A Contemporary Photography Gallery, Houston, TX
Geoffrey Koslov

Since it’s earliest days,  photographers have constructed their own visual reality. 1 Photography is not just the capture of the natural or urban environment that surrounds us. At “Paris Photo 2017” a number of contemporary photographers were featured who choose to build their own “reality”, or manipulate an image taken, to express a point of view. Five photographers, of different nationalities, use photography as a artistic tool, rather than an instrument for documentary evidence, to convey a social, environmental or political message:  Juan Manuel Castro Prieto (Spain), Michel Le Belhomme (France), Philippe De Gobert (Belgian), Weronika Gesicka (Poland) and Deborah Oropallo (American). The constructions of images varied from a basic still life, to an assemblage of multiple images, the use of multiple mediums and the literal construction of miniature models that are then photographed.

The Juan Manuel Castro Prieto 2 image “Naturaleza Muerta Redonda (“Round Still Life”), Caspedosa, 2015” causes one to pause and examine whether it is a painting or a photograph. The still life might have been the earliest example of a constructed image. “Photographic still lifes are usually made in a studio setting where artists use precise composition and lighting to render shape, show the surface of objects, establish mood, and draw the viewer’s attention to certain elements. Artists often use natural and manmade objects carefully selected and placed in the scene to serve as symbols or metaphors.” 3

Prieto’s image is from his series “Cespedosa”, 2007-2012, “…the village of his childhood, in which he pays homage to his parents and grandparents who lived their whole lives there.” 4 The image has the qualities and appeal of a 17th century Dutch painting. The image is a very simple setting that comes alive as the light is layered on to the table. The pastel soft colors, and the evidence of water on the the fruit, give the bowl of fruit life.  The lines of water on the table give the setting context and keep the eyes centered. We feel as if we could reach into the image to extract an apple or plum.  This still life is a basic example of construction of a scene by the photographer to create a sense of mood and place.

Image by Juan Manuel Castro Prieto, “Naturaleza Muerta Redonda, Caspedosa, 2015”, image courtesy Galerie Vu’(Paris)

A seemingly simple construction may have a much deeper story and meaning. Michel Le Belhomme, a French photographer, in “Two Labyrinths”, constructs the image, taking inspiration from the work of other artists 5 done in a different medium,  using photography as the tool to make it his own. The Two Labyrinths has the appearance of two rocks, one balanced on the other.  Within this work are multiple images put together to create a fictional reality. A labyrinth is a maze that has passages, in this case visual, that make it confusing and difficult for a person to find his way.  On the surface, one’s first impression is to consider how the image revisits and offers a different way to view a landscape.  “Landscape, the ultimate romantic subject, most often expresses itself from the angle of the contemplative or the breathtaking. Etymologically, a landscape is a layout of traits, characters, and shapes of a limited space. …It’s a portion of space that is represented or observed, subject to a point of view… But it is to be seen firstly as a system, perfect theorem of time and space, of flows and crossings, of borders and intermixing. In this series, I firmly choose to stand ‘in conflict’ with the landscape, as a vision and as a product of space and despite its apparent obviousness I assume it can be put in perspective and thus reinvented.” 6

Le Belhomme’s image is a construction of a construction. It is a reconstruction rearranging the images in a visual arrangement inconsistent with how it would appear in reality. “The title of the body of work, The Two Labyrinths, is taken from a (very) short story by Jorge Luis Borges.The tale compares two types of labyrinths – one complex, full of tricks and devices, and one deceptively simple – and is a tale of hubris. A Babylonian King, of overweening ambition, built the first labyrinth in a bid to create fear and inspire awe. The second labyrinth was the downfall of the Babylonian King, a desert in which he met no obstacles and perished.” 7    The viewer has to reflect carefully as to how each image has been placed.  What appears obvious is not and appreciation grows for the careful construction.

Image by Michel Le Belhomme, ”#109, After Fischli and Weiss, Série les deux labyrinthes [“The Two Labryniths”], 2014-17”, courtesy Galerie Binome (Paris)
The pyramid structure is like a deck of cards.  It is fragile and would presumably collapse in a  strong wind, unlike rocks, yet we are looking at and thinking – rock and weight.  What we see is not consistent with what has been constructed. The physical three dimensional construction is not the object – it is a two dimensional image.  Another psychological ambiguity.  There are clearly two rocks, that appear to balance one on the other, but visually it does not appear that the top rock could possibly remain on top of the other rock. The manner of how the rock images are placed gives a precarious visual imbalance.  The top rock appears to be slipping and falling off, yet it is suspended in air. There is tension and unease in the image and fragility in both the construction and the objects. In this way, Le Belhomme has made the appropriated concept his own construction of a visual “Labyrinth”.

