Image Pioneers

A group show of emerging artists opens at Pioneer Works, New York, showcasing 10 Canadian and American practitioners who are forging new approaches to the photographic form.

In the early 20th century the photographic medium had a long struggle to be taken seriously as an art form on a par with painting and sculpture. But now, with editions of photographers’ prints selling for millions of dollars and photographers internationally acclaimed for their artistic importance, photography is firmly established in the art world as a de facto medium. The underdog has now become fully a part of the establishment, but where does that leave photography with options for future growth and development?

Naturally, the major issue that concerns photographers and museums now is the onslaught of digitisation, not only in photographic technology but also throughout our whole way of life, including new ways of communicating, working and seeing. Artists are rising to the challenges of dealing with this theme, and the continued development of photography into new directions as a result of this is now being explored in Under Construction, a collaboration between Foam Photography Museum in Amsterdam and the Pioneer Works Center for Art and Innovation, showing at Pioneer Works, New York.

Featuring 10 young American and Canadian photographers, Under Construction is curated by Foam’s Claudia Küssel. It interrogates the role of photography in the world today, asking questions regarding the digitisation of technology and distribution as well as the fundamental significance of photography given the never-ending stream of millions of images which are taken, distributed and manipulated every day. The artists involved are Joshua Citarella, Sara Cwynar, Jessica Eaton, Daniel Gordon, Matthew Leifheit and Cynthia Talmadge, Matt Lipps, Matthew Porter, Kate Steciw and Sara VanDerBeek. All except Citarella, and Leifheit and Talmadge, were involved in the exhibition’s previous incarnation at Foam Amsterdam at the end of 2014.

The exhibition is supported by the American Embassy, in showcasing art from North America, and the Mondrian fund, which enables exhibitions of artists who have never been exhibited before in the Netherlands. The title, Under Construction, highlights one unity between the artists: they are aware that all their images are constructs in one way or another. As Küssel explains: “All of these artists are engaged with a new way of building up an image, whether in digital, analogue or a hybrid form lying somewhere between these two forms [photography].” Küssel emphasises that for many of the artists involved: “The process is very important, sometimes more important than the final result of the works.” Another common theme is the relationship of the realm of photography to art history in general. The exhibitors are unified by “how they question what photography is, how they construct the image, how they experiment with the medium and how they move freely from painterly references to sculptural objects”. As the curator points out: “The objects apply a free way of dealing with everything that’s visually available.”

Under Construction also acknowledges how the role of photography in today’s digital society remains uncertain; photographers are still carving out a new role for themselves in this unknown landscape where people all over the world have instant photographic technology (and the technology to disseminate it instantly and internationally) at their fingertips. The work of Daniel Gordon, for example, investigates the relationship between images, the internet and language, and how the manipulation of certain things is perpetuated online. Küssel describes Gordon’s process as “surfing the internet and – through searching key words – he looks for a certain representation of objects, prints and cuts them out and applies them in his tableaux. This kind of decontextualisation is typical for how these artists create new contexts and meanings with their work.” While Gordon’s play on construction therefore involves the context of his subjects, Matthew Porter’s constructions involve the photographic medium itself and creating new ways to echo, and possibly improve upon, old technologies. Küssel describes his layered works as having “an ephemeral digital appearance”, but they are not created using digital technology at all. Instead he utilises “a sophisticated analogue [technique] referring to photograms.” The result is a disconcerting representation of the familiar with something unexpected and a little off- piste. It’s an idea that encourages the viewer to look again at photography and consider the processes of its evolution rather than taking it for granted as something instantaneously available at the touch of a button.

Meanwhile, Kate Steciw takes the much-maligned genre of stock photography, which is all now too familiar, to a new level, with her works forming a biting critique on commercialisation through these false, and often cheap, images readily applied to everyday situations. In her collages she “layers stock photos that she finds on the internet, which represent commercial objects and then comments on the commercial representation by also presenting objects that she creates in a very glossy commercial manner herself. She comments on how these images exist on the internet and is critical about the use of them and what they represent.”

In unique and diverse ways, all the photographers in Under Construction are engaged with a reinvention of photography. Küssel explains: “What we see is that these artists approach photography in an experimental and investigative way and are critical about what photography is in the beginning of the 21st century.” For Küssel, however, the works on show are as much about the tradition of art history as the tradition of photography, and the role of photographer as artist is at the forefront of the exhibition: “Their work obviously relates to the photographic tradition but also to the tradition of art history, maybe more.” In stating this, she acknowledges the dual nature of photography in today’s world as being an agent of creativity and an agent of documentation. And while photography inarguably has a role to play in documenting the world around us, recording truth and reporting news and events, it’s the actions of photographers on a creative, questioning level that is most of interest to the curators at Foam. Perhaps this is because photography’s own status as documenter of fact is also under threat, due to the proliferation of manipulated images, and the public’s increased awareness of the ease with which images are manipulated. In turn, however thismanipulationhasbecomethesubjectofmanyartists’works,including that of Steciw and Gordon, highlighting that there is less of a black-and-white dichotomy to the medium than we might initially think.

