 5:30 for a meeting with the Dutch photographer Charlotte Dumas. Having only seen her work on the computer screen, I was intrigued and excited at the prospect of seeing the photographs in a gallery space. After battling against a river of bodies, I found the doors locked and the gallery closed for refurbishment. Thankfully, Dumas emerged to greet me and I was allowed in to wander around the exhibition as it was being hung. The exhibition comprises two separate pieces. Prints of various sizes from her most recent series The Widest Prairies hang on the walls whilst the hypnotic Anima video plays on a loop inside a darkened chamber in the middle of the room.
Having had a very long day, Dumas was more interested in drinking beer than coffee, so we made our way to a nearby pub and sat at the bar. Considering my utter lack of experience in conducting interviews, I was delighted to find that what could easily have resembled a bungled interrogation was actually more like a pleasant and interesting conversation. Dumas articulates her ideas brilliantly and she listened patiently as I stuttered through my various reflections on her projects. She is a photographer who is so utterly involved in her practice – seemingly swept along by it. With insight and enthusiasm, she spoke to me about her work: past, present and future.
How did you come to photograph the horses at Arlington National Cemetery? How did the idea come about?
Well, I’ve been focusing on animals that work. I actually started the Arlington horse project at the same time as the 9/11 dogs project. It was my intention to do the projects simultaneously because dogs and horses are obviously the closest animals to us as people. Both animals still have important jobs.
I ended up doing the dogs first because visiting them took so much of my time. A year after the 9/11 dogs project I got the invitation to do the show at the Corcoran Gallery and things just clicked and I went back to Arlington. The idea behind these projects was that the dogs were literally going through the rubble of 9/11 right after the attacks and marking the start of a decade that changed the world. Ten years on and they are coming to the end of their lives – sort of like the closure of this decade. The Arlington horses represent the end of that decade because they are pulling all the caskets of the soldiers who have died overseas as a result of the 9/11 attack. The dogs and the horses are animal witnesses of the events. At first it was my intention to do the projects together, but then instead I did them chronologically – which actually makes sense.
The quality of the light in the Arlington pictures is ethereal. It plays a significant part in the impact of the work. How did you achieve this effect?
I like to challenge myself when it comes to light. I chose to photograph the horses at night because I wanted to capture them away from their day job and when they needed rest. The light is available light because I didn’t want to disturb them too much. I pushed my film to the max and later printed the work digitally.
When looking at the photographs from Anima, I can’t help but feel a certain sense of privilege, almost as though I’m being allowed to view an elusive, precious moment, an occurrence normally hidden from the public eye. This is especially apparent in the video. Can you speak a little about your experiences when physically making the work? How did it feel to be in such close proximity to the horses? Did it feel special?
Yes, absolutely. At first, I was just very excited. It was my aim to photograph them lying down. I would visit at all times of night. I often went at midnight, but they’re very restless animals. They lie down, they get up… So, after a while, I would go between midnight and 4 a.m. I would see them lying down and, most of the time, I would just sit there and watch, taking pictures occasionally. Then I noticed, after a number of visits, that they began to get used to my presence and they would really, literally fall asleep. Their muscles would start twitching and… to me it felt like the most intimate moment – it’s like watching your child sleep or something. It’s almost like the superlative of vulnerability, seeing an animal lose consciousness. And on top of that is the fact that they are funereal horses – it’s like they were connecting to the spirit world! Of course, these are all reflections and connotations, but I definitely felt this.
That’s also why I decided to start filming, so I could just continue watching them. The photograph part – I felt that I had done that. I thought that I would just tape it and see – I wasn’t sure if I would do anything with it. Months after that I decided to try something out and I had a small show in Holland – I mean a really small show – with an old teacher of mine and it was really nice to do something with him. Anyway, we did a small experiment and we showed the film. It motivated me to take it seriously and I went to work on it with an editor. I showed it in Paris and it got a positive response.
The video shows all of the little twitches and gestures that occur during sleep. There’s a real sense of trust – the horses don’t feel the need to stay awake and be watchful in your presence.
Yes, and that’s how it felt when I was there. It’s very meditative in a way, you lose track of time. It’s the elementary things of life that we seem not to notice and it’s those things that really matter. We all connect to that I think. The most intimate moments are like the most profound.
