Contemporary Photography: Truth &Amp; The Burden Of Reality

by Brian Appel


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There has been a tremendous amount of discussion in the popular press lately about photography's relationship with reality.   The recent discovery that a Lebanese freelance photographer with more than a decade of experience at Reuters, had doctored or stage-managed photographs to make Israeli attacks on Lebanon look more destructive and the Lebanese more vulnerable has gone a long way in decimating the trust that many viewers have come to count on when looking at the role of images in portraying a conflict in the news media.

Careless digital alterations by Adnan Hajj using Adobe Photoshop software embellishing Israeli air-strike damage in Beirut on August 5th was caught by Mike Thorson, a Wisconsin-based artist who alerted the publisher of a popular conservative media blog watchdog, "Little Green Footballs", and a fire-storm of controversy broke out.  Charles Johnson's public outing of Hajj's embellished photographs on his blog led to the photojournalist's firing and the removal of his 920 photographs from the Reuter's archive.  Is the Little Green Footballs's "Reutersgate" scandal an isolated incident involving a singular ethical misstep by a time-challenged photojournalist and the human error of a junior level photo editor on a busy day at the photo agency or the tip of an iceberg that is destroying the credibility for news organizations and photography as a vehicle for truth?   Is everybody pushing their own brand of reality?

Does the fake photo-shoppery or the orchestration of an event by a photojournalist affect the integrity of camera-based imagery elsewhere?  Can news images ever really reflect objective reality?  Is there such a thing as "reasonably real news"?  Do people still presume photographs to be evidentiary?  Are the photographs we see on the front page of the New York Times transparent vehicles of the subjects portrayed?  Is viewing a photograph the next best thing to being there?

The notion of both the objectivity of the photograph as a document--its ability to tell the truth--and the ease with which photographs can use artistic tools to manipulate images far beyond accepted formalistic standards has been under duress since the inception of inexpensive digitalization methods of recording information in the early 1990s.  It started in earnest with the digital composite of Olympic ice skaters Tanya Harding and Nancy Kerrigan, showing the rivals practicing together on the cover of New York Newsday in 1994 and then with the front-cover Time magazine mug shot of O.J. Simpson that was digitally darkened to make the subject more "menacing".

Digitalization of images extends also, of course, to film and television.  In December of 2000, the CBS emblem in the frame of a live video broadcast with Dan Rather was digitally inserted into the New Year's broadcast so as to conceal the NBC emblem that was on display in the background of Times Square.

"Death of a President", a 90-minute made-for-TV film which was broadcast in London in October 2006 on More4, a British digital television station, uses archival film as well as computer-generated imagery to attach the very real President Bush's face to the body of the actor playing him.  How is the division between "straight" and "fictional" compromised when we combine the two different languages?

The advent of technique that challenges the traditional role that truth has played as an authentic mark of the characteristic of photography has been with us long before--albeit without the sophistication of the digital revolution.  As early as 1857, Oscar Rejlander, a Swede who settled in England, created a gelatin silver print showing a young man facing the choice between a righteous and a dissolute life entitled "Two Ways of Life", utilizing a combination printing technique which incorporated 32 multiple negatives painstakingly masked together to create a composite print of a larger, unified image.

Bayard's Posed Self-Portrait as a Drowned Suicide
Bayard's Posed Self-Portrait as a Drowned Suicide

The idea of a photograph as a documentary in some ways has always been challenged.  Hippolyte Bayard, whose invention of the direct positive printing process actually preceded that of Louis Daguerre (now known as the Father of Photography along with Joseph Nicéphore Niépce) created perhaps the first example of a faked photograph.  Reportedly persuaded by a friend of Daguerre to postpone the announcement of his own photography process, causing him to miss the opportunity to be recognized and financially rewarded as the inventor of the medium (he eventually gave the details to the French Academy of Sciences on Feb. 2, 1840), Bayard created the first staged photograph of himself as a drowned man with an inscription on the reverse declaring himself the true inventor of photography.  "Self-Portrait as a Drowned Man" from 1840 shows the inventor/photographer sitting shirtless and leaning to his right in a tub of water pretending to have committed suicide.

Alexander Gardner, who had previously worked for Mathew Brady as his chief assistant before going out on his own and competing against him, was one of the first to be outed for faking a photograph by rearranging corpses and orchestrating battle scenes during the American civil war--all in the interest of 'clarity'.  The famous 19th-century image entitled "Home of the Rebel Sharpshooter, Gettysburg" from 1863 is an early example of a photographic 'truth' that was not solely dependent on a literal transcription of reality before committing to film.  A close analysis of six photographs of the same dead Confederate soldier at the Gettysburg battlefield on July of 1863 revealed that meaning can be determined by how a photographer chooses to integrate content and compositional structure.