For Küssel, as for many photographic curators and editors, the question of moving forward is inexorably linked to the issue of going digital: “This is the result of the global digitisation of our societies, and you see that all the artists react to this development in their own specific ways. We see this in their creativity, in the way they relate to photography and the way they re-evaluate the medium.” They are explicitly assessing their own role as artists in the world today. Because photography is so ubiquitous – anyone can have an Instagram account, play with filters, snap their day-to-day activities simply by whipping out their phone, and share them with family, friends and strangers alike – the professional photographer has to carve out a new niche for him or herself and to adapt to this ever-changing landscape: “We don’t need cameras any more but can take pictures with our iPhones or iPads. We don’t even need to make photos ourselves because we can just surf on the internet and choose whatever we like. There’s a whole new approach.”

It is not just the way that we create photographs personally that has changed but also the way that we consume all media and culture – the individual has so much more agency about how they read, watch television, communicate with friends, catch up on news, and dozens of other activities than they did even five years ago. We no longer wait for newspapers or even their websites to break news, often it happens instantaneously on Twitter. We no longer have to wait a week for the next instalment of our favourite series and instead binge watch or dip in and out of these narratives online at our own will. And the works of the artists in Under Construction go some way to reflect this: “Their work is not linear, it’s interdisciplinary. We see references to the tradition of painting and sculpture. These artists are dealing with how to relate to the medium of photography and question what it is about.”

In today’s hyper-visual world the concept of image fatigue is familiar and often debated, and it’s something that Foam, whose mission statement is “All about photography”, challenges with the variety of its programmes, exhibitions, publications and events: “We present diverse forms of photography and we usually have four exhibitions at a time in our museum.” In addition, the discovery and representation of new talents is at the core of Foam’s programme: “It’s one of our main focuses. We always try to find unexpected or lesser known photographers besides presenting well-known names. It’s our aim to surprise people with the richness of the medium and to show amazing work.” An addition to this widening representation is Foam’s eponymous magazine which Küssel describes as “one of our main platforms to show young, unseen talents [in addition to] the Unseen Photo Fair and our project space 3h which is dedicated to presenting young talent.”

To coincide with Under Construction, Foam magazine will release a special edition with works from all 10 photographers. It’s an opportunity to showcase portfolios from each and enable readers to see the variety of the artists’ works beyond the constraints of the gallery space. The special edition highlights the fact that one of the merits of photography is the diversity of its successful distribution when compared to other art forms – a photograph loses less in reproduction on the page than a painting or a sculpture, and arguably photo books and photography magazines rival gallery shows as a way for viewers to engage with the medium in a more intimate way. Küssel acknowledges this strength, but highlights that there are fundamental differences between representing photography on the gallery wall and representing it on the page. While “the sequencing of the images is very important in how you read and understand the works” she is cautious that publications “can sometimes not represent the actual works, as they are installed in the space in the way that the artists meant them to be. So I think there can be some kind of tension between the two.” In spite of the digitisation of contemporary culture, however, photography books are experiencing something of a renaissance with “digital natives” embracing the more contemplative pace of the medium on the page, and the lack of distractions enjoyed when additional links and leads are only a click away. In addition, Küssel believes that the magazine enables a more didactic showcase of the artist’s intentions: “Within the publication we have tried to direct the reader in a more specific way as to how to view these works. So there will always be an interrelation between the artists which at first sight you might not even see, and this is something that we purposely visualise – these characteristics and relations between the artists.”

Nevertheless, Küssel is keen to emphasise the unique direction that each takes and is reluctant to identify the 10 artists as a group or a movement: “We certainly don’t want to speak of a group because that’s too old-fashioned and it does not represent the way they are related. Their connections are much more hybrid. Mostly you see that their work is related in a psychological way, in how they reflect on the meaning of photography today. I think they are also quite individual.” Because of these differences the task of curating a coherent exhibition was “challenging because [each of ] their works has a very specific aesthetic … but I think overall it’s a very fresh, dynamic representation that questions what image making today is all about.” Under Construction promises to provide an insightful exploration of where photography is moving to and the identity crises that spur its practitioners’ creativity. Under Construction: New Positions in American Photography ran until 26 April at Pioneer Works, New York. For more information, visit

Ruby Beesley