I guess there’s a stigma attached to photographing animals – like it’s a cliché. People seem to associate them with greeting cards and things like that…
Yes, it is like that. It’s all around us. Now I have two daughters and everything for kids is totally ‘animal this’ and ‘animal that’ and I sort of like that too, but it’s hard to fight against it. But maybe what I’m doing isn’t so different – maybe I’m doing exactly the same thing. Most people melt when they see a kitten with a ball of wool and then maybe they melt when they see horses fall asleep. Maybe it’s interchangeable…
I’m not pretending to make high art, but there is a difference in how you approach the work and the thoughts it can evoke.
It’s like our own ambivalent relationship with animals – if an artist uses an animal skin to make art, there’s a riot. As soon as it’s visible it becomes problematic, but for most of the meat industry for example, it’s hidden from sight and that’s all fine. It’s our hypocrisy about how we deal with animals. I have also tried to photograph tigers in a small circus and I remember the guy who trained the tigers didn’t really want to let me near him at first – because he was so scarred by all the animal activists, I’m sure. I personally think that animals shouldn’t be in the circus but, at the same time, I saw the relationship this man had with his animals. It’s a very complex issue. They should be in the wild, but where exactly is that? There’s a great difference between the ideal and what the situation actually is. Like when a police officer uses a horse, then it’s OK again, because it’s for the law, but horses wouldn’t naturally move towards violence, they’d run away from it. It’s all of these differences – and I think art in general is about finding these nuances and showing them, about injecting society with this sense of nuance, not simply going black and white. And that’s such an important task. I think art is an important tool that we have. An animal portrait can make you think about your relationship with that animal. And if you go one-on-one with these portraits – like the sleeping horses – the portraits reflect something of yourself, it’s almost like they are you – the portraits are more open to interpretation. If you looked at the same kind of image of a person it would be different – it would be voyeurism – looking this way at one of your own species. With animals, there’s an emotion that comes back. My work often gets this very emotional response – like with the dogs of 9/11. They offer us a way to help process what’s going on in this world. And that’s why it’s so important to have them around.
Sometimes I’m approached by an animal activist group or charity – they ask me to donate work, but I’m really careful of how I deal with that.
I feel like a journalist in a sense – I want to put some kind of story out there, to make people aware of things, but I’m not an advocate for one thing or another. That can be a little difficult sometimes. In the end, they are the other living beings on this planet and we need them to confirm our own existence. I think we get very lonely as a species – people are very cruel – we’re certainly the cruelest creatures on the planet. I really believe that having animals around – and children – keeps us empathetic. I really think the long-term consequences of not having animals around could be devastating. I’m going off the deep end a little, but they’re much more important than people realise.
Especially in the West, I have to defend myself a lot. I always find whenever I’m doing lectures or interviews, I have to have the sound bites ready – like ‘I know it’s animals, but…’ Then I have to try to place my work in a kind of contemporary art context. But, at the same time, it’s not necessary. When I was in Japan, for instance, nobody asked me why I was photographing animals. The response in Japan was immediately about what emotions the pictures evoked – nobody talked about it being weird…
Moving on to The Widest Prairies – there is something incredibly romantic about the idea of tracking wild horses across the vast landscapes of America. Can you tell me a little about your experiences making the work?
I tackle certain subjects because they’re so ingrained in our minds. I think that wild horses are one of those subjects – like sunsets or volcanoes – you don’t really want to go near. It’s like something you would see on a postcard. So how do you turn that around? We see these wild horses as symbols of freedom or unbridled expansion – things that don’t really exist anymore. Especially with the changing climate – the land is really dry and the economy in Nevada is really poor. The horses are infringed upon, but they are very rugged and resilient animals and there are many of them roaming the land which is a problem for the state of Nevada. At the same time they are the symbol of this state and very important for what they stand for. There’s a whole political war surrounding the horses. The idea of these horses coming closer and closer to civilisation is opposite to the image we have in our head from the past – stallions roaming across the plains. Now it’s stallions roaming through the back gardens of mobile homes searching for food. I think this is an interesting development, the habitat of these remaining wild animals all of a sudden overlap with that of people – I wanted to capture that. Especially after photographing the horses at Arlington, where everything was quite confined. I wanted to challenge myself to see if I could work with a subject that is much harder to come near and it brought a lot of practical obstacles – like finding the horses! The Widest Prairies is more like a collective portrait than one-on-one portraiture. The images ware taken from further away and show the horses in their environment. The landscape is much more important, it’s what makes these horses wild horses. But they are wild in a way which is more like the wildness of stray dogs.
