Experimental Photography

A new exhibition opens in New York at the International Center of Photography that interrogates what it means to work in analogue and digital photography today.

Over the past decade photographers have witnessed unprecedented changes in their medium. The growth and domination of digital media has transformed the long-held presumptions and practices of analogue methods. It is commonplace to assume that film photography is a dying beast, and certainly economic concerns in commercial work have led to its analogue roots being almost obliterated altogether. However, beneath this threat of extinction is a renewed passion and enthusiasm for film and also (more surprisingly) a conversation and collaboration between analogue and digital that leads to exciting new avenues for the art form today.

This month, What Is a Photograph? showing at the International Center of Photography, New York, joins the debate, pitting pre- and post-digital artistic manipulation and experimentation beside each other, and exploring, not just the unprecedented dialogue between the two, but the long tradition and historical context of playing with photography. Curated by Carol Squiers, the exhibition’s very title immediately sets up an interrogation of the form and highlights to audiences that there is much more beyond traditional practice. This isn’t an exploration of composition and framing, but rather an exposé of the very processes of the production of photography itself, and the myriad methods for creating such a diverse range of final products.

The perpetual technological progress of digital and its huge impact on the landscape as a whole compelled Squiers to investigate how the new development was inspiring already established analogue photographers and the manner in which it was “interacting with the many other processes and methods that are pouring into photography use.” She explains: “I was not searching for whether artists were creating cell phone pictures or things like that, I was looking for artists who had been working for a period of time, doing certain kinds of photography, such as analogue or photograms, and what kind of experimentation this new form was inspiring.” The exhibition surveys historical narratives through investigations into artists like Lucas Samaras and Gerhard Richter “who were manipulating the photograph before digital […] and I started wondering what that tradition looked like over time.”

Since the introduction of digital photography and the suggestion “that digital media was going to make analogue obsolete,” artists have been encouraged to engage with analogue as a way of preserving its unique qualities. Squiers highlights how the threat of digital “seemed to open up a number of possibilities to artists.” Instead of rejecting it as dated, “people started using it in even more energetic and imaginative ways, drawing digital media into their analogue practice using quite complicated methods, and going back and forth between the processes to achieve imaginative, creative solutions to the problems that they were interested in uncovering.” Squiers continues: “This is an ongoing state of affairs and I find it fascinating to discover how with each new iteration that artists come up with, they’re confronting the different media and working with them.”

While the discussion of digital and its impact on the trajectory has been a hot topic for institutions around the world in recent years, with work from Lucas Samaras, Adam Fuss and Floris Neusüss dating back to the 1970s, What Is a Photograph?  certainly takes the long view of photographic experimentation. It is this historical context that makes the show stand out, and provides an important addition to the ongoing debate over the place of digital and analogue photography in contemporary art. “It shows important processes of experimentation and many different kinds have been carried out over the years.” By way of example Squiers references the manner in which James Welling, “who uses both film and digital, but who trained in the analogue tradition and played a very conservative role in it,” diverted towards “studies of how we see and incorporated that into his photographs, which are not just photographs about how we see, but are amazing photographs about what you can do when you intervene at some point in the photographic process.” It is this intervention, conversation and experimentation that creates a coherent theme through the exhibition and encourages a new discourse around the many themes; however, Squiers also mentions a specific interest: “The way the avant-garde tradition within modernist photography was coming up against digital and the new thinking that would develop from it.” So while the exhibition acknowledges a long history of photography, it also highlights a new dawn for the concept of the art form, and its unrealised artistic potential to engage with new debates about ways of presenting and seeing the world.

What Is a Photograph?  seeks to “really showcase the way in which this [debate] has been, at first incrementally, and then with more energy, appearing in the discourse of contemporary art” through the work of 21 emerging and established artists who have reconsidered and reinvented all the elements of the art form. Squiers considered the ideas for the show for some time, and the final selection process was fairly organic: “I travel around, visit exhibitions and go to art fairs; I’m always searching for anyone who might be interesting and for work that I haven’t seen before.” With pieces from greats such as Gerhard Richter, James Welling and Lucas Samaras, alongside emerging talents like Matthew Brandt (named one of “tomorrow’s brightest stars” by Forbes ) and Mariah Robertson, there is an eclectic range of work that questions what it means to be a photographer, and, frequently, the dialogue between different artists. Of the exhibition’s more surprising elements, Sigmar Polke’s experiments in black and white photography immerse the viewer in a new side of the lauded painter’s art, and ignite a conversation with the creative people around him. Polke’s photographic works “have been very important to a number of painters” and through these conversations “the art community seems to grow and become more and more vibrant [so that] all of this work has really encouraged a much broader aspiration of what a photograph is, and more importantly, what it can be.”

