Aleksandra Mir

Three uses of photography

Photofile, #67, Dec 2002
By Chris Chapman

Biennale of Sydney: The World (may be) Fantastic
15 May - 14 July 2002
Biennale of Sydney, 43-51 Cowper Wharf Road, Woolloomooloo NSW - Australia


Commercially rented outdoor advertising space first appeared in the USA in the late 1860's. By 1870, around 300 sign-painting and bill posting companies existed. American artist James Rosenquist worked as a billboard painter in New York's Times Square, and began to produce paintings in the late 1950's which presented images from popular culture in a montage-like manner. His imagery was sourced from magazines and advertising that celebrated the consumer culture of post-war American life. His best known work, the monumental twenty-six metre long F-111 (1964-65) transmits the image of a gleaming, happy, technological America, seduction and propaganda among its weapons...

In 1962 the French company JCDecaux first utilised the bus shelter as a venue for advertising, and continues to design and provide outdoor furniture units (such as bus shelters and public phone stands) to city municipalities in exchange for the revenue generated by the advertising they carry.

Certainly by the 1960's the vernacular of photography in the public domain (whether that was in magazines or on the streets) had been hijacked by artists as seemingly disparate as American Andy Warhol and German Gerhard Richter (although, they actually have a lot in common: for instance, both draw strong conceptual parallels between painting and photography, and foreground the possibilities for abstraction as a tool to articulate ideas about the erasure of figurative images, and as a metaphor for trauma and loss). Warhol's 1964 mural The Thirteen Most Wanted Men, commissioned for the facade of the American pavilion of the New York World Fair, was ordered to be removed by Governor Nelson Rockefeller. When Warhol's alternate suggestion of a panel portrait featuring public officials was also refused, he had the mural overpainted with silver paint, a signifier of the photographic image in any case.

While Warhol's images traded on hotness and trauma, Richter claimed a kind of distance and neutrality in his use of newspaper images and family snapshots. Richter's re-presentation of images as blurred paintings enhanced a romantic sensibility, while Warhol's use of dot-screen processes and formal repetition mimicked the circulatory reality of his source material and emphasised the sensationalist imperative at play in the content of these images.

It's well known that Warhol initially worked in advertising, as did American Jeff Koons, whose recent Easy Fun paintings vectorise Rosenquist's photo-real montage technique, and his subject matter. And artists have continued to work with the forms of advertising since its inception (don't forget the European surrealists' play with commercial imagery). British Richard Hamilton's 1956 collage Just What Is It That Makes Today's Homes So Different, So Appealing? is a distillation of post war consumerism, and his later plays on the logoism of the French aperatif RICARD (to RICHARD) prefigure tendencies for artists to align their own signature personas with the strategies of corporate branding.

A recent tendency in Western contemporary art for some artists to engage with the solipsist terrain of contemporary lifestyle imagery continues this historical trajectory, but without the critical edge many of their predecessors deployed. The foregrounding of an evacuated individuality for its own sake isn't enough (this work is different from the socially activated 'reality art' of the 1990's), because there is a degree of complicity that somehow re-emphasises the codes of the Wallpaper*, Lifestyle Channel mentality. The replication or illusion of stylistic effects cannot be enough to engage an argument or position when it can so easily be read as a validation of the attitude it presents. Because, if there is a claim to expose the bankrupt nature of this social narcissism, it is at odds with the very mechanisms of 'cool' that drive its presentation as art.


Australian Tracey Moffatt's 1997 video work Heaven shows buff surfers changing into and out of their wetsuits in a city beach carpark. Moffatt's hand-held video zoom captures flashes of chests and arses, until, at the end of the video, she approaches the dudes up close and attempts to remove one's towel...

The recent widespread use of digital format cameras and home computer technology means not only can anyone take photos and video of unsuspecting subjects in public places, but they can upload them to the internet where the images can be accessed by millions. Not only that, the current fascination with images of 'amateurs' is a driving force of the internet erotica business. Anyone with a camera and a local sportsfield or beach can take snaps of 'hotties' and post them as thumbnail galleries, where the thrill of the subjects' unwitting exhibitionism adds to the erotic charge of viewing these pics from the privacy of your bedroom. The convenience this offers is exemplary: one doesn't need to live near a beach to gain access to images of hot chicks and dudes with bulging swimwear, or individual affectations that fire a particular cerebral g-spot. Recently on Sydney television, a current affairs program outed a website which showed images of teenage boys in sporting activities, the alarm raised when a young woman recognised her boyfriend on the website: he had been photographed at a rowing event. The reason she encountered the image in the first place was not explicated. It's legal for anyone to photograph, and publish, anything that occurs in the public domain. But of course the issue that is raised here is one of exploitation: said individual did not consent to an image of her / his self being used in this manner.

"Hell, choose your fetish," D continued, "Danish female backpackers, surfers, 'blue-collar' workers, athletes... it's not difficult to find collections of images of unwitting subjects classified according to type."

"And there are plenty of sub-categories too." M replied as they followed the path toward the headland.

"Surveillance is something we're used to, and we acknowledge it as a part of everyday urban life. What's the difference if your photo is taken by someone with a zoom-lens from the park at North Bondi, or the camera in an automatic teller machine?" pondered D as they paused to take in the view, "Maybe what's at stake here isn't the invasion of personal space through the use of photography, because that happens all the time, it's to do with the intent of the image and the way it could be used..."

"Having your photo taken by a video camera in a bank, or from an ATM, or in a bus," hypothesised M, "is about safety and security, right? Being photographed as you sunbathe topless, or jog along the beach, or pack up the rowing gear would be exploitative..."