The actual physical construction of an object or space is yet another way that a photographer creates, literally, artistic expression. 8  Unlike Prieto’s traditional still life arrangement of existing physical items, or the approach taken by Le Belhomme with the re-arrangement of images, Philippe De Gobert 9, chose to physically construct a space which he then photographs.  For some artists working in other mediums, such as sculptors, the photograph becomes the art object more than the constructed art piece itself.  The artist constructs a space, place or environment to embed his view, emotion or feeling of that moment using a variety of materials, color and lighting to construct what becomes the photographed image. In many cases, the actual constructed  art object is destroyed, and the photograph is the statement.

Construction of a scene or diorama 10, which is then photographed to create an art object, dates back to the earliest days of photography.  The “Landscape with Bear” (c. 1870) by French photographer Louis-Joseph Deflubé was determined to be such a diorama. This work was discovered by the excellent academic study and detective work of Malcolm Daniel, Curator of the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.  Daniel explained:  “…a handwritten note by his grandson…reveals Deflubé’s landscapes to have been made in his attic: ‘On a board supported mostly by old boxes . . . he built the foreground of dirt and sand which he colored as necessary; massive trees are branches of junipers, pines, or others, the palm trees are the feathers of a feather duster bound together into a bundle, the water of the lakes a mirror placed horizontally, the mountain waterfalls cotton and ice floes baking soda. …’  Once clued in by Deflubé’s grandson, one can easily recognize that the landscape here is a mere diorama, and see past the common assumption that photographs always tell the truth. In the age of Photoshop and computer-generated imagery, one knows to be on guard, but the same skepticism also was warranted 150  years ago.”[erf] Image in the collection of the Museum of FIne Arts, Houston. https://www.mfah.org/art/detail/127026?returnUrl=%2Fart%2Fsearch%3Fculture%3DMalay%257CFrench [/ref]

De Gobert has a foundation in the construction of miniature replicas of rooms and spaces that he then photographs.  In each, De Gobert adds his own secrets. The light reminds one of Mondrian images and lines.  In particular, the light in “NY 9246 Mondrian” coming through the window hits the wall and floor and creates a familiar pattern for both the fabricated interior and exterior giving the image a false sense of reality. On the wall, different sized blank papers of various shades of grey are scattered to imply paintings or works of art on the wall.  There is a fireplace on the right wall which does not really seem to be a fireplace, but whose simple construction clearly brings that to mind.  There are no people in the image, only evidence of people through what is seen on the two table tops .  His modeled scene is a copy of something real, but retains a mystery of what and why this particular space was selected. “ ‘What is really important, he (De Gobert) once commented when talking about his work, is the nature of dreams and the imagination. If art is merely to bear witness to daily life, what is the point?’  Philippe De Gobert creates his “bricolage” in order to transfer his world of dreams and imagination to the viewer or collector…  . ” 11

Image by Philippe De Gobert, “NY 9246 Mondrian, 2016, tirage numérique”, courtesy of Galerie Aline Vidal (Paris)

“Philippe De Gobert’s photographs are neither photos of architecture nor even photos with an ordinary referent (interiors of houses): his photographs are constructed images. The photographer makes no secret of it and willingly consents to describe his approach… he reconstructs, with extraordinary accuracy and precision, the studio as it appeared in photographs or in paintings. He also occasionally reconstructs certain famous scenes… . ” 12  Despite all the effort put into creating this fabricated model, the art object for the viewer is an amazingly engaging photograph printed very large in black and white.

A number of other contemporary photographers were seen at Paris Photo, who like De Gobert, construct a diorama which is then photographed.  Some of those exhibited at Paris Photo were Sandy Skoglund, Thomas Demand, Lori Nix and James Casabere.

Sandy Skoglund, an American, is a painter, sculptor, and photographer.  “The constructions speak to issues she wants to deal with.  These are not decorative constructs.  But thought out to a particular purpose.  Her constructions are stages for performance by the objects and materials she is using…Key is her use of alternative materials in constructing her scenes and making garish nonrealistic creatures ….and unconventional building materials.” 13  From an exhibition of her work at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, the curator comments: “Skoglund hand-sculpted each of the animal forms to create her lavish installations for the camera.  Though the cats, fish, and dogs frozen in motion suggest a singular, captured moment, each photograph is the product of months of work and tedious arrangement.”