Overall, the exploration of the lesser-known photographic oeuvre of Sigmar Polke, whose varied trials of developing and printing photographs through an interaction with drawing and painting in the finished images, represents a different side to the renowned painter. It’s these unexpected presentations, which gives the exhibition its edge. Squiers describes the works as a sort of retribution for photography: “Photography has gone through many battles to get itself recognised as a real art form. And while those struggles were particularly hot in the United States in the 1970s and 1980s, Polke, Richter and Samaras were doing things with photography that were really interesting but were seen as secondary to their painting practice, which was considered their real art. It was the basic ideology of the time and it has taken a long while for people to represent their photographic output.” What Is a Photograph?  not only recognises Polke’s significant ongoing contribution to the world of photography but it also gives the opportunity to “put the endeavours of younger contemporary artists in the context of his work.”

In contrast, the other big name artist, Gerhard Richter, shows an engagement with the form in a different vein, and one which Squiers acknowledges as secondary to his painting. The photographs onto which Richter paints are not made to appreciate in isolation or “to sell as art”, but form “an important part of his work, and it’s important to the tradition of photography. It’s about contextualising the older, pre-digital pieces, with newer images and recent photographs where people decide to work in older processes.”

Meanwhile, works from James Welling explore not only the modes and methods of representation, but also the very manner in which we see things when viewing an image. Welling is aligned with post-modernism and “with reinterpreting the code of the photograph, sharing the opinion that all images have already been made and just need to be re-framed and put in a new conceptual context,” but Squiers adds: “He was always very interested in photography itself and how he could bring avant-garde modernist art into his practice. He wanted those ideas but he also wanted to explore further.” Welling’s Glass House  series (2006-2009), which shows fractured elements of glass being seen through different pieces and filters, makes it clear how the human eye can be manipulated into seeing different shapes and elements through varied mediums, so that “the glass house becomes a kind of lens in itself that he breaks up and modifies using various filters.”

The work of Lucas Samaras, who studied with Allan Kaprow and who early in his career was associated with Fluxus’ Happenings, further illustrates photography’s position as central to the world of contemporary art and debate. Samaras’ use of Polaroids opened up new opportunities to confuse the roles of artist and audience: “When he got the Polaroid camera, he realised he could do his own Happening at home, and have a record of it, which he would still be there to see. In this instance, the artist becomes the audience with a Happening that is expressed through a Polaroid picture. He’s very much concerned with performing but he’s also treating the photograph like an object.” For Squiers this relationship is implicitly part of a wider art historical debate: “There’s a lot of visual activity taking place in the frame. It’s not just a photograph, it’s a reconstruction of the male body, and it brings the male muse into contemporary art in a way that it wasn’t before.”

Although, the premise for What Is a Photograph?  began with the impetus of digital photography and the effects that it had on artists’ creativity, one of the surprises for Squiers on curating the exhibition was this manner in which artists continually pursue the physical. For Samaras, the instance his pursuit of a document for his Happenings contradicts its origins and performance art, as a way to reject the art market and its physical manifestations. Squiers recognises how “later, younger artists [are] working in various digital technologies, using Photoshop, to make works or to create a negative, which can then be used for an image, which, while they might be printed on paper, the same as photographic images, are different beasts.” There’s still very much a desire for a physical object, a printed photograph and something tangible that people can recognise: “The digital does not just exist; there is the persistence of the tangible and the ways in which artists want to produce an object, not just for it to be a famous picture.” In this manner the works on offer within the exhibition continue to reference the materiality of art and highlight its perpetual importance to audiences.

In a world where everyone’s armed with a camera on their mobile devices and “selfie” has been canonised by the Oxford English Dictionary, What Is a Photograph? takes the debate back to the origins of where it all began. There’s an argument that everyone is a photographer in contemporary society, but this mass uptake of the medium is rejected in pursuit of true experimentation: “It is different to post 20 selfies and to make interesting experiments with colour in the bedroom, as David Benjamin Sherry did.”

The thing that What Is a Photograph?  highlights most clearly is the strong affection that artists hold for the medium and its physical investigation as an art form. It’s questionable whether more should be done to preserve the celluloid of film, but Squiers argues that this is just the push that the photographic community required: “It seems to have really let loose a huge, imaginative streak in people who were already engaging in experimental photography in one way or another, but for whom it has acquired urgency because they realise that the materials they are using might not be around in the future. Instead of causing a kind of depression, it has caused euphoria, and a creative opening that I think is wonderful.”

What Is a Photograph?  is showing at the International Center of Photography, New York, until 4 May 2014. www.icp.org.

Ruby Beesley