Susan Fereday & Stuart Koop
|Ipso Photo is a photography
exhibition without photographs; instead it is of or
derived through photography (ipso - by, through). It
considers the enduring influence of photography on
non-photographic artforms. In particular, it aims to
locate some recent installation and sculptural work in
relation to current debates about photography.
A burgeoning dialogue is currently occurring between photographic representation and non-photographic artforms, such that traditional definitions of photography as material print no longer seem adequate to account for its widescale influence within the visual arts. There seems to be a preoccupation with the procedures of photography quite apart from the final image. Photographic historian and theorist Geoffrey Batchen has identified this tendency as part of a post photographic scenario in which the boundary between photography and other media like painting, sculpture and performance has become increasingly porous. Batchen argues that each medium has absorbed the other, leaving all irreparably changed. 1This inevitably leads to the confusion of distinctions and definitions of media, and subsequently, to a more general definition of photography which supports its recent, wide-ranging applications.
For example, conceptual and spatial relations in recent installation work are often shifted through photographic characteristics such as single point perspective, differential focus, colour casts and ambiguities of scale. This is true of recent work by the artists in Ipso Photo and many others besides. Increasingly, the current influence of photography within installation practice can be identified beyond the photograph per se that is, beyond the mere two dimensions of flat representation and in the configuration of gallery space according to the model and characteristics of photography. Chris Fortescue remarks of his recent installations that photography provides a framework through which all of the relationships in the work, and between the work and the audience, are articulated. And Margaret Roberts describes her installations as if set up by or through a camera. What definition of photography is sufficient to these descriptions and practices?
Philip Watkins, untitled, 1994
|There can be no denying the enormous impact of the
camera upon the general perception and representation of
the world in art, science and everyday life. The camera
has inscribed divergent phenomenon within a system of
monocular perspective; bringing objects and events into
an ideal representational space, which enables them to be
identified and classified according to their rationalised
appearance. Certainly, this influence has been constant
within Western art since the Renaissance and has
predetermined our fundamental perception of space.
The development of perspective was predicated on a fundamental epistemological shift, from a knowledge of objects - their character and detail, their texture and structure - to an understanding of how they were seen or how they appeared. In other words, perspective introduced criteria for the proper and correct representation of objects regardless of the intimate knowledge we have of them. As Moshe Barasch suggests, Renaissance representation primarily concerned the shapes bodies assume when they are seen. 2 (Though a cube has six faces, only three at the most could be drawn in perspective.)
One of the principal aids in attaining this formal correctness in representation was of course the camera obscura, the filmless precursor to the modern camera. The history of the camera obscura prior to the invention of photography in 1839 is often referred to as the prehistory of photography. But the practice of photography after 1839 cannot be entirely dissociated from its derivation through the use of the camera obscura in painting and sculpture since the Renaissance. In short, that a word was coined in the mid nineteenth-century to describe one particular use of a camera does not divest the subsequent practice of photography of its origins in the history of perspective. The camera, like the camera obscura before it, remains predisposed to formal correctness; to the shapes bodies assume when they are seen.
The development of photography was not therefore a rupture or clean break in the history of art, nor the invention of a new medium, but simply a threshold in the long and enduring history of perspectival representation. In fact, photography simply consolidated the objectivity of perspective as a representational system. It dissociated the system of perspective embodied in the camera obscura from its human requisite and proved the universal operation of perspective independent of human intervention and action; as if the laws of vision were universally operative beyond the body.
Furthermore, the development of mechanical means of recording an image - in conditions analogous to those of human vision but in the absence of a percipient - paradoxically signalled the redundancy of human agency in photographic representation. Photography suggested a relationship between perceived and percipient as a matter of optics. Thus photography replaced the subjective dimension of perception and representation with a rationalised approximation of appearances according to the laws of perspective and photo-chemistry; an indexical image which stood in for direct visual experience.