I noticed from the book – and I’m sure this was a conscious choice – that there seems to be a progression. The first images depict the horses in a wide, uninhabited landscape and as you move further into the book you see hints of human presence like buildings and vehicles and finally, in the last part of the book, the horses are in pens. I don’t want to use the word incarcerated, but they are contained, restricted. Can you talk a little about the decision to order the pictures this way?
Every once in a while a handful of these horses end up in Carson State Prison where they work with inmates. That’s actually a very positive programme in the United States in terms of incarceration. You have inmates who train the horses, they break them and then the horses are auctioned. This is a low security facility and you have guys who have never really ridden a horse before and they’re thrown in with these animals. And you can’t cheat with animals – it’s all very basic rules and intuition, and they really thrive – the guys thrive, the horses thrive. And the horses are really special, they were wild – they’re not subject to breeding programs – they’re really strong. I felt it was a really intriguing contrast, it literally shows their changing context.
Another aspect of The Wildest Prairies that I found interesting was the juxtapositions created between the horses and the vehicles and caravans, for example. In the past, horses were a mode of transport, and they pulled our wagons. I feel the pictures are indicative of our relationship with horses and indeed the evolution of that relationship.
Yeah, and the fact that the horses became obsolete, as did the cars that they’re standing in front of. All of these abandoned trailers and foreclosed homes – standing there with no purpose. I like the image of the horse in front of the trailer. It’s better in the video, I like that you can see the horse almost falling asleep in front of the trailer. There are these building blocks and it feels hopeful – like we’re going to build something – but you know that’s never going to happen. But then there’s the resilience of the animals – they just do what they do at the opportune moment. The horses don’t really care that they’re lying around in front of an old trailer.
What about your interactions with the horses? Were they wary of you? Were they aggressive?
It really depended on where you saw them. If they were more out in the open on the plains or the mountains you really had to keep your distance because it’s their territory, but as soon as they got closer to civilisation, it was easier to approach them. I found it scary at times. When it was mating season, the stallions would fight. It was a bit intimidating. They can be very unpredictable.
Do you ride horses?
I did when I was young, but I’m not very brave. When we were in Nevada, the guy we were staying with had horses and he took me on horseback over to where ‘The Misfits’ was filmed – and that I couldn’t refuse. I’d rather watch horses than be on top of them though!
I sense conflicting feelings in your work – an appreciation of the way that the horses have endured but, at the same time, an anxiety for the horses – like man is encroaching on their habitat.
For me, my work is about bringing out that nuance. Like are we infringing on them – or is it the other way round? In the end we need to coexist.
What about your interactions with people? Did you meet many people in the course of making this work?
Yes, absolutely. That’s a really big part of my work that people don’t see. I have to be very social in order to make it all happen, so it’s very much about people. And not rarely, people who feel really close to animals are not very fond of people, so it’s a real challenge. Nine times out of ten gaining the trust of the animals is not that difficult, but gaining the trust of the people around them is different. Especially with people who have chosen to turn to animals – they have done that for a reason. There’s always that thing where ‘other people can let you down, but animals can’t’, even when this might just be a notion that solely in your own head, it’s still legitimate. It may be much easier to confide in an animal than in another person. I’ve met some interesting people over the last fifteen years.
And do you think that animals are going to be an enduring interest for you, rather than people?
Yes, I think so. But, in the end, I think my work is very much about people – I just show these things through animals. In a way, it’s inexhaustible. I could maybe just spend my entire life photographing horses, because there’s so many different situations in which they appear and so many aspects worthy of investigation.