Gardner's Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter
Gardner's Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter

After taking pictures of the dead soldier from several angles, Gardner (who was working in tandem with Timothy O'Sullivan at the time) noticed a picturesque sharpshooter's den some 40 yards away and moved the corpse to this more photogenic rocky niche and photographed him again.  The particular firearm placed in the dead soldier's hands, however, was not of the special type used by sharpshooters during the war.  In fact, that particular rifle is seen in a number of Gardner's scenes at and around Gettysburg and was later deemed a photographer's prop.  Apparently, Gardner was not satisfied with the subject matter as it was presented to him--the desire to arrange elements in the picture did not vanish because the subject was immobile.

Pictures of a polio-stricken President Roosevelt were cropped, thereby removing traces of his wheelchair in published images and creating another example of 'creative' composition that reflected another reality--that of a healthy, vigorous president.

In the world of art, the photograph has traditionally been utilized to demonstrate "authentic" subjects that document and reflect emerging society as accurately as possible.  As early as the 1920s and 1930s however, an era of "new photography", as practiced by Alexander Rodchenko, Man Ray and Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, and arising out of movements grounded in Constructivist, Futurist, Dadaist or Surrealist circles, challenged a photograph's relationship to reality.  Man Ray has been famously quoted: "A certain amount of contempt for the material employed to express an idea is indispensable to the purest realization of this idea".

Prince's Untitled (Cowboy)
Prince's Untitled (Cowboy)

The world's first publicly traded photograph that broke the $1-million barrier (at auction) ironically was not a vintage work by a classical photographer.  Instead it was a four by six-foot Ektacolor print whose conceptual and political subtext eschewed the notion of truth and vintage and threw a question mark on the traditional role of authorship.  The photograph's optical malleability and density--its adaptation and re-contextualization of the original ad--seemed to hold the attention of the viewer to the same extent as paintings and sculptures.  In November of 2005, Richard Prince's (b.1949, American) watershed work Untitled (Cowboy), a 1989 Ektacolor print of a cropped re-photograph of a magazine image of the ubiquitous Madison Avenue Marlboro man sold at Christie's in New York for $1,248,000.  Lot #7, an image from an edition of two (plus one artist's proof) set off a massive re-evaluation of the role of the photographic image by challenging the myth of photography as a reference point to a literal description of how a camera sees a piece of time and space that actually exists in the natural world.   Prince, following the pointed finger of Andy Warhol's photography-based works, used the camera to revisit a stage-managed, artificially constructed model of an icon of American advertising in a vernacular that mimicked the omnivorous image industry itself.   The artist's cowboy compellingly focused attention on the artificiality of the image shifting the viewer's focus from one of the main tenets of the medium of photography--its inherent ability to tell the truth.  The sheriff of the traditional photography market had been shot.       

Gursky's 99-cent
Gursky's 99-cent

Six months later, at Sotheby's in New York, a monumental Andreas Gursky (b.1955, German) 1999 chromogenic color print entitled "99 Cent", a seven by thirteen-foot super-saturated image of an overwhelming display of branded merchandise at a discount store sold for $2,256,000.  Lot #8, an image from an edition of six and the last image available outside of museum collections reset the world auction record for a contemporary photograph with this "new" kind of photo-reality.  Gursky's embrace of the gaudy blandishments of advertising challenged its function as evidence without totally abandoning the keen verisimilitude of documentary photography.  The digital piecing together of multiple views incorporating different angles of the same environment completely throws into question the notion of the 'right moment' and the concept of the 'valid document' as has the scale of the work which takes the viewer into territory normally associated with the grandeur of German Romantic painting rather than the history of the photograph.  Here again, the quote of Alexander Mikhailovich Rodchenko is the perfect harbinger: "One has to take several shots of a subject from different points of view and in different situations, as if one examines it in the round rather than looking through the same keyhole again and again".

Both artists had succeeded in liberating the viewer from the medium's purported indexical relationship to reality, challenging its function as evidence of that which is real.  The Roland Barthian notion of the photographic image as "...a message without a code" (a footprint in the sand so to speak) was shattered along with the medium's special standing in the public mind.  How do we know that the footprint in the sand was not created by accidental formations worked by the wind?  The camera had been released from the restraints of traditional documentation into a conceptual arena introducing the notion that photography itself could be considered as an inherent manipulation.  Photography in their eyes was a medium not unlike painting where the manipulation of light on a surface, a process with many steps and stages, are all influenced by the biases and subjective interpretations of the photographer, the printer, the editor, and ultimately the viewer.  The single photographic image was shown to be no longer a slice taken from the world at a precise moment in time but a crystallization of multiple, subjective decisions--something more akin to the building up of a surface like paint on a canvas, or, as Gursky himself has been quoted as saying, "the most contemporary possible view."