Thomas Demand, a German photographer, is well-know for his constructions, which are built , photographed, and then usually destroyed, with the photograph being all that remains. “The reconstructions were meant to be close to, but never perfectly, realistic so that the gap between truth and fiction would always subtly show. … The photographs provoked a double-take after the inevitable first assumption that the scenes might be real. Then, on closer inspection, other issues revealed themselves.” 14   Demand selects sites which remind us of a political or news event that encourages the viewer to recall the event and study the images for clues as to what was there and how to interpret Demand’s thoughts on the setting.

Lori Nix, another American artist,  builds dioramas of scenes she then photographs.  Again, it is the photograph that is the product of her artistic effort.  Lori Nix describes her work : “ In our own work, Kathleen [Gerber] and I are interested in depicting danger and disaster, but temper this with a touch of humor. … The fact that it is an image of a model and not a real place, can make it easier for viewers to place themselves into the scene and imagine what may have led up to this point.”  They deal with issues of mankind’s encroachment on nature, climate change, and what they find “exploring the world through books, magazines, television and the internet.” 15

James Casabere, American, also constructs environments and, as some of the other photographers, he blends the real and the fabricated showing hints to the viewer of the place, time and a message.  As with others, his scenes exclude people.  His images  are of a space, a room, a place, alone and empty.  “His photography, which depicts hand-made miniature models primarily of architectural spaces, falls somewhere in between the realistic and the artificial. Casebere’s often stark constructions tend to tackle social, political, and historical issues, conveying his narratives solely through physical structures.” 16

The photographer Weronika Gęsicka 17, in her series “Traces”, builds an image by layering in other images or deconstructing the image.  In Image “16” – we see what looks like a 1950’s style “Leave it to Beaver” environment with the father-figure, very cleanly and properly dressed, mowing the ubiquitous grass of the American suburbs. It is reminiscent of the Monkey’s (a music group of the 1970’s)  song “Pleasant Valley Sunday.”

“They serenade the weekend squire

Who just came out to mow his lawn

Another pleasant valley Sunday

Charcoal burning everywhere

Rows of houses that are all the same

And no one seems to care…” 18  

Weronika Gęsicka, Untitled #16, from the series Traces, 2015-2017, Copyright Weronika Gęsicka, Courtesy of InCamera Galerie (Paris)

Like other images in this series, Gęsicka is showing us an imperfect memory. It is a digital reconstruction, of what we might remember or think we remember of a past time.  Some might view it as an idyllic period, but depending on your ethnic identity or where you live or your own life experience, you might pause to examine this image more closely. Indeed, this seems to be what Gęsicka intended the viewer to appreciate: “ The project is based on vintage photographs purchased from an image bank,’ Gęsicka explains. ‘Most of these photos came from American archives from the 1950s and 1960s”. 19  On closer examination, we see the smiling face, presumably the man mowing the yard, disembodied, in the left center window, getting ready, perhaps, for a late afternoon cocktail. He is a suburban white male, middle aged and presumably middle-income, with the ideal middle management job.  At the same time, we see in the upper right side window the top of his perfectly combed head of hair.  He does not seem to be a laborer or craftsman working with his hands day-to-day. The lower right window focuses our attention on the blue sweater-shirt he is wearing that may have just come back from the cleaners, with none of the sweat or stain evident one might expect from mowing the lawn in the mid-day sun.

Deborah Oropallo’s compelling images are a construction of photographs and other media. The construction of the image here helps Oropallo convey her message on societal roles.  Rather than a literal image taken from activity on the street of a documentary nature, she constructs an image that conveys her point of view as a writer might in an article or a book.   “Although originally trained in painting, Oropallo’s practice incorporates mixed media including photomontage, computer editing, print technique and paint. …” 20   An article in LensCulture commented on “Guise”, another similar series of Oropallo’s work:  “ In ‘GUISE’, Oropallo further explores the concept by layering the images of men from 17th and 18th century portrait paintings. Painted portraits did not simply document the likeness of the sitter but were often contrived to convey a sense of his  importance and authority. Nobility and dignity were attributes portrayed through stance, gesture, and attire, and portraits often involved costume and props. Soldiers wore elaborate uniforms and weaponry to show their bravery and stature; noblemen donned luxurious articles of clothing; and scholars and politicians stood with books at hand attesting to their knowledge. … The print George features George Washington as a uniformed soldier on the battlefield, over which is layered a woman in a provocative sailor outfit also standing with an arm akimbo. In all the prints, the vast symbolism of classic portraiture is employed, raising issues about gender, costume, fantasy, potency, power, and hierarchy. The artist asks, “Does the popularity of fetish fashion stem from the fact that it makes women appear strong and very powerful?” 21      In the image “Potus”, on the mid upper right we see blond hair that reminds us of President Trump. On Washington’s left shoulder we see what looks to be neatly combed black hair that we might be told is the North Korean leader – Kim Jong-un.  Washington’s shirt reveals female breasts. The body is faceless, but not headless and positioned in a noble Napoleonic stance.  Seeing the work in person one notices layers of paper used, the paint and varnish. The viewer can stare at this image and find many hints of Oropallo’s visual commentary.  It is a case where the image may indeed speak louder than words.