I’m going to Japan for two weeks in April and again for two weeks in the autumn. I’m doing this project together with the art director of Harpers Magazine, Stacy D. Clarkson, so we’re going to go together. There are eight native species of horse in Japan, and there are very few left – with some species, there are fifty animals or less. Some of the lowest numbers are on the Southern islands in Okinawa. My idea initially is to document them all – the project’s really about extinction. But I’m also looking at ‘logging horses’ – forestry with horses – and this happens in Japan too. That’s the reason I first went to Japan, I’d started a project on logging horses in England and was working with this really famous man who was involved in teaching forestry with horses. He had taught in Japan and I thought it would be really great to see these logging horses working in different habitats. He got me in contact with a horse logger in Nagano and that’s how I found out about the native horses there. The logging horses project is a really big project, so we’re not going to do it all at once. I think we’re going to start in the south of the country and move on from there.
My aim is to make a trilogy. Anima was about resting, The Widest Prairies was about wandering and the third one, logging horses, will be about working. I want to present them together.
Anima & The Widest Prairies are on show at The Photographer’s Gallery until April 06
The Photographers’ Gallery, 16 – 18 Ramillies St, London W1F 7LW
18 January 2015
IF YOU DON’T CARE FOR FUCKING,
YOU MIGHT AS WELL GO HOME AND DIE ALREADY
When I hear
that killer whales masturbate
it makes me wonder
They must have
some killer moves
for killer orgasms
I’m pretty sure
I don’t want
to be involved in that.
Science emphasizes procreation,
defining life through multiplication.
I guess what they’re saying
is: we all fuck
in some way or another.
Some fuck just once
Some fuck and die
Some fuck the livelong day
Some fuck for fun
Some fuck to kill
Some fuck in stacks of hay.
They say we live to procreate
they say we fuck to breed.
science cannot conclusively say
what animals do
and do not
to the lesbian elephants
mutually masturbating with their trunks
in the sunset.
to the orangutan
fondling her treebark dildo.
Tell the auto-fellating goat
we fuck to breed.
At the horse parade
one horse after the other
struts their horsey stuff
shaking their glossy manes.
The plump woman
rides the even plumper tinker horse.
Together they ride
round after round
to the sound of oohs and ahs.
When tinker turns the corner
his shockingly plump
to the sound of silenced surprise.
They say we fuck to breed.
Most of us don’t fuck all day
never even fuck
Isabella Rozendaal, 2014
Isabella Rozendaal is a writer and an established photographer. Please check Isabella’s online portfolio here: www.isabellahunts.com
17 November 2014 . By João Bento
01. Very colourful craft store song birds resting on tree branches in various natural landscapes is what American artist Paula McCartney displays in the artist book ‘Bird Watching’ from 2010.
The work deals with the idea of a constructed landscape, partly natural, partly artificial. McCartney explains, “I love going on walks and hikes. When I do that I always hear birds… Birds exist for themselves not for my entertainment, you never get a good glimpse of them, they blend with the landscape or they stand too far away. So, I decided to put fake birds exactly where I wanted them. My photographs are an idealized scene.”
02. Since its invention, birds and other animals have been great subjects of interest within photography. Until the 1870’s, it was effectively impossible to record moving subjects as photographing required long exposures due to the low speed of light sensitive materials. During this period, the most frequently photographed animals were those that could stand still: cats, dogs, horses and caged birds. Wild animals could be photographed whilst asleep, in captivity, or dead. The compositions of deceased animals were often represented as trophies, or made into still life.
In the 1850’s, John Dillwyn Llewelyn, from Wales, attempted to simulate live environments by photographing stuffed birds and mammals in a natural habitat. The taxidermy suggested a degree of authenticity to the images created and according to historian Margaret Harker, “reactions to Llewelyn’s photographs were quite fascinating. When they were brought out of the archives after many years and exhibited in the 1960’s in the Royal Photographic Society’s House, they were accepted by most viewers as photographs of live animals.” Professor Matthew Brower argues that “Llewelyn’s images can’t be understood as wildlife photography.” Brower reminds us that “in Victorian landscape photography, animal and human figures were used for compositional accent and emotional overtone.”
03. Japanese artist Yohei Kichiraku bought an old ornithological guide at a flea market. Part of the illustrations in the book had been cut-out by someone, prompting Kichiraku to make more cuttings and place them in forests and tree branches, which he then photographed. The resulting body of work, from 2012, is called ‘Birds’.
Kichiraku’s images won’t make anyone believe that they are looking at real birds. The work has essentially an aesthetic quality of beauty and seduction.