Technology's ability to change images into electronic information via user-friendly commercial software and the availability of high resolution, large-scale ink-jet printers is akin to the shift of technique and conceptual thinking that accompanied the open air painting of the Impressionists when ready mixed paint in lead tubes was introduced in the latter half of the 19th century.  Tubes of ready-made paint helped the Impressionists in a similar way that the kaleidoscope of options for altering the traditional role that truth played with the medium of photography in the early 1990s played for contemporary camera-based art.

The auction houses and the collectors and dealers who supported this work were clearly ahead of more traditional photography curators and critics in this arena of thought.  These were photographs that were not an exact representation of things but photography exploring the world as an appearance or a record or a fiction.  The pictures were not offered through the photography catalogue at the auction house.  Both color photographic prints were placed in the masters-of-the-universe evening sale of post-war/contemporary art.

Richard Prince's "Untitled (Cowboy)" at Christie's was placed between a taxidermied Maurizio Cattelan sculpture (price realized: $665,600) and a white marble Jeff Koons self-portrait (price realized: $3,936,000).  The 81-1/2 by 132-inch Andreas Gursky chromogenic color print (de-accessed by newspaper magnate Peter Brant) "99 Cent" at Sotheby's was sandwiched between a Damian Hirst 'medicine cabinet' (price realized: $1,248,000) and another Prince artwork--albeit in another medium--a 'joke' painting (price realized: $800,000), also recycled from American popular culture.

The question of where we find examples of the 'best' contemporary photography might be as simple as looking at works that explore photography's lost claim to veracity.  The questioning of the myth of photography as a vehicle for finding a "true image" and the focus on ideas that critique contemporary culture to provoke change are guides to the 'new' use of the medium of photography.  Going on-line to discover who the photographers were at the most successful public single-sale contemporary photography auctions is a good start.

Phillips de Pury still holds the title of the first and most successful contemporary single-owner photography sale with the $12,473,240, 180-lots-offered/180-lots-sold "Veronica's Revenge" watershed event on November 8-9, 2004.  The collection, acquired through the prescient choices of the Baroness Lambert of Belgium, enjoyed a rare, 100% sell-through that brought in almost $4 million above its own pre-sale high estimate.   Questioning the myth of photography as an instrument of truth, realism and objectivity, the curatorial focus revolved around images that were seen as being capable of being altered or controlled.  Doctoring photographs either by staging with props or talent before or during the exposure, or transforming after the fact--the artists who made up the collection demonstrated what photography can and cannot do.  The camera is just as likely to tell the truth as it is to tell a lie.

Christie's in Rockefeller Center, New York held the second most successful contemporary single-owner photography sale when the then chief executive of Refco, Philip Bennet was indicted on fraud charges, forcing his futures commodities brokerage firm into Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection last year.  The collection of contemporary photography pieces were confiscated from the walls of the firm's Chicago and New York offices and put into storage until this spring's highly anticipated $9.7-million, three-part sell-off between April 24 and May 10, 2006 (part three realized $2.4 million and was placed in the daytime Post-War & Contemporary Art sale).  The collection's 2003 catalogue, "Subjective Realities--Works from the Refco Collection of Contemporary Photography" contained images (as in "Veronica's Revenge") that artists staged or manipulated in their studios or computers.

Francis Dittmer, the wife of the former chairman of the bankrupt firm, who was retained along with the collection's chief curator Adam Brooks, assembled the collection in two stages.  The first stage, taking place in the early 1970s through 1997, comprised the acquisition of several types of media, including photography, painting and sculpture.  The second concentrated solely on works of art in the photographic medium--efforts which brought in almost 50% more than the pre-sale estimates at Christie's and garnered about three times what the collection cost to assemble.

Chief curator Adam Brooks told a columnist for The Financial Times after the May 5th sale, "Works of art in the photographic medium were by the 1990s leapfrogging over them [traditional photography] in the market.  It is the difference between taking a camera out in the world and waiting for something to happen and capturing it, and starting out with the idea, setting something up in the studio, or a performance activity, or manipulating activities in front of a camera and injecting a theatrical notion.  It's about premeditation and creating something for the camera."

Whether a photograph is fictional through a staged moment or fictional in the sense that they are literally deceptive through a demonstration of what a photograph can and cannot do, both Veronica's Revenge and the Refco Collection provide prime examples of this hybrid.  Although it would be ludicrous to assume it is possible to construct a definitive list of the present players who challenge the traditional function of their genres, an attempt is made below to identify some of the key contemporary artists who employ the camera to question the "truth" value of picture-making, along with the clear direction their prices have been taking in the marketplace. 

