Camera-lessOctober 2, 2013
Locating Technology considers technology and artworks in rather broad terms, such as: mechanical objects, analog and digital photography and video, and computer and web-based work. Through these types of works, writers explore the evolution of technology and its effects on artists’ processes, disciplinarity, and the larger social context of media creation, dispersal, access and interactivity.
Both works explore the narrative and conceptual relationships of their imagery—institutional documentation and amateur snapshots of the sun, respectively—to open up the photographic discipline by positioning the photographer as an editor rather than as the agent behind the camera.
As painting and sculpture have entered the “expanded field,” with artists collapsing traditional disciplinary boundaries, photography has become an increasingly interdisciplinary practice, drawing on performance, painting, and other genres. The discipline has further evolved as photographers have transformed previously peripheral processes within it into significant conceptual strategies and processes. Photographers regularly overshoot to capture different compositions, moods, moments, exposures, and focal lengths. While shooting a photograph may take one-sixtieth of a second, the editing process can be quite lengthy, such that many photographers spend more time editing than shooting. In Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan’s Evidence (1977) and Penelope Umbrico’s Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr (2006–ongoing),1 the artists have taken to ordering and cataloguing appropriated photographs rather than shooting original ones. Both works explore the narrative and conceptual relationships of their imagery—institutional documentation and amateur snapshots of the sun, respectively—to open up the photographic discipline by positioning the photographer as an editor rather than as the agent behind the camera.
For Evidence, Mandel and Sultan combed the archives of large research and governmental organizations, such as Bechtel Corporation, General Atomic Company, Jet Propulsion Laboratories, the San Jose Police Department, and the United States Department of the Interior, to select fifty photographs for the book and exhibition of the same name. Their editorial choices often result in humorous, mysterious, or poetic connections between unrelated events and things. Referencing science and forensics through its title and imagery, Evidence interrogates the supposed empiricism of the photographic medium. Mandel and Sultan’s ordering and placement of the images creates unexpected visual relationships between them, echoing shapes, compositions, or the subject’s gestures (someone pointing toward something or an outstretched hand).
For Suns, Umbrico mined the photo-sharing website Flickr for images tagged with “sunset."2 She then tightly cropped the photos just around the sun and printed a selection of the images the query retrieved on her piece’s installation date, reflected in the title each time the piece is installed.3 In selecting photographs for the piece, Umbrico is more interested in quantity than in each image’s formal or narrative attributes. Given that the search results for Suns vary each time it’s installed, Umbrico generally displays the thousands of small prints in a grid, each overexposed white sun set against a bluish, greenish, blackish, or orange background. With its repeating rectangular prints and slight variations in color, the installation itself starts to resemble a blown-up, pixelated digital photo or a mosaic-like arrangement of tiles.
As a medium based on mechanical reproduction, photography has long lent itself to appropriation. Artists such as Andy Warhol, Robert Heinecken, Richard Prince, and Sherrie Levine have employed photographic techniques, such as photo-silkscreens, photograms, and re-photography, to explore generational reproduction (i.e., making photographs of photographs, which are themselves indexical reproductions of the image’s subject matter). Warhol, Heinecken, Prince, and Levine have appropriated source imagery that is readily recognizable as not being originally authored by the artist—studio portraits of Marilyn Monroe, pages from women’s magazines, Marlboro ads, or Walker Evans’s photography—to highlight the mass reproduction and circulation of such imagery within popular culture.
In contrast, the appropriated photographs in Evidence and Suns possess a generalized familiarity but lack the ubiquitous mass media circulation of, say, Monroe or the Marlboro man. In Evidence, the locations depicted are generally recognizable as laboratory settings, test sites, or crime scenes, even though it’s not always possible to tie them to a particular company, geographic location, or key historic event. Mandel and Sultan have skillfully and deliberately selected “cool” images that lack a sensationalist charge and do not point toward an obvious interpretation.4 Evidence plays within this space of ambiguity, in which recognition of imagery is unsettled by its context, raising more questions than it answers. Unlike in Evidence, the photographs in Suns are generally recognizable as what they are—snapshots of the sun. Umbrico’s tight cropping removes any specificity that they originally possessed, like who shot them, where, and at what time, an erasure that also removes any peripheral narratives or opportunities for ambiguity: the thousands of repetitious images that constitute Umbrico’s installations reduce the sun to a vast field of iconic suns.
Evidence and Suns are conceptually grounded by the sources of their imagery. For Evidence, the imagery’s bureaucratic sources (such as the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Bechtel) are actually more iconic than the individual images of lab-coated men and forensic studies. Mandel and Sultan’s images are representative of the period’s optimistic, and sometime ill-conceived, commitment to science and technology. Umbrico’s images position the work within the era of digital photography and online sharing, with its utopian and dystopian repercussions (the rapid mass dispersal of information versus mass surveillance).
It’s important to underscore that Mandel and Sultan refrained from altering the images in any way, thus maintaining the institutions’ authorship of them. Mandel explains that the photographs, even when displayed for exhibition,
are not turned into something else, they’re not 20 x 24 or 60 x 80. They’re little 8 x 10s and they are not made by us. They [The viewers] can see that the quality of the images, the quality of the artifact, of the surface, changes from one picture to another. All of the pictures were made by the agencies, except for maybe a half-a-dozen of the agencies that gave us the negatives, which we then made prints from.5
Thus, Mandel and Sultan essentially become middlemen in the exchange between institutions and viewers, going so far as to allow the agencies to print most of the images that were hung in order to better maintain their authenticity. The images are presented as artifacts of modern life, as opposed to being fabricated or altered by the artists with the intention of elevating them to the status of art objects or as a means to editorialize on these organizations’ research and investigations.
With Flickr users tagging their own photographs, Umbrico’s initial search results reflect what people consider a “sunset”; this typically includes either an image solely of the sun or one with the sun in the background. To standardize her images, Umbrico tightly crops them around the sun, such that they are nearly or entirely unrecognizable from their originals. While originally shot by photographers anonymous to Umbrico except for their Flickr usernames, Umbrico’s croppings are so distinct that she becomes the new author of the photographs (she does not credit the original photographer by revealing their names). Unlike Mandel and Sultan, Umbrico is unconcerned with the narrative quality of her source images; she eliminates the backgrounds, locations, and people. Rather, her images are like data points that add up to a snapshot of how people photograph the sun and how people disperse and categorize imagery on the internet via sites like Flickr. Umbrico’s editing process produces a piece that achieves its cohesiveness through slight variations.
Evidence and Suns bookend a thirty-year period during which the discipline of photography and its technologies have evolved, redefining each other along the way. While Mandel and Sultan spent two years combing through archives, in addition to the initial time they spent securing access to the images, Umbrico was able to simply turn on her computer to instantly access her source material. Given the ways that governments and corporations currently restrict and monitor access to information, Mandel and Sultan’s project is inconceivable today. In contrast, pervasive technology has made access to information, images, and other individuals more readily available, even if that access has become increasingly monitored. These two works illustrate the ways technology has migrated from high-level agencies and bureaucracies to something individuals use on a daily basis. While Mandel has described the laboratories and research facilities that he and Sultan visited as “places that were building the future,"6 Umbrico’s Suns is located in a virtual place that is tinged with a similar sense of optimism for the future of technology.