Chris Fortesque, untitled, 1994
Margaret Roberts, untitled, 1994
|Victor Burgin has isolated the form of
subjectivity which the [camera] constructs
through its single unique point of view. He
says: 'The perspectival system of representation
represents, before all else, a look' 3 Similarly photography
represents, before everything and after all, a way of
looking which - despite its mechanical separation from
human agency - constantly refers back to a subject or
viewer. The viewfinder, like the photograph, presumes a
human optic. These persistent references to a subjective
locus ultimately haunt the supposed objectivity of
photographic representation and signal the diverse
experiences and interpretations which constitute any
so-called single point of view.
The reduction of heterogeneous experiences to one mythical vantage point is also a function of the instantaneity of photography. Yet if we were to slow, or separate, the constitutive moments in the photographic process, the true subjective dimension of visual experience would be returned to complicate the claims to objectivity of photographic representations. The photographic image would appear not as a thing in itself, but as the end product of a particular way of seeing which effaces the elaborate procedures which constitute it. Each of the works in Ipso Photo slow down and enlarge the multi-faceted minutiae of the photographic process; they give it a duration in which the moment between object and image is idle and exposed to the speculation and scrutiny of the viewer. And this is precisely the strategy in excluding photographs from the exhibition; to examine more closely what occurs in that split second of representation without recourse to an image.
As representation, the photograph is manipulated, framed and constructed at every stage of its production. The camera, for example, has one optic not two, it reduces a perception in three dimensions to a representation in only two, it renders the peripheries of human vision clear and focused and it clearly limits or frames what is viewed. Ipso Photo points to this breach between human perception and representation in and through the model of photography.
|The work of Margaret Roberts is predicated on these
differences. Her iron oxide wall and floor drawings are
first proposed in two dimensions; as if, she says, the
gallery space is a flat abstract pattern over which
the additional pattern has been drawn. This is most
obvious when looking at the photographic documentation of
her installations in which the function of single-point
perspective makes perfect symmetrical sense of the
drawings relation to the gallery architecture. In direct
encounter, however, this point of view is simply one
point along the viewers physical sojourn through
the gallery. And even upon reaching that single point of
the works geometrical resolution, two eyes hamper
the full effect. It is truly up to the monocular lens of
the camera to manifest the overall design, all at once
and in even focus, rendering the drawing in a fixed,
Roberts describes this difference as a matter of the body which make[s] the distinction between three dimensional space and installed drawing (2D), whereas the camera has nothing at stake in blurring or equating these distinctions. The body haunts the pretensions of the eye to resolve these 2D designs across three dimensions; the camera, of course, remains a disembodied eye. In traversing the installation, the physical disposition of the body confronts the contrary appearance of things, rattling the invisible cage of perspective which is suggested everywhere around us by the geometry of the drawing.
More recently in Roberts drawings there is more than one privileged point of view. The viewer finds an evenly-paced, formal respite from the ambiguity of form and the approximate efforts of vision to make sense of the inscribed geometry. As one commentator remarked of this later work, the effect is cinematic, or rather it would be if our bodies were properly calibrated and synchronised to the scopic field of the camera. But they are not, and this is the point it seems of Roberts work: to confound the hallowed logic of sight and the representation of space with the bodys own rhythms and sways.
Marie Sierra-Huges, untitled, 1994
|In Marie Sierra-Hughes sculpture, the operative
principles of the camera provide a model for delineating
the interior and exterior of the gallery. In fact, the
gallery is reconfigured as the interior space of a giant
camera obscura (or eye). A large steel aperture is
fastened to the front window bay of the gallery
suggesting a lens through which a vista of the outlying
urban landscape is introduced to the gallery, focused and
distilled into a single text - horizon. The
word is spelt out in perforations across a pressed metal
form. The word also appears inverted - and smaller - in a
series of perforations across the wall opposite the
window. And again on the reverse side of this wall. Thus
the exterior landscape is reduced to a nominal (textual)
form which is otherwise transformed, inverted, scaled
down and copied in a simulation of standard photographic
The work enacts an apt parody of a photography gallery which converts the outlying world into a succession of images for exhibition. Insofar as this metaphorical space is also lifesize (and not eyesize), the viewer becomes physically implicated (entangled) in the perspective lines drawn from outlying objects and events to their textual referent on the gallery walls. Far from empty, the gallery is replete with the potential inscription of all that lies beyond the pane. It is as if the viewer is inside the camera, displaced on the dark side of the ground glass screen; traversing the plane of the simulacra, anticipating the precession of effect.