Image by Deborah Oropallo, POTUS, 2017, photomontage, paint, paper and canvas. Private Collection. Used with permission of Catherine Clark Gallery (San Francisco)

Discovering “constructed” photographs at Paris Photo 2017 became one point of focus for what is happening in contemporary photography today.  Wandering the many exhibitions and galleries, this technique was evident.  The art of construction linked these photographers who clearly had made unique images.  While all these work communicate very different messages, the visual diversity was intoxicating.  The viewer comes to appreciate this dimension of the photographic arts.  The attraction to an image does not need to be anchored in the reality and accuracy of the photograph.  A “literal”, documentary, image can convey a valuable statement about a situation.  A “straight” un-manipulated image can capture a photographer’s view of the natural or urban environment that surrounds us. However, these “constructed” photographs add a very broad spectrum of what can be done with photography as both a means of expression as well as an art form.  The variety of these images envelop us, the viewers, in an amazing and wonderful frictional visual realm in which to wander.

Notes:

  1. See an excellent text on how images have been reconstructed in “Faking It: Manipulated Photography before Photoshop” by Mia Fineman, Metropolitan Museum of Art (2012).
  2. https://www.castroprieto.com/cespedosa
  3. See an earlier Foto Relevance Commentary on Still Life Photography: “New Visions-Part 1: Still Life Photography”, by Geoffrey C. Koslov (May 22, 2016). https://fotorelevance.com/new-visions-part-1-still-life-photography/
  4. http://www.galerievu.com/series.php?id_photographe=12
  5. “ ‘Rock on Top of Another Rock’ is a sculpture by the artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss which was exhibited outside the Serpentine Gallery in Kensington Gardens in 2013. It consists of one large rock balanced on top of another large rock. An earlier incarnation of the work was a similar sculpture on the plateau of Valdresflya which was one of the artworks installed on each of Norway’s eighteen scenic highways.” https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Rock_on_Top_of_Another_Rock
  6. Michel Le Belhomme: The Two Labyrinths14th January 2017, 920 http://photogrvphy.com/michel-le-belhomme-the-two-labyrinths/
  7. Siun Hanrahan, Source magazine #84, Winter 2015 – www.source.ie
  8. See a prior Foto Relevance Commentary on sculpture in photography seen at the 2016 Paris Photo. https://fotorelevance.com/paris-photo-trends-photography/
  9. http://www.philippedegobert.be/photography
  10. A partial definition of a diorama – a scenic representation in which sculptured figures and lifelike details are displayed usually in miniature so as to blend indistinguishably with a realistic painted background https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/diorama
  11. A commentary by Michel Baudson, “An Interior Logic”, http://www.philippedegobert.be/texts/an-interior-logique-en
  12. An article on Philippe De Gobert by J.M. Huitorel. http://www.philippedegobert.be/texts/jmhuitorel-les-lieux-dune-ruse-en
  13. From Introductory essay by Judith Van Baron for the exhibition of “Shimmering Madness” at  the Bergen Hall Gallery, Savannah College of Art and Design, January 20-March17, 2001, Savannah College of Art and Design & Judith Van Baron, PHD.
  14. http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/04/arts/design/painterly-photographs-of-a-slyly-handmade-reality.html A commentary by Michael Kimmelman on a MOMA exhibition of Thomas Demand’s work in 2005.
  15. http://www.lorinix.net/q-a/
  16. Lauren E. Goff, contributing writer to the The Harvard Crimson (October 16, 2012)
    http://www.thecrimson.com/article/2012/10/16/james_casebere_portrait/?utm_source=thecrimson&utm_medium=web_primary&utm_campaign=recommend_sidebar
  17. http://weronikagesicka.com/en/start-1/
  18. Songwriters: Carole King, Gerald Wexler, Gerry Goffin, Jerry Wexler. Sony ATV Music Publishing LLC.
  19. Several other images form the artist’s series can be seen here as well as on the artist’s own website. https://www.theguardian.com/artanddesign/gallery/2017/jan/23/unhappy-families-weronika-gesicka-in-pictures
  20. https://cclarkgallery.com/artists/bios/deborah-oropallo
  21. https://www.lensculture.com/articles/deborah-oropallo-guise in part attributed to Anna Lucas, Achenbach Graphic Arts Council Curator 2006-2007
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