For the past fifty years, Latin American, Latino, and Caribbean artists have been pioneers in critical thinking about photography. Resisting the impulse to simply document the outside world, they are addressing crucial questions about the medium’s role as an aesthetic pursuit, a means of communication, and a political tool: What effect has the proliferation of photographs in the press over the last century had on our understanding of current events? How have photographs helped codify limited conceptions of the varied peoples, cultures, and landscapes of the Americas? Has the growing flood of photographs in our daily lives sharpened or dulled our capacity for empathy and cross-cultural exchange? And how has the emergence of digital imaging opened up avenues for rethinking the very matter of photography?
In addressing such inquiries, the artists featured in The Matter of Photography -until April 30 at the Cantor Arts Center of Stanford University (California)- marshal materials far afield of those traditionally associated with picture taking. Drawings and prints, films and installations, photocopies and books are all brought to bear in powerful critiques of the medium’s development and historical functions.
“Acutely aware of the numbness to photographs that the flood of images in our daily lives has bred, these artists find powerful ways of sharpening our visual acuity. In the process, they incite active participation in the creation of meaning within a heterogeneous world of contemporary photographic imagery”, curators Jodi Roberts, Halperin Curator of Modern & Contemporary Art, Cantor Arts Center, and Natalia Brizuela, Associate Professor, University of California Berkeley, said.
The exhibition brings together artists from twelve countries in the Americas, such as Beatriz González, Hudinilson Jr., Anna Bella Geiger, Iñaki Bonillas, Alfredo Jaar, Ana Mendieta, Álvaro Barrios, Claudio Perna, Oscar Muñoz, Liliana Porter, Claudia Joskowicz, Letícia Parente , Alessandro Balteo Yazbeck, Eugenio Dittborn, Vik Muniz, Angela Bonadies, Joiri Minaya, Mario Garcia Torres, Priscilla Monge, Monica Mayer, Beatriz Santiago Muñoz, Graciela Sacco, Geraldo de Barros, Paulo Bruscky, Teresa Margolles, Catalina Parra, Roberto Huarcaya and Milagros de la Torre.
Reproduced on cheap newsprint, on the pages of glossy magazines, and online, photographs have been a driving force in news media since the early twentieth century. The works featured here intervene in the ceaseless—supposedly objective and informative—flood of journalistic images in order to call attention to the social agendas, political narratives, and biases embedded within them. In extracting particular news images and altering their visual form, presentation, and framing, these works draw attention to the lives and bodies of those who affect and are affected by events considered newsworthy. They explore how photographic images in the news have taken on the task of delivering ideology in nonverbal, and therefore presumably transparent, ways.
Since the mid-nineteenth century, photography has provided a key means of exploring and learning about Latin American and Caribbean landscapes, indigenous peoples, and cultures. Images of these subjects enjoyed brisk sales in Europe and the United States. The artists in this section question how the medium’s documentary capacities have perpetuated an image of Latin America and the Caribbean as exotic, seductive, and available for exploitation. Often ironically assuming the guise of early traveler-photographers and/or their indigenous subjects, these artists point to the power relations at play in ethnographic photographers’ portrayals of people and geographies for clients in faraway, powerful nations.
Photography has always been an invaluable tool of police forces and state agencies. Since its invention, it has helped governing authorities visualize individuals and groups considered a threat to the welfare of the larger social body. The works in this section examine the legacy of photography-enhanced social policing and criminology. Frequently created in nations that suffered long periods of violent dictatorships in the twentieth century, they expose past and present-day modes of photographic surveillance, and they question how photography restricts citizens by capturing and circulating images of physical traits regarded as suspect.
Portraiture has been a favored subject of photographers since the mid-nineteenth century. Satisfying sitters’ desires for flattering images of themselves, portrait photography thrives on visual conventions that render the body as whole, healthy, and attractively in line with mainstream aesthetic norms. In contrast, the bodies presented in this section are purposefully undisciplined and exuberantly unruly. These images undermine photography’s role in categorizing physicalities as good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, cherished or stigmatized. If photography has historically been used to discipline social bodies, these fractured portraits of fractious bodies visualize the ungovernable.
Photography challenges the idea of originality. Since its beginning, it has been belittled as overly mechanical, lacking creative potential. Moreover, photography’s ability to reproduce multiple copies of the same image was an affront to the notion that the value of an artwork lies in its singularity. The circulation of renowned photographs online has further challenged the fetishistic appreciation of original works, as millions of viewers can now access images without recourse to a physical print or a reproduction in a paper publication. The criticism that photography is no more than a tool for direct reproduction of real-world things and scenery—which is to say, for making copies—parallels long-standing claims that Latin American art is, by and large, derivative of artistic trends from cultural superpowers. The artists in this section take up questions of creativity, originality, and primacy through a medium that has always been associated with copying. Produced in supposedly subordinate Latin American and Latino sites, the works embrace pastiche as a means of critique.
The emergence of digital imaging in the 1970s and its rapid displacement of analog photography among amateur picture takers speaks to the emergence of a new relationship between humans and machines. The works featured here unveil the process of encoding at the heart of digital photography. Yet the artists behind them also insist on the human aspect of creative work, be it by digital or handcrafted means—they find a creative tension between the machine-made and the human-made. In their nuanced critiques of technology and blurring of the boundary between the technological and the human, these works push back against the idea of Latin America as untamed, indigenous, and technologically backward.
What is the antidote to photographic excess and the numbness it engenders? The artists in this section suggest a radical solution: removing photographs from the visual field. Some offer words in place of images, while others rely on printing methods and other photographic techniques to obscure, cover up, or dissolve the recognizable images we expect to see. They suggest that the only way to restore photography’s poignancy as a record of human experience and as a spur to understanding the world empathically is to withhold the visual stimuli to which we are accustomed.
Light, photosensitive chemicals, paper or another surface on which to print: these were the essential ingredients of photography before the advent of digital imaging. Working in an age when digital technologies have dematerialized images, these artists take up analog photography’s most basic elements, exploring their formal and communicative potential when relieved of the burden of representation. Showing things that are usually invisible to the naked eye, these works challenge our most basic assumptions about how a photograph should look and, by extension, the information it should provide. If a photograph need not be a register of the real world, what kinds of knowledge and experience might it spawn?
Featured image: Claudia Joskowicz (Bolivia, b. 1968), Still from Every Building on Avenida Alfonso Ugarte—After Ruscha, 2011. Two-channel digital HD video, 26 min. Courtesy of the artist and LMAK gallery, NY