This text has also been published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a publication written in English and Portuguese dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies animaliavegetaliamineralia.org
13 August 2014 . By João Bento
I believe that it was in 2008 that The British Journal of Photography featured an article which included a photograph of a colourful bird resting on the branch of a small tree. On closer inspection, it became clear that this seemingly quiet bird was in fact a fake bird. What! Photos of fake birds in the landscape, who did this? The answer – Paula McCartney.
Last year I acquired the artist’s latest book called ‘Book of Trees – Both Native and Introduced.’ I was curious, what should I expect from this – fake trees? Well, yes and no…
McCartney has always been interested in the natural landscape. Her work is either about natural landscapes or about partly natural landscapes. One of her early projects, ‘Bronx Zoo’ (1998), shows caged, exotic birds surrounded by walls painted with foreign landscapes and treescapes. More recently, the project ‘A Field Guide to Snow and Ice’ (2011), gives us an account of snow and ice formations that might not be what they seem. The work of Paula McCartney is invested with illusion and some humour too.
Humour is not particularly popular with photographers and curators. In spite of this, in ‘Book of Trees’, McCartney appears in the photographs minimally dressed like a tree – with brown trousers and green top, or brown trousers and red top (in the autumn). The wooded landscapes are accompanied by captions that absurdly describe Paula as “Evergreen”, “Deciduous Tree”, “Tree with Sapling” or “Tree with Burl”.
In the book, McCartney’s images are evenly interspaced with short texts written by Andy Sturdevant, such as:
They had a word in the old days for people that hung around forests, looking like trees. Often they were also described as being covered in bark and leaves. “Woodwose” was the best-known designation in medieval Europe for the so-called wild men of the woods. But there were types of wild ladies of the woods, too. In German, these wild ladies were called “Fange.” or “Fanke.”
Another text reads:
It is worth taking a closer look at the Victorians if we’re going to discuss people dressing as trees. A Victorian would not dress like a tree. This isn’t conjecture; it’s a pretty well documented fact. The Victorians had many opportunities to dress like trees, and passed on every single one of them.
The texts provide a broad cultural background that speaks about our changing perception of, and attitude towards, trees – through changing time and in different places. Viewed on their own, the photographs and captions confirm what we already know – McCartney is not a tree.
‘Book of Trees’ is the first time Paula McCartney appears in front of the lens. The book projects the image of the human as a failed construction, incapable of fully integrating into the natural landscape (as a tree). This raises questions about the definition of what is natural, what is a tree and what is to be human?
In the last photograph of the book, McCartney exhibits an injured arm. The caption says “Tree with Broken Limb”. Do you think McCartney really had a broken arm? I know the answer… but I am not telling you!
This text has also been published on Animalia Vegetalia Mineralia, a publication written in English and Portuguese dedicated to ecomedia and ecocritical studies animaliavegetaliamineralia.org
Please visit Paula McCartney’s website www.paulamccartney.com
18 June 2014 . By Tristan Hooper
Perhaps more so than anything else, Jochen Lempert’s exhibition makes apparent the degree of separation imposed by the traditional approach to framing photographs. By allowing the viewer to contemplate photographs in their most basic and natural form, the exhibition fosters a fresh sense of intimacy quite removed from the often sterile gallery experience.
It is easy to see why Lempert’s work has been nominated for the Deutsche Börse. The exhibition operates successfully on a number of different levels; playful and thought provoking juxtapositions, a cleverly unrefined method of production which is somehow more refined and the physical presentation of the work which echoes the predominant themes.
The wet printing, the apparent texture of the paper – the lack of retouching or doctoring – this is perhaps the fundamental science of photography in its rawest form. Stripped of gloss, prestige and pretension. This is not to say that the pictures lack value, quite the opposite – their naked fragility imbues within them a renewed sense of value, they are less like photographs and more like naturally occurring organisms – plucked from their habitat and displayed for people to study. There is a tangibility to the photographs, a sense of process which seems to really indicate the various reactions that take place in order to produce a photograph. Viewing the work, I find it almost impossible to envisage how such a body of work could have been achieved through the use of digital technology.