Barbara Kruger's (b.1945, American) 111 by 113-inch unique serigraph on vinyl in artist's frame "Untitled (I Shop therefore I Am)" from 1983 took the #1 spot at Baroness Marion Lambert's "Veronica's Revenge" with the price of $601,600.  Like Richard Prince, who used to prepare magazine clippings for "Time-Life", Kruger had a background working as a graphic designer for "Mademoiselle".  The artist utilized found images from advertising but also appropriated and recycled succinct, aggressive phrases addressing cultural representations of power, identity and sexually and juxtaposed them with her photographs.  Questioning viewers on issues of feminism, consumerism, individual autonomy and desire, her attempts to determine "…who we are and who we aren't" with, as May Ray has pointed out, a certain amount of contempt for the material gave her the number one spot of the sale.

Charles Ray's (b.1953, American) "No", a half-body color portrait (from an edition of four) of what looks like a bespectacled man in a red shirt with a mock-aggressive tone, looks deliriously literal but is in reality a photograph of a painted fiberglass sculpture with synthetic hair.  Here Ray plays with the 'real' that turns into the surreal and the ordinary into the strange as we engage the image.  The ease at which the camera can shift our perception and consciousness is the focus of the work as opposed to the traditional focus of the photographic portrait that is supposed to reveal some 'inner' truth.  Ray's slyly comic work with the medium destabilizes our notions of reality and calls the very idea of a photograph into question.  Lot #14, a color photograph executed in 1992 in an edition of four, realized $534,400.

Cindy Sherman's (b.1954, American) "Untitled No. 92 (Centerfold)" from 1981 is a self-portrait of the artist recreating or reinterpreting a vaguely adolescent girl in an emotionally suggestive pose wearing a plaid skirt and white shirt with matted hair.  Crouched down on the floor in an uncomfortably expectant and/or frightened manner in a guise that is usually associated with a "Playboy" type venture, the color coupler print took the number three spot at $478,400.  The 2x4-foot photograph from an edition of ten was the pioneering commission from "Artforum" magazine that never saw the light of day because of fear that the images would be "misinterpreted".  Preceding a long era of "repulsive" imagery when the artist took herself out of the picture using instead mutilated dolls and body parts, these irony-clad photographic fictions convey the ambiguities of women playing cliché gender roles as well as Sherman's own unease at casting herself.  Critics have since suggested that these images have become an integral point in the Sherman oeuvre and a landmark of both photographic and contemporary visual iconography.

Mike Kelley's (b.1954, American) "Ah… Youth", (1991), eight Cibachrome prints executed in an edition of ten down-and-out stuffed-animal pieces with a nostalgic, possibly sociopathic high school yearbook-type portrait of the artist sandwiched in the center sold at the Veronica's Revenge sale for $411,200.  More recently, other versions of the same work sold for $688,000 at Christie's and Phillips de Pury last May at their spring contemporary sales.  Kelley's photographic work, like Charles Ray's and Richard Prince's has an undercurrent marked by a fluency in several different media and styles.  This present work navigates a place somewhere between a documentary photograph and a kitschy object.  Kelley's poignant dolls and animals (for which the artist is possibly best known) are unsettling aggregates that suggest sex, torture or child abuse.  More than one critic has suggested that "Ah… Youth" is a coda for his art: the isolated colorful portraits suggest a gaggle of repressed memories pushing towards a consciousness that has been described as one that exists in the lair of a rec-room mystic.

Jeff Wall's (b.1946, Canadian) "An Octopus", an almost seven foot high by eight foot wide Cibachrome transparency placed in an 8 ¾-inch wide fluorescent light box, owes much to the pictorial traditions of painting as well as the psycho-social tension that is specific to the tension between creating an image with a camera and its effect on the viewer.  The dialectic created between Wall's light box and the backlit advertising displays found in bus shelters and airports makes reference to the artist's questioning of the fidelity of the act of 'reportage' in photography.   The strong lighting, deep shadows, and tiny touches of his admitted "staged" photograph of an octopus on top of one of two worn, mismatched tables in a cellar-like room surpassed its pre-sale high estimate bringing $265,600 at "Veronica's Revenge".  The extraordinarily rich documentary detail that Wall's large format photography brought to "An Octopus" in combination with his theatrical direction throws into relief the artist's effort that his work is as much a painting done with a camera than an evidentiary photographic reality.  The ability to marry the documentary with the fantastical imaginary in this early 1990 work was a harbinger of later ones prized for a much higher degree of complexity and control constructed in Photoshop from a number of studied frames.  The Canadian photographer's claim that for him picture freedom always trumps the fidelity of the image proved prescient.

