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.)
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
- microphen, on April 22nd, 2008 at 12:42 pm Said: first up it’s Anthony Goicolea - http://www.anthonygoicolea.com/. lovely work. clever, intelligent, and perfectly executed. i think he may be represented by one of those top auckland galleries.
having seen both shows i can safely say that grant’s work held absolutely no appeal for me. and one of brian’s worked for me.
it seems to me that there are inherent issues with the digital playground. i remember a show patrick reynolds had at tinakori gallery a few year back where he heavily pixelated his images, and blew them up big. they were nicely abstracted. but after seeing two of them i didn’t need to see any more. i felt the same with brian’s work.
i am yet to see a show where the use of photoshop to abstract images has resulted in a decent show; where the original idea, however good or bad, has been successfully transferred across a number of images required to make a show, while retaining the necessary individual vitality of each image.
yet anthony and steven and yvonne and polixeni papapetrou (australian, at ak photofest last year) and many others have made fascinating works (and shows) using photoshop to build upon an image rather than abstract it to pieces.
as for the question, is it photography? i think it is largely irrelevant these days. gavin hipkins, for example, has lately started using a scanner instead of a camera. as you say the reality is that most imagery will end up digitised at some point, and how the image was sourced/created doesn’t really matter.
unless you’re stuck back somewhere last century insisting on developing your own black and white film and wanting as often as possible to work with handprints.
unless you’re someone like me.
- james, on April 24th, 2008 at 1:48 am Said: http://www.hamishmckaygallery.com
Gavin Hipkins’ exhibition finishes Thursday 24th April. It’s not one for a group visit by the camera club; it is interesting.
Thanks for the info on Anthony Goicolea and the rest of your comment, M/phen.
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- artman, on June 2nd, 2008 at 4:37 am Said: It really is the coolest to watch the really detailed objects. Nise blog!