"There must be hundreds of businesses that trade on photographs of people in spaces that are public to different degrees," said D. "Hell, all those hidden camera sites that show pictures of people taken in changerooms and toilets..."

M can't help laughing as he intones "What kind of weird sicko would do that???"

The common use of small cameras that can be affixed to home computers enable scores of people to consciously enjoy narcissistic fantasies on a global scale. Maybe the popularity of this technology is symptomatic of the desire to express the proof and formulation of individual selfhood. Ideally, posting an image of oneself within a particular contexts on the net activates the operation of community. There may not only be the possibility of contact by others, but the pleasure of assumed enjoyment of one's image by countless anonymous viewers. It is common for images on the internet to be replicated and re-presented in different contexts often simultaneously, and for the origin of a particular image to become untraceable. This enables one's self-portrait, once posted on the net, to be used for various purposes, and once it is severed from its initial contexts, individual identity is replaced with type.

In my profession, one of the areas that I have investigated is the formulation of subjectivity via abstract and conceptual means. This involves the theorising of public spaces as mathematical structures (such as sporting arenas, for instance), and how identity is explicated through social groupings, and codes of behaviour and appearance. For instance, in looking at images that young men have taken of themselves with net-cams, I'm struck by the potential these images convey as representing individuals as particular types, and with the clues that these images give towards the identification of individual subjectivities. Beyond body-type, or social group identifiers (clothing and accessories, or particular types of tattoos), are often other idiosyncratic markers to individuality: particular posters on the wall, cd's and books stacked in the bookshelf, the strewn blanket and its particular pattern... These elements reveal a range of coded information, and might activate Roland Barthes' 'punctum', as much as an expression or gesture. (1)

It would be remiss of me not to mention at this point the work of Australian Jonathan Nichols, who makes works in watercolour and paint directly from internet images of young women posing infront of their net-cams. It is the anonymity of these images that gives them a certain poignancy that can evoke degrees of empathy, and their second-degree recording that foregrounds Nichols' own formal approach to the production of these images as works within his own practice.


The whole snapshot vibe prevalent in 1990's art was to do with a couple of things. On the one hand was the use of objects and images that could be easily produced and which served a social function; on the other, an interest in the way these forms manifested entirely local and personal meanings: genealogies and dialogues about the importance of local experience in the face of globalism, etc. Snapshots are important in that they can record a range of occurrences relatively easily and cheaply. They are memory triggers as well as a means of communication. Snapshots also represent the power of the archive: collections of snapshots in personal life can activate the representation of entire family histories, serving a genealogical imperative. They also record social activities and human interconnectivity, acting as a kind of proof of cultural discourse.

Curator Trevor Smith's 1997 project 'The Archive and the Everyday' was significant in its investigation of various forms of the archive in the public and private domains, and how they intersect. Presented in Canberra in collaboration with the city's leading cultural organisations including the National Library of Australia and the National Portrait Gallery, the project featured commissioned works in a range of art forms. Trevor's project emphasised the relevance of archives as bearing an important relationship to our own individual collections and use of objects, texts and images. Rather than claim some kind of necessity for collecting things per se, the project explored how public and private archives reflect subjectivity, and are important in an ongoing understanding of social and cultural histories.

The use of the archive is a significant tool in the work of many contemporary artists. Richard Grayson's 2002 Biennale of Sydney exhibition included many works where the archive (actual or fictional) was used to articulate discourses that affirmed or invented histories and personas. Polish born artist Aleksandra Mir's ongoing Hello project, for instance, uses images from public and personal archives to map out a kind of algebraic relationship between individuals from different socio-economic and cultural groups, creating a web of connectivity that is at once 'real' and one of infinite possibilities.

Catherine David and Okwui Enwezor, curators respectively of the last two German contemporary art projects Documenta, included artists whose work centred on the use of archives, often articulating political and social imperatives. In Documenta 11: Indian Ravi Agarwal's photographs documenting pre-industrial labour in an age of globalisation; Germans Berndt und Hiller Becher's forty-year-plus documentation and classification of industrial buildings; American Renee Green's audio-visual archive of information classified according to cultural and poetic themes. Documenta X featured Gerhard Richter's massive archival project Atlas, an encyclopedic collection of photographs from public and private sources. The collection, began by the artist in 1962, is a vast database that Richter has drawn upon in the production of his work, and an articulation of history and social life based upon Richter's own artistic and philosophical interests.

Images, objects and texts are re-used and recontextsualised continuously, and that is an imperative. Appropriation, hybridisation, and recontextsualisation are all driving forces of cultural evolution. Public and personal archives are an important tool for the formation of identity.

The recent use of virtual systems in most Western communities for information storage, dissemination and manipulation changes the way in which we use images and information, and how they circulate. Enormous collections of images and information can be held in virtual systems, copied, altered, reclassified, and exchanged without the need for hard copies. This allows for new freedoms and possibilities for the articulation and interpretation of individual and group histories that challenge official narratives. However, the widespread use of these new systems, and their fallibility, also induces a certain degree of archive anxiety, and poses the theoretical question: what happens if we press DELETE.

(1) French philosopher Roland Barthes wrote eloquently about the power of the photograph in his book Camera Lucida, published in 1981, the year he died. While the texts is a rumination on the power of personal (as opposed to 'professional') photography to generate memory, he explicates two major characteristics of a photograph. The 'studium' is all that is recognisable in a photographic image, whether that is geographic or cultural. The 'punctum', is the particular element in a photograph that triggers a personal connection with the viewer, and this is entirely subjective.