Digital art slash photography - originally published on PhotographyMatters.com, April 2008.
In 1998, ten years ago to the month, I purchased an off-the-shelf computer and Photoshop 4.0. Prior to that, if you wanted to do anything much with digital photography it was an expensive exercise, more the realm of professionals. Also at that time, for around a grand you could buy an amateur digital camera with about a megapixel of image resolution; useful for postcard-size prints. So let’s call this the tenth anniversary of digital photography for the masses.
Surprising, then, how relatively little serious art has been made using digital cameras and Photoshop in the last ten years. I’m talking about going beyond what was possible pre-digital; sure, anyone can take a picture and muck around with the various filters, a thing we’ve all done for fun. (The pre-digital equivalent was Cokin effects filters, something real photographers would never resort to.) But how often have you seen really interesting photography that utilises the possibility and control these now ubiquitous tools offer? I recall one show at the Sarjeant Gallery, Wanganui, by Anthony Goicolea (thanks Microphen). He photographed himself to create casts of dozens in metres-long tableaux, to great effect.
At Photospace gallery, I have shown Siren Deluxe’s A Gender series; male and female nudes skilfully blended into hermaphrodites, photographed in domestic interiors; also Yvonne Westra’s Staged; black & white pigment prints of multiple photographs crafted into surrealistic, dreamlike scenarios. Steven McNichol’s Joel-Peter Witkin-inspired horrors used Photoshop to blend layers of man and beast, extending the subtlety and possibilities of his already considerable darkroom technique.
Two exhibitions in Wellington, one by Grant Sheehan at Bowen Galleries and the other by Brian Fernandes at Thistle Hall Gallery, feature works that began their lives as photographs of things or people and ended up as something quite different. In viewing both of these exhibitions, I asked myself the same question: why even start out with a photograph?
In Grant Sheehan’s case, it seems natural. We know his photographs from numerous published books, most of which explore and record architecture and the urban landscape. Think cafés of NZ and the world, Wellington by evening light, historic lighthouses, etc. (And he has just won Cathay Pacific Travel Photographer of the Year – congratulations Grant.) So, after several decades of straight photography, I applaud him for moving out of his comfort zone and creating something completely different and unexpected. The digital images, printed to a medium size on metallic photo paper and pinned to the gallery wall, look like a trip back into 70s psychedelia. I can imagine Sheehan spending long hours glued to his computer with Hendrix, Cream and The Doors coming off vinyl at high volume for inspiration. I’m sure that if you spend the time looking into these artworks you’ll see all kinds of stuff, (like in the Camel cigarette packet illustration) but they’re not for me, personally.
While Sheehan used Photoshop’s facility for building and blending multiple image layers, Canadian artist Brian Fernandes used a computer algorithm of his own design. His digital artworks have titles like Thinking Man and Man and woman reclining; and one wonders how the images, which look like glowing spheres hovering in deep, black space, were ever human figures. Someone asked me, ‘What is it, a close-up of a nipple?’
In fact, the various coloured pixels that once formed a completely coherent image of a nude man, woman or couple photographed against a black background, were systematically rearranged according to the artist’s mathematical formula, number-crunched into something else entirely; the said floating sphere-like form. And they are beautiful things. After seeing the works at Thistle Hall, I asked Brian if he’d like to show them at Photospace for a while, so the four large pieces are now hanging in the studio lounge area. Come and have a gander, see what you think. (Brian’s statement about his process, I posted here.)
You’re waiting for me to ask this question, yes: is it photography? Well, I’m not asking it. (No, I just did, didn’t I.) What I mean is I’m not that interested in the answer. Does it matter what they are? Does it matter whether the viewer can visually perceive the photographic origin of the images? Do we need to categorise? I guess that if there wasn’t a photograph in there somewhere, then I wouldn’t be blogging about the things. You can create your own pixels in a few keystrokes, but you need some variation, some texture or line or shape to get a hold of before you can really start to play about. You need some origin. A photograph of something—anything—is an easy place to start from. You don’t even need to take your own. Brian Fernandes looks to have gone to some trouble to take his nudes, thus gaining true ownership of the images and their titles, but he could’ve just as easily started from a downloaded snap of Paris Hilton. What Grant Sheehan’s images started off as, only he knows. A café? A lighthouse?
I’m still figuring this out, thinking as I write, (you can tell?), and I guess I’m neutral here. Every image we see is manipulated to some degree; by the mind and attitude of its author, editor, or the political stance of the publication or context in which it appears; and particularly these days because, at some stage before we see it, it’ll be a bunch of pixels on some person’s computer screen. So why not go the full monty and take that manipulation to the nth degree, make something that is unrecognisable as its original form? OK, so it’s not photography. So what?
Sorry it’s been a while since my last rant. I was busy getting married and stuff.
by james | 21 April, 2008
Photography Matters II