Joan Fontcuberta – The Fictional and the Fantastic
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.