“(Mis)Understanding Photography” Photos about Photography

Aneta Grzeszykowska, “Untitled Film Still #3”, 2006, C-Print, 25 x 16,5 cm
Aneta Grzeszykowska, “Untitled Film Still #3”, 2006, C-Print, 25 x 16,5 cm | © Aneta Grzeszykowska, Courtesy Raster Gallery, Warschau

Whether as media images, commodities, documents or works of art – today photographs are omnipresent. The exhibition „(Mis)Understanding Photography“ of the Photographic Collection in the Museum Folkwang Essen showed how artists interpret the contradictory roles of this image medium.

“Is photography an object or an image, or is photography a kind of seeing?” asks New York artist Zoe Leonard in a 2013 interview. Not only have numerous theorists been zeroing in on the potentials and limits of this technical image medium. Practitioners have also time and again tried to sort out what photography is as such. What it means to them and how it is publically used and understood. How the misplaced belief in its objectivity can persist even today, although now not only forgers and counterfeiters, secret services and artists can manipulate photos, but anyone who has a digital camera. In other words just about anyone by now. “It even seems as though one sometimes understands more about it if one misunderstands it,” writes Florian Ebner, director of the Photographic Collection of the Museum Folkwang Essen and curator of the German Pavilion at the 2015 Venice Biennale, in the reader for the exhibition (Mis)Understanding Photography, which presented photos that analyse, comment on and parody the history and status of this medium from 14 june until 17 August 2014.

Trust in photography

Joachim Schmid, “Photogenetic Drafts #24”, 1990/1991, Bromsilbergelatine, 36,9 x 28 cm Joachim Schmid, “Photogenetic Drafts #24”, 1990/1991, Bromsilbergelatine, 36,9 x 28 cm | © Joachim Schmid Intention and context are not always as entertainingly accessible as in the audio-visual collage Photographers by Mishka Henner and David Oates: the cameras click unceasingly. Scenes from cinema films have been compiled into a photo movie and regale the viewer with clichés: the photographer, for the most part a man at the shutter – at the right place at the right time. Whether in war or during sex, he records everything. By contrast, Zoe Leonard has made up the biography of an African-American woman. Means and perspectives could not be further apart.

The exhibition’s starting point was the claim that: “art possesses a special feeling for our trust in photography just as for our erroneous ideas about it, for our phantasms and obsessions, so that it gives more expressive acuity to the popular and affective, the paradoxical and unfathomable, than any other study.”

To this end, works by 60 international artists of the past 50 years were grouped in five chapters. Topics were all about material and technique, rituals, pre- and afterimages, about the evidence of documents and the obsessions of collecting.

Jeff Guess, “Addressability”, 2011, Still image, individual Software (Java / Processing / OpenGL) Jeff Guess, “Addressability”, 2011, Still image, individual Software (Java / Processing / OpenGL) | © Jeff Guess

First and last images

Gilian Wearing, “Me as Arbus”, 2008, Bromsilbergelatine, 146 × 123 cm, On loan to the Frans Hals Museums, Haarlem Gilian Wearing, “Me as Arbus”, 2008, Bromsilbergelatine, 146 × 123 cm, On loan to the Frans Hals Museums, Haarlem | © Gilian Wearing, Courtesy Maureen Paley, London Sylvia Ballhause reminds us of just how ephemeral the pictures are. At first, her three-part, poetic print reminds one of a starry night sky, until one recognises the shadowy forms of buildings. The artist has in fact photographed one of the very first photographs: the badly-damaged Triptych by Louis Daguerre (1838/39) in Bavarian National Museum in Munich.

Since then, lending visibility to images taken with technical devices has lost none of its magic. But how, why, what for and with what they are taken has not only undergone technical change. Conceptual artist Hans Eijkelboom has chronicled an annual self-portrait from 1949 until 2009, combined with advertisements for cameras from each year.

Playful dismantling

Jojakim Cortis & Adrian Sonderegger, “Making Of ‚Rhein II‚ (by Andreas Gursky, 1999)”, 2012, from the series “Ikonen, ”C-Print, 120 x 80 cm Jojakim Cortis & Adrian Sonderegger, “Making Of ‚Rhein II‚ (by Andreas Gursky, 1999)”, 2012, from the series “Ikonen, ”C-Print, 120 x 80 cm | © Jojakim Cortis & Adrian Sonderegger Time and again, photographers run through the various parameters of analogue and digital technology. And they pick up on the ways in which the private and mass-medial availability of photos has changed. Richard Prince’s series are legendary: For Cowboys he photographed cigarette ads, for Girlfriends personal ads in biker magazines. In the 1980’s, Thomas Ruff’s objective and austere portraits broke with the conventions of the genre. Polish artist Zbigniew Libera parodies the documentary pretensions of press photos by positively reinterpreting traumatic media images. The photo of Che Guevara’s death now shows a laid-back smokers’ scene.

And even the hypes of the most contemporary photo art are disrespectfully dismantled: with its auction record of 3.1 million Euros, Rhein II by Andreas Gursky is one of the most expensive photographs ever. For their series Making Of, Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger reconstructed it as a model. On the other hand, Wolfgang Tilmans installed his own early and more recent photos almost retrospectively as an exhibition within the exhibition. And in a computer animation, Jeff Guess had digital images decay into their pixels.