Gerhard Richter (b.1932, German) is by many considered a "conceptual painter" whose paintings are as much statements about the ideas of painting as they are about the subjects he chooses to paint.  "Self-Portrait Standing Three Times 17.3.1991", a unique work consisting of six hand-painted gelatin silver prints of the artist in his studio, is an elegant example of a career that has been fluent in several different styles and mediums including both overprinted photographs (as in the above work) as well as paintings originally generated by copying the vernacular of photographs.  The artist here shows his dual commitment to both objective observation with the camera and an anesthetization of empirical reality by synthesizing the language of high modernist formalism with the documentary impulse of photography.  Abstraction and figuration have parallel status in his pictures, and they function to both distance and inform the viewer about painting's relationship to photography.  In this piece, the slathered-on paint partially obliterates both the artist and his studio in varying configurations from silver gelatin print to silver gelatin print through the passage of time.  The unique photographic print series brought $265,600.

Richter began painting from his own photographs with "Table" from 1962.  In Richter's retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art (the last major show before MoMA closed down for their transformative expansion) a photograph of a table gridded for enlargement is included in the survey.  Never working from life and using photography to remove the 'artistry' from his paintings, the artist pioneered a meditation on both mediums infusing the cool technical precision and science of chemical processing with the handmade.

Known for works which address Germany's Fascist past as well as for other themes from both history and mythology, Anselm Kiefer (b.1945, German) mixes photography with an array of contrasting materials.  Raised in the Black Forest region of post-war West Germany, the artist forces his photographs into unlikely combinations with contrasting materials like ash, lead, gold leaf, sand and acrylic paint acknowledging the medium's depiction of reality while at the same time effacing that depiction.  "Farnwald (Fern-Forest)", executed in 1992 on a wood plaque affixed to the backing board in an artist's glazed steel frame is a 51-7/8 by 66-7/8-inch gelatin silver print with lead and mouse skeleton exploring and commenting on the meanings that emerge from the weaving together of the mutual metaphors created between the use of media and his confrontation with Nazi symbolism and Germany's past.  Kiefer's piece was auctioned off at the November 9, 2005 Christie's Post-War and Contemporary afternoon session beating its high pre-sale estimate at $156,000.

Sigmar Polke's (b.1941, German) "Interior", a highly anticipated mural-sized hand-colored gelatin silver print from 1984 garnered $464,000 (more than three times its high presale estimate) at the 40-lot-offered/40-lot-sold, $5.37 million Refco Contemporary Photography Collection evening sale at Christie's on May 5, 2006.  The 50 by 83-1/4-inch piece resembled a dense archaeological site containing both abstract and representational imagery that has long characterized Polke's work.  The artist's technique--incorporating idiosyncratic materials including the painterly spattering of black spots and clashing color combinations on top of a photographic rendering of a studio interior-- recalls the Ab-Ex excesses of the late 1950s with a genre similar to Pop in Germany called Capitalist Realism.  The technical precision of the machine in tandem with the sensual blur of the paint creates an unsettling hybrid, which in some ways addresses the riddles of controversy over the camera's relationship with reality.

Bernd (b.1931, German) and Hilla (b.1934, German) Becher are the guiding light behind the so-called 'objective' school of contemporary photography.  For the last 40 years, the Bechers have been using large-format plate cameras (similar to the tools used by landscape photographers in the 19th century) to document blast furnaces, water towers, gas tanks and other constructions made by engineers to trap a vanishing industrial landscape.  Not in the least interested in making pleasing modernist images, this couple have been committed to isolating in pristine, black-and-white definition, the unostentatious range of these 'anonymous sculptures' and presenting them in series as typologies.  Their practice of what Hilla calls "…direct, descriptive photography--clear, clean images--with a complete tonal range, with appropriate depths--devoted to the subject", held them in good stead as professors at the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf from 1976-1996.  Their notion of being seen as the photographers of engineers--that is, creating 'record pictures'--served as inspiration to their students who went on to the forefront of contemporary art practice.  Thomas Struth, Thomas Ruff and Andreas Gursky were but three of their artist-students.

"Cooling Towers (Wood) NB" from 1976, part of the Marion Lambert-curated Veronica's Revenge collection that was de-accessed for $176,000 on November 8, 2004 at Phillips du Pury & Co., certainly qualifies as a perfect example of the kind of investigation that is de rigueur for reflection on the role and meaning of the medium of photography.

When viewed up close and in isolation, each of the nine pristine gelatin silver prints (16 by 12-1/8 inches) engage the viewer with black-and-white details so fine and with a range of tonal gradations so rich that it encourages the naked eye to engage a long time to uncover the seemingly infinite amount of information.  When the viewer pulls back to see the totality of all nine structures (58 7/8 by 42 7/8 inches) however, the initial take of impersonal architecture begins to approach the particularities of personality.  A grid of anonymously frontal, deadpan industrial engineering morphs into a site for philosophical contemplation and a richly suggestive aesthetic body of work.