The various photosensitive films and papers are employed as an alchemist would ply the materials of his vocation. The subjects captured seem to have almost made contact with the materials, in some cases they quite literally have. One large image is simply tacked to the wall with pins, at first it’s difficult to tell what it depicts – it could perhaps be a small crop of a larger image, enlarged to such a degree that we can only see the grain of the film emulsion. The image is engrossing, almost hypnotic; it draws the eye into its dense texture. Under closer inspection, it becomes apparent that the image was achieved through actually distributing a quantity of sand onto the surface of the photographic paper, exposing it to light and subsequently developing the sheet as one normally would in a darkroom. This method of production establishes a direct relationship between an aspect of the photographic process and nature. The effect is quite startling – a rich and complex image made without a camera, a filter or Photoshop.
Juxtaposition plays a big role in the work. Lempert creates connections between different subjects which are often very droll and almost always thought provoking. In one such pairing, Deadly Nightshade is likened to the eye of a squirrel, in another pair the freckled skin of girl is positioned next to a triptych depicting algae. These combinations of pictures as well as the photographic approach work to enrich one other, forging strong links that the audience are invited to discover.
A number of the images are presented with glass cases – drawing parallels with museum exhibits, this seems to perpetuate the idea of the photograph as an object in its own right, an artefact – something precious. Indeed, there’s an unmistakeable undertone of fragility that reverberates within the small corner of The Photographers’ Gallery that the exhibition inhabits. Whilst I’m certain that the images would sit quite comfortably on the pages of a book, this work should be seen on the gallery wall.
In comparison to this year’s other Deutsche Börse entries, Lempert’s work appears somewhat understated. This subtlety however, is key to the works success, a quiet contemplation is instigated and one is left with a lasting impression of photography’s role in the way we see the world around us and indeed our own special connection to nature.
05 June 2014
“Cougars, once in decline, have for the past 40 years been making a comeback across the western United States — though they remain extremely elusive. The cats are protected in California and Florida, but prized game in 13 other states. The success of the recovery in cougar numbers depends in part on where the public will tolerate them, and on strategies for dealing with the difficulties of interaction between humans and cougars in populated regions.”
Steve Winter’s website: www.stevewinterphoto.com
08 May 2014 . By Tristan Hooper
Joan Fontcuberta’s most recent book looks and feels like it was published in a past era. With a soft, deep green cover and a fire-coloured serpent running up the spine, the book seems to incorporate many of the decorative features so often forgotten in today’s publications.
The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography is a composite comprised of six well known series – produced in conjunction with the Hasselblad award and presented to Fontcuberta in 2013. The book, published by MACK, is quite a triumph. The binding, sequencing and presentation are considered and engaging. The independent projects are brought together in unison and sit comfortably alongside one another. The publication exhibits the feel of an exploratory journal – something autobiographical; an ambitious record compiled through extensive studies and findings sourced from apparently far reaching locations. Flipping through the pages, it’s difficult not to become nostalgic; reflecting on childhood days spent peering at encyclopaedias of the weird and wonderful.
Over a career spanning some 20 years, Fontcuberta has established a reputation as an intelligent and witty artist through his works that examine photography’s rather tenuous relationship with the concepts of truth and objectivity. This book charts Fontcuberta’s career and in doing so traverses an ambitious range of topics, including flora and fauna, the natural landscape and even astronomy.
At first glance, the book appears to be a treasure trove of interesting facts – intriguing and informative couplings of pictures and text. However, viewers should be careful not to take everything they see on face value – instead they would be best advised to pay very close attention because nothing is quite as it seems with Fontcuberta’s work – and it is only through closer consideration that the true nature and depth of his practice comes to light.
The history of photography is strewn with hoaxes and prevarication. Right from its invention up to the modern day – as technology has developed, so has the deception and the level of sophistication behind the trickery. Fontcuberta’s projects allude to this particular evolution; his work simultaneously addresses the concept of photography’s reliability and the development and trends inherent in the medium.
The book opens rather quietly. An early project, Herbarium, features images that would be at home in a botanical study of some kind. Various weird and wonderful plant specimens are photographed in a clear, clinical manner – black and white, against a plain backdrop. As viewers, we are invited to scrutinise even the minutest details. The pictures are even accompanied by denotative captions – providing the Latin name for each species. These studies, however, are not quite what they appear to be. They are in fact intricate, near flawless imitations of plant forms, achieved through the meticulous construction of various materials – ranging from household items to common domestic rubbish. The pictures are incredibly convincing and as viewers we are left with the distinct and somewhat unnerving confirmation of photography’s uncanny ability to show us something that purports to be one thing but is in fact something entirely different. Herbarium provides an appropriate introduction to the book and indeed Fontcuberta’s modus operandi.
