Hillary Holsonback, Beach Camp #1, 2015.
Ink jet on fabric Edition 1/3 38x 60 inches.
From February 20 through April 2 Dallas’ Erin Cluley Gallery is mounting Not Photography, a group show that brings together six photographers who have responded in unique ways to the changes technology has wrought on their medium in recent years. The show is organized by Erin Cluley and features work by Kevin Todora (the impetus for the show), Chivas Clem, Adrian Fernandez, Emily Peacock, Hillary Holsonback, and Jason Willaford. In conjunction with the show, the gallery is producing a catalogue with an essay by curator/writer Danielle Avram, a brief excerpt of which is below:
The six artists in NOT PHOTOGRAPHY represent just a fraction of what is being done with the medium at this particular point in time, but all are indicative of the experimental fervor that currently governs the field. While experimentation has long been the beating heart of photography, it has rarely been so visually transparent or dominant. Sure, there will always be the flak-jacket wearing brethren who pray to the Zone System gods and painstakingly spot-touch silver gelatin prints (and who among us doesn’t love a well-executed ode to Group f/64?), but the power they wield has been sapped by the Pandora’s box digital technology and social media have unleashed over the land. The dispassionate representationalism that dictated much of the popular photographic imagery of the latter 20th century and early years of the 21st has given way to a new style that is buoyant, malleable, and self-reflexively reflexive. Making an image is no longer about demonstrating the technical prowess with which a camera can depict life or larger-than-life, or creating a fine objet d’art. It is about acknowledging the surrealism of living a life in front of the lens and the absurdly microscopic degree to which we can build, break, re-build, and re-break visual language. Perhaps one reason contemporary photography seems so oddly unique is that contemporary life is so superficially bizarre.
We spoke with Avram in advance of the show about how photographers are exploring and exploiting technological developments as well as our relationship with imagery to forge a new photographic language in their work.
You reference Charlotte Cotton’s Photography is Magic at the beginning of your essay included in the Not Photography catalog. Tell us why it’s more appropriate now than ever before to situate photography in the realm of magic?
In her essay, Cotton compares contemporary photographers to stage magicians because they both have a bevy of technical apparatus at their disposals with which to create the allusion of magic. I cannot say that it’s more appropriate now than ever before to situate photography in the realm of the otherworldly, but rather I can say that it is important for us to acknowledge the degree to which viewers implicate themselves in wanting a photograph to be a transcendent object or experience. We know that magic shows are smoke-and-mirrors, yet we allow ourselves to be vulnerable because it feels good (even if for a split second of “Ahhhh!”) to believe that magic actually exists. We project this desire for momentary bliss onto a photograph.
I like your characterization of our image overloaded online culture as the “Internet image morass.” That morass is almost single-handedly responsible for desensitizing viewers to the image, and encouraging a kind of “seeing without seeing” prevalent in the 21st century. How are artists responding and reacting to what seems to be the odd paradox of being obsessed with the image at the same time as we’re immune to its power?
What we’re seeing is an embrace of the surrealism of contemporary image culture. I don’t believe we’re immune to the power of the image—in fact I think we are possibly more susceptible than ever before. It’s just that the combination of the glut, technological advancement, and access to both has put us in a position where we know we’re being played, and we relish it. Temporality and propagation have rendered images both powerful and powerless. Some artists are leaning into this by pushing the trompe l’oeil, the uncanny, the absurd, and the obviousness of the machine or hand. Others have opted for complete image negation and focused on the inherent photographic mechanics of abstraction (i.e. light and shadows, chemical reactions, colors).
History, and an engagement with the history of any medium seem natural places to end up when a point is reached in the history of a medium’s evolution that it seems to verge on irrelevance; we begin to look backwards for answers concerning how to move forward. How are artists reaching into history, both personal and social, to develop a new photographic language?
This type of work has been done for a long time. Some of the earliest photography practitioners used the medium in a personal or commentary fashion. So from that perspective, contemporary artists aren’t really functioning any differently. However, all of the things we’ve previously discussed—technology, the image glut, pre-existing notions/desires about photographs—give today’s artists a much broader arena in which to play with visual language. The result is work that is less concerned with representation (the “traditional” way in which we think of an image) and more about the layering of ideas and the confounding of, or succumbing to, expectations.
Commercialism also goes hand in hand with the “image morass,” it’s responsible for, and the subject of, much photography, both professional and amateur. How are photographers incorporating insights or commentary on the ubiquity of commercial products or overly commercial processes of photo making into their work?
What’s really cool about the intersection of art and commercial photography at this point in time is that because it has been an oft-explored subject, and because photography is well established in both areas, contemporary artists need not address or explain why they choose to blend the two. Shaking this off opens the images up to richer conversations. I would say that unless someone is specifically discussing commercial imagery and consumerism, we are free to look through the “art” or “commercial” façade. For example, Kevin Todora uses commercial aesthetics and printing processes, but he isn’t concerned with proving why they are placed in an artistic context. The work is far more multi-faceted and personal, and the actualities function more like tools.