Thomas Struth (b.1954, German), who studied with both Gerhardt Richter and Berndt and Hilla Becher at the Kunstakademie in Dusseldorf, took the depiction of industrialized structures as a jumping off point for his own investigations.  Struth's detailed exploration of the physical surfaces of individuals while engaged in making sense out of what they are looking at in international museums and churches displays arguably more than the veneer of realism characterized by the 'neutral' depiction of the Becher's mechanical structures.

Struth, like Berndt and Hilla, does not use new technologies that process work digitally by combining and removing parts of pictures or creating entirely different pictures for his final product.  The altering of what was between his lens and the final print would destroy the indexical relationship between picture and reality, decimating what the artist feels is the essence and uniqueness of the medium of photography.  There is no blurring of fiction and nonfiction in a Struth photograph.  Unlike the Bechers, however, Struth does not group his pictures according to certain categories and arrange them in a grid of similar topologies to make them coherent.  Struth's images function as single images.  But he is a master of folding multiple narratives into stand-alone pictures of immense scale introducing the psychological inter-connections between and among clusters of people who assemble in front of works of art or objects imbued with religious signification.

Struth's "Fei-Lai Feng, Hang Zhou", 1999, a 74-3/4 by 85-1/4-inch color coupler print, number five from an edition of ten, was possibly one of the best purchases from the Refco evening sale.  Securing just over half its low pre-sale estimate, the image, which shows 12 Chinese tourists visiting the garden of an ancient scholar, netted only $26,400 for the house.  As viewers able to see everything in focus throughout the breadth and width of the picture, we get to engage in a complicated game of deciphering who belongs to whom through the indicators of ritual and specificity of personality that link one individual with another.  The single photographic frame of film freezes an incredibly complex microcosm of the world into a new kind of history--one that asks what we can really know about the people in this photograph (and by extension, the world).

Thomas Ruff's (b.1958, German) early, large-scale, close-up color portraits taken of fellow art students at the Kunstakademie also explored the conceptual notions of what a camera can really reveal about the truth.  Following in the tradition of both his teachers and the early 20th-century German photographer August Sander, Ruff tested what one could determine by gazing at a face of an individual--albeit an individual who was blown up to a scale that exploits the viewer's projections and fantasies.  The portraits were a construct based on identification photographs.  The conclusions made from the series are as complex as the entire question of the nature of what is real.  Here we see that the portraits are both true and false--that the best the camera can provide is a pretend reality.  Ruff chose color and shot with a high resolution large-format camera to be able to go as near to reality as possible; but then, when he got close to imitating reality, he recognized that it was not at all the same.

In Philip Pocock's interview with Thomas Ruff in the Journal of Contemporary Art, 1993, Ruff says, "With one photograph there isn't enough information.  Even I couldn't explain to an extraterrestrial all of mankind with my forty portraits of friends.  You cannot explain the whole world in one photograph.  Photography pretends.  You can see everything that's in front of the camera, but there's always something beside it".

"Portrait Peter Maertin", 1988, (from an edition of three plus one artist's proof) went for $38,400 and "Portrait Pia Stadtbaumer", 1989, (from an edition of four with one artist's proof) sold for $45,600 at the Veronica's Revenge auction.  "Portrait I. Graw", 1988, (from an edition of three) went for $69,600 at the Refco sale on May 5, 2006.  All three are chromogenic color prints with Diasec mounting in an artist's wood frame approximately 82-1/2 by 65 inches.

Ruff's deadpan portraits were followed by a series of images employing a range of technical methods including the depiction of starry skies derived from pictures he had obtained from an astrology institute, appropriating newspaper photographs stripped of their captions and digitally altering images of earlier portraits where he subverts the authenticity of his own photographs by replacing the original dark eyes with blue ones--a sly reference to the days of propaganda and the Third Reich perhaps?  Ruff has also shot night photographs of Dusseldorf with a night-vision enhancer and made a series of computer-altered photographs of modernist architecture by Mies der Rohe.  The artist has raided the internet and made a series of digitally altered nudes from pornography sites, as well as abstracting Japanese comics known as manga and the animated cartoons known as anime.

Like Warhol, John Baldessari (b.1931, American) was influential in introducing photography into his paintings in the 1960s.  He is quoted as saying not without irony: "I put those photographic pieces on canvas because it made it art.  If its canvas, you don't have to have anything on it, and people think its art."

In these early pieces, the artist took random photographs of non-descript urban landscapes--a grey sky, a telephone pole, a building and a billboard from a car and transferred the image to canvas with a photo emulsion technique and then added a title (the building's address) with acrylic paint.  The overlapping of self-recorded photographic material (later appropriated press and movie-stills) with painted text on canvas or other images culled from collective sources began a more-than-four-decade investigation into the inherent ambiguity of meaning in the collective unconscious of the American vernacular.