What follows is a journey of startling ambition and scope that leads us not only through the career of a photographer, but through a multi-faceted exploration of science. As the title implies, this book is as much concerned with photography as it is with nature. As Fontcuberta’s gaze shifts from subject to subject, his photographic approach changes also. Over the course of the book, we see Fontcuberta make use of the picture essay, the archive and ‘found’ photograph, digital imagery and more primitive methods such as the photogram.
His work pulls into sharp focus the significant role that context plays in the presentation and reception of photographs. For example, it is easy to draw parallels between Sirens and the type of article made famous by magazines such as the prestigious National Geographic. Through the conventions of reportage photography, Fontcuberta weaves a tale of startling discovery where the subject, certain fossilized findings, hint at the very stuff of myth and legend – mermaids and mermen. Despite the rather dubious subject matter, the coupling of pictures and text is very persuasive. The register of the language and the ‘straight’ manner in which the pictures are composed work together to build an overall air of authenticity. It wouldn’t be difficult to concede that someone could be ‘duped’ by such a story. However, as in many of Fontcuberta’s pieces, if one looks a little closer then it’s easy to notice various humorous statements imbedded into the work, hinting at its farcical nature.
Fauna draws upon the archive and found image. In a fictitious account, Fontcuberta details the discovery of a treasure trove of extraordinary species and findings, including field drawings and notes, photographs and even specimens stored in formaldehyde. The fact that these items are apparently ‘found’ affords Fontcuberta a certain distance from the material, the authorship is transferred away and he instead becomes more of a guide – leading us objectively through a myriad of bizarre findings. Through the accompanying text, we learn of the German doctor, Peter Ameisenhaufen, and his incredible encounters with a multitude of intriguing creatures, including a serpent like species with eight legs, a monkey with wings and a two legged fur ball with the head of a tortoise. Do these creatures belong to a hidden link in the evolutionary chain? Looking at the photographs and eyewitness accounts, you could almost be forgiven for thinking so.
A written account detailing various mountain expeditions introduces the next project Orogenesis – the most recent example of Fontcuberta’s work included in the book. The imagery presented in this portion of the book is breathtaking, but attention should be paid to the use of the term imagery as opposed to photography. Here, Fontcuberta makes use of the digital terrain modelling software Terragen. The program interprets data, producing detailed images that mimic natural landscape forms. Interestingly, these ‘landscapes’ seem to adhere to visions of an idealised landscape – beautifully lit scenes that depict epic terrain, void of human presence. They are beautiful and idyllic enough that you almost find yourself wanting to believe them.
The Star-Catcher directs our gaze towards the heavens, or so it would seem. Each full-bleed image depicts the blackness and sporadic, speckled lights associated with pictures of the night sky. Some images seem to show light trails – which we naturally assume to be the result of the long exposure times required to capture the stars. Short captions offer coordinates and classifications for the ‘star systems’ or ‘constellations’ that we are being shown. Of course, these pictures are not showing us space, they aren’t even made using a camera. They are in fact the products of one of the oldest techniques in photography. Fontcuberta made the images by placing photographic sheet film onto the soiled windscreen of his car and shining a light through the glass, exposing it and creating a photogram. The epic constellations depicted are in fact splattered insects and other debris. This project is perhaps most successful in the fact that it exploits or makes apparent, photography’s uncanny ability to show the apparently insignificant, unnoticed or even grotesque, as something different, something quite beautiful.
In what is surely a continuation of the thematic sequencing that really seems to underpin the book, the next project is entitled Sputnik. Here, Fontcuberta creates a fictitious account of a little known Russian space mission, undertaken by a man and a dog. The astronaut, Ivan Istochnikov, is depicted at different stages of his life and career – again in using a number of ‘acquired’ photographs, a certain sense of credibility is created. In addition to these found images, the piece incorporates more examples of the trends associated with contemporary photographic practice, including the staged image, the manipulated image and even, in a sense, the self- portrait – Fontcuberta does indeed appear to be playing the part of Istochnikov.