Counterpart to Sierra-Hughes monstrous optic is Philip Watkins oversize reconstruction of the single lens reflex action of many modern cameras. A series of reflective panels transfer the mute action of Johnston Street onto a paper screen. Both passing cars and stationary buildings surrender their precise forms to the even dissipation of light across the pearled surface of the mirrors and screen. As if in Platos cave, we witness the world outside as a series of beguiling shadows and lights. And as we move before the screen the scene changes in a flux of light.
In his previous paintings, Watkins focused on a particular moment of looking ... where painted shadow and light coincide with actual shadow and light, that is, where the fiction of representation ends and the fact of the surface or the support begins. In his installation this ambiguity is transferred to real time and real space. The abstracted representation of the street confronts its origins over roughly the same time and place. In fact, it is the slight dislocation of the outlying scene which makes all the difference to its simultaneous appearance on the screen. That split second of reflection (the speed of a shutter) is capable of such gross distortions that the simultaneity of photography is overwhelmed by its ulterior potential to radically transform appearances. Resemblance breaks down, as it ultimately does in even the best tromp loeil, to reveal the artifice of representation. After all, it is only the shere speed of light which sustains the verisimilitude of photography.
|In Chris Fortescues work the wall and floor are
demarcated according to standard interior hues; a sky
blue wall and a salmon carpet. An illdefined blob on the
wall corresponds to a deep blue velour cushion sitting on
the carpet; they are positioned within their respective
fields of colour according to the same co-ordinates. Like
a box camera, the two fields appear to replicate each
other; one reflecting the other across 45 degrees. Yet
the evident mutation of form and colour suggests, once
again, the transformative potential between these
quasi-photographic planes. Another reference is perhaps
made to the social space of photogaphys reception.
Its as if the debate about photographic
representation - the critique of its objectivity and
accuracy - had leaked out of the image and seeped into
quotidian forms, such that the domestic environment of
the photograph is suffused with the formal and
symmetrical relations which produce the image. Fortescue
describes these tableaus as setting up a
paradox between sensation and
representation. Effectively, Fortescues
work operates in the reverse direction from the other
work in Ipso Photo; from everyday space back to
representational space. And so the contrast between these
two kinds of space is experienced in a different
register, not so much in the illfit of rigid and imposed
photographic geometries, but in a resounding domestic
oddity or weirdness. The body is caught between its sense
of homely abandon and formal occasion; precisely between
repose and pose.
These four works participate in an ongoing critique of photography. They question the objective brokerage between photography and the world by highlighting the differences between photographic and lived space, between the appearance of things to the camera - their photographic representation - and their direct, lived experience. They also move beyond a mechanical conception of photographic space to suggest the kinaesthetic and conceptual experiences that are inevitably effaced in the split second of photographic mediation.
The emergence of this kind of work at a time when photography is shifting from analogue to digital means, reinforces a transformation in our understanding of representation which attends the new digitised image without trace. Where the analogue photograph is intrinsically bound to the real by its verisimilitude and indexical origins, the digital image arrives without these claims; its link to the real is (at best) insubstantial and (most frequently) remote. In its objective correlation with viewers experience, analogue representation now appears naive and insufficient. Certainly, the works in this exhibition are testament to the fading influence of this kind of photography. In each case, photographic representation is invoked and at the same time displaced by subjective experiences in real time.
Susan Fereday and Stuart Koop