Baldessari's acrylic on color coupler print arrangement entitled "Beach Scene/Nuns/Nurse (with Choices)" from 1991 was this spring's photography auction season's top lot.  At $744,000, the five-panel work more than tripled its high estimate at Christie's and set a new world auction record for the artist.  Drawing from a wide lexicon of appropriated and altered stills from B-movies in concert with painted dots over the faces of models or actors to shield identity and make universal, the theatrically scaled 92 by 144-3/4-inch polyglot work recalls the symmetrical structure of an altar.  Indeed, Baldessari almost demands that the viewer deal with the ethical and moral choices of contemporary existence by contrasting age-old themes in his images.  The altruism of a Red Cross nurse in a hospital (top image) compliments the compassion of two nuns with hands tented in devotion (actually the identical photograph used twice but flipped).  The nuns however, bookend the largest image in the grouping, which is a bikini-clad woman embracing the more frivolous pleasures of being held across the muscled chests of three macho body-builder types.  Hanging at an angled tilt, a fifth image, of a woman's bejeweled and manicured hand, gestures to a lineup of six precious gemstones.  The contrast between selflessness and narcissism provided by the artist's strategy of juxtaposing images which collide prompts the question: Does this work beg a sly reference to Rejlander's 1857 combination print "Two Ways of Life"?

The reuse and repurposing of show business pictures seems particularly poignant from the Californian-based artist where identity and expression through the medium of virtual reality has already eclipsed empirical investigation.  The collision between the life-style "choices" illustrated, and the way in which the different mediums extend our gaze, provides both a mask to the anxiety about the meaning of modern life and a release from its absurdity.  Baldessari's brand of reality can be seen as a solemn reference to the ease through which objective truth and fantasy can be blurred.

Edward Ruscha (b.1937, American) is loath to refer to himself as a photographer.  In a 1972 article for the New York Times entitled "I'm Not Really a Photographer", he states he picked up the camera in order to make his books ("Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations", 1963 and "Every Building on the Sunset Strip", 1966) and that his photographs shouldn't be regarded as art objects but, in fact, were merely a means to an end.   Seventeen years after the fact, however, Ruscha selected ten images from the series and printed an edition of 25 gelatin silver prints mounted on archival board (plus eight artist's proofs) and exhibited them at the Robert Miller Gallery in New York.  Edition #18 sold recently at Christie's as part of the Refco collection for $192,000 doubling its presale high estimate.

Anyone remotely familiar with the artist's work knows that photography plays a central role underlying his process and ideas.  Photographs not only play a key role in his important artist's books from the '60s but also set the tone for future work in his paintings, drawings and prints.  "Twenty-Six Gasoline Stations" reaffirm the matter-of-fact quality of his methodology and his ironic sense of humor.  The artist later admitted to this fact by stating, "I would say I came to painting through photography".

The sublimely deadpan series of black and white photographs of gasoline stations could be looked upon as the perfect antidote to the high-art 'pictorialist' aspirations of modernist photography (as served up by Steichen's "The Pond-Moonlight", from 1904 which was sold at the Met/Gilman de-accession through Sotheby's in February of this year for $2,928,000).

Lacking the romance of the 'on the road' feeling of Robert Frank's influential book of photographs from 1959, "The Americans", and with the deliberate lack of style and bored gaze of the landscape photograph as rendered as so much real estate, Ruscha shepherds in a cool 'snapshot' style of reportage that is all about clarity executed with an anti-art vernacular.  Stripped of any artistic frills, and conceived and produced around the same time Warhol was introducing his visitation of the banal 'pop' products of the commercial consumerist landscape, these images eschew any inflection of emotion and opinion, making the point rather for pure descriptive neutrality.  The images offered up were not the "original" vintage prints exposed while on vacation in 1962 but an edited printed-later version executed in 1989 from the negatives saved 27 years after the fact.  Rather than beg exquisite uniqueness and vintage quality, the multiple nature of the edition reflected the more entrepreneurial spirit of an artist providing a more engaging price point for buyers at the end of the go-go '80s, as well as bringing the collector into a rarified club of other tastemakers.

Andy Warhol's (b.1928, American) implementation of camera-based reality into his paintings (with the aid of the silk-screen) pushed the language of photography forward in a new, distinctly American way.  This gesture, first implemented in August of 1963 with the appropriation of a publicity still of Marilyn Monroe he cropped from pre-production on the 1953 Henry Hathaway directed film noir classic "Niagara", resulted in what came to be known as the "Marilyn" paintings.  The image, a glamorous photograph of one of America's very first stars from the Hollywood promotional machine of the 1950s, served as focal point of the paintings.  Supplying the inexhaustible reserve of what Walter Benjamin made reference to as having an "aura"--an inexhaustible reserve of strength and anxiety--the "Marilyn's" played a key role in providing both Warhol and the vehicle of photography an immediate breach into the world of contemporary art.