Many of the photographs are quite reminiscent of cold war propaganda – a proud countryman in full uniform, surrounded by adoring citizens, faces full of admiration. Sputnik seems to operate with acute historical and thematic relevance. The space race has long been the subject of scepticism and even outright disbelief – one need only browse the Internet to find a wealth of conspiracy theories relating to the first moon landings for example.
Looking at the book, it’s difficult not to simply feel impressed by Fontcuberta’s achievements – the breadth of his practice and the inherent complexities, the questions raised and the messages therein. The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography perhaps really comes into its own when viewed by an audience with no prior exposure to, or knowledge of, the man who is Fontcuberta. One isn’t sure what to believe. You could easily forgive someone for taking everything they see as plain fact – in the past; many have reportedly been guilty of this.
To flick through this book is to waste it. In order to fully appreciate the content, one should pore over the photographs and text, affording equal attention to both. Fontcuberta’s work is satirical, multilayered and above all, playful. A wonderful compendium of falsities.
27 March 2014 . Post by João Bento
Words by Ricardo Cases extracted from an email exchange about the project ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’:
“Working on ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’ was an emotional cocktail. Until then all my work had been made in urban areas. It was the first time that I photographed in a natural setting. It was interesting and encouraging to see how the photographs looked in this new environment, the colours were crazy! It was also an exotic experience because I had never been on a hunt and I did not know what the role was of dogs in this game.”
“Maybe this photograph, out of all of them from the project has been the one that has raised the most interest from the people who have viewed it, because it’s hard to determine if there is a problem with the animal or not. The dog looks happy but his face is covered in blood. I always think about this photograph when I question my role in this context.”
“I love my dog Quatre, I spend all day with him. I often take him to work but I don’t consider him a working dog, rather a hedonistic dog! Jokes aside, I think the relationship with dogs changes substantially when you’re with a working dog. This can be understood by their more independent character.”
To see more photographs from ‘La Caza Del Lobo Congelado’ please visit Ricardo Cases’ website on www.ricardocases.es
19 March 2014
Marta Giaccone’s website: martagiaccone.com
01 March 2014 . Post by João Bento
Words by Laura Parker extracted from an email exchange about her work:
– ‘Canyon Suite’ is a single piece of work composed of four separate photographs printed from negatives, all floating on different planes (each photograph is mounted on aluminium and the whole is held together by a hidden substructure). In addition to being photographic, the work is sculptural, as it has physical depth.
– I have been hiking at a place called Eaton Canyon for most of my life, (I love hiking and the local mountains I grew up with; my husband and I actually just recently moved to the canyon’s edge!), so I titled the piece ‘Canyon Suite’, as it is very much about this particular place that has been so important to me; a sort of refuge from the rest of Los Angeles. Also, both a canyon and a knife have an edge, no matter how blunted, and I am indeed interested in the dangers of the everyday.
– The knife reflections was an accidental discovery made during a breakfast I was having outdoors. I saw the oak tree above reflected in my knife and forgot about breakfast! It created an interesting perceptual rift due to the double plane of focus: the knife-on-the-table itself, and the reflection coming from far away.
– A significant amount of my work has originated in and around the use of household objects: from the burners of a stove, to pot bottoms, to all sorts of cast-off domestic materials. I would say I am interested in the dangers (knives, burners, electrical appliances) and subversions of domesticity… (I really resonate with some of Mona Hatoum’s sculptural installations) but I am also interested in having something utterly mundane trigger a transcendent experience.
– I am interested in working with issues of perception and exploring ‘thresholds of visual legibility’. The writer Buzz Spector once wrote that I had “conjured up a kind of photogrammar that encourages viewers to read the process through the image. So everything from my ‘Rubbings’ to ‘Knife Reflections’ (going all the way back to ‘Prime’, 1992) plays with ways that a photograph can become a highly ambiguous object. It’s both about the nature of surface and the push/pull between two and three dimensionality.
– Also, there is an undercurrent of being obsessed with the elements of nature in all of my work. It affords us a more primal reference point that challenges the linearity of language and other human constructs.
Laura Parker lives and works in California. Laura’s career spans more than three decades and her work has been widely exhibited. To see more work made by Laura Parker please visit her website: lauraparker.com