In "Andy Warhol: Court Painter to the 70s", an exhibition catalogue published by the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in 1979, author R. Rosenblum, points out,  "By accepting the photograph directly into the domain of pictorial art, not as an external memory prop for the painter's handmade recreation of reality but as the actual base for the image on canvas, Warhol was able to grasp instantly a whole new visual and moral network of modern life that tells us not only about the way we can switch back and forth from artificial color to artificial black-and-white on our TV sets, but also about the way we could switch just as quickly from a movie commercial to footage of the Vietnam War.  For Warhol, the journalistic medium of photography, already a counterfeit experience of the world out there, is doubly counterfeit in its translation to the realm of art."

By appropriating images that came out of both the entertainment world (publicity stills) and the world of newspapers and news television (photojournalism/documentary tradition), Warhol, in one fell swoop of re-contextualizing, broke the connection with the European tradition of modernist painting and turned the world onto a new post-war reality.  Warhol's shift, using the medium of photography to isolate an immediate shared collective sense of history, refocused the viewer towards a meditation on fame, pain and glamour in contemporary American mass culture.

His utilization of an image whose initial creation implied it was wanted by more than one person and his method of production of multiple versions of the same image--each one different and each one the same (hello to the world of art in the age of mechanical reproduction)--was a protean repositioning of artworks whose changing form was determined by the issues the work addressed.  This was a tactical strategy with formal and conceptual ramifications that came from outside the art world, anticipating by at least two decades the coming globalization and soaring desire for art which spoke to a new class of collector and dealer.  The implications of this new, cooler, more mechanical Warholian hybrid of paint and photography with a commercial provenance (not to mention its direct figurative style) caused an immediate paradigm shift resulting in a rewriting of the parameters of the high-art institution.

Iconic contemporary works of photography are now deemed as 'conceptual' and very fashionable and are placed beside other works whose prestige and trophy status offer a more advantageous setting than the more traditional photography gallery or auction market setting.  Photo-based artworks such as the works that appear in contemporary sales are there because the artists are deemed as using the camera because the instrument best perpetuates their concepts, as opposed to the more traditional, "pre-conceptual" photographers who use the camera as a reference point to a literal description of how a camera sees a piece of the world.

Hence Edward Weston is deemed a photographer and Cindy Sherman is a contemporary artist.  Ansel Adams, a photographer; Mike Kelley, an artist.  Kruger, Ray, Muniz, Demand, Baldessari, Ruscha, Duchamp, Warhol, Ruff, Richter, Polke--artists; Avedon, Friedlander, Winogrand, Strand, Cartier-Bresson, Kertesz--photographers.   

Some photographers walk a line and appear in both designations.  Man Ray, Matthew Barney, Olafur Eliasson, Nobuyoshi Araki, William Eggleston, Diane Arbus, Thomas Struth appear in both.  Stieglitz, Steichen, Laszlo Moholy-Nagy, Robert Frank, Irving Penn and others appear about to jump from photographers into artist designation at the houses.  Art galleries and museums are following suit.

The collector who hangs an August Sander gelatin silver photograph of a "Member of Hitler Youth" from 1938 beside a Vanessa Beecroft Vibracolor print of "U.S. Navy Seals, Museum of Contemporary Art, San Diego 1999" is upon us.  The dealer who has a Cindy Sherman chromogenic print history portrait, "Untitled No. 223 (Madonne)" (1990) beside an Andy Warhol acrylic and silkscreen ink on canvas "Map of Eastern U.S.S.R. Missile Bases" (1985-86) can't seem to keep either on the walls of the back room.  Walker Evans and Thomas Ruff are discovered to look good together.  That Ping-Pong effect created by going from homage to irony, from documentary realism to digital reinterpretation--from the spontaneous poetry of unpremeditated observation versus conceptual rigor and theatrical scale and the intimacy of diminutive size--are no longer mutually exclusive.  The contemporary zeitgeist is as challenging and bi-polar as it is intelligent and humorous.

This movement away from photography's reliable ability to document reality and its subsequent progression toward a blurring of the border between photography and contemporary art is due in part to recent developments in both technology and artistic technique. But more importantly, photography's transformation into the vehicle for some of today's most exciting conceptual art is allied to the anxiety of our not knowing anymore how photography lies.

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Brian Appel is a contributing writer for, the E-Photo Newsletter and, focusing on photography and contemporary art. He has a Bachelor of Fine Arts (Photography) from the University of Manitoba's School of Art and a Masters of Arts (Photography and Film Studies) from the University of Iowa. He has been intrigued by the concept of photographer as witness since walking into the first posthumous New York Museum of Modern Art exhibition of Diane Arbus in 1972.