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Analysis out of the box

Paris Photo: photography through its constant transformation

Analysis out of the boxContemporary Art | Paris Photo, the first international fair dedicated to photography, celebrates its 20th edition in 2016. Since 1997 the fair has, each year, defined the contours of a versatile artistic field, showing its constant boundary-breaking transformations. In this sense, Paris Photo offers an understanding of the new dimensions involving the art of “writing with light”- the etymological meaning of photography.

David Hockney, John St Clair swimming April 1972 © David Hockney Studio, courtesy Galerie 1900-2000, Paris
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David Hockney, John St Clair swimming April 1972
© David Hockney Studio, courtesy Galerie 1900-2000, Paris

Artists constantly redefine the art of photography by using analog techniques, which are disappearing (daguerreotype, ambrotype, gum bichromate…), alongside contemporary digital techniques, which play with stillness and movement. Because photography is gaining a central place in artistic processes, irrespective of the medium, its technical evolution is leading to the transformation of traditional techniques in the fine arts more broadly.

Photography and painting, a continuous back and forth

David Hockney’s (b. 1937) vintage photographic prints from the 1970’s show us how a painter, who has worked with photography since his early years, eventually redefined his mode of expression by incorporating the principles of photography and the evolution of visual techniques. The prints reveal how the framings of Hockney’s paintings from the 1960’s - 1970’s are constructed upon numerous series of photographs, some of which have inspired iconic paintings (galerie 1900-2000). In 2009, Hockney began painting on digital platforms, introducing a key photographic principle in the pictorial field : unlimited reproduction. Through this action, the art of painting enters a ubiquitous domain; it can be endlessly reproduced. Because the image is contained in a digital file, it can be printed in diverse formats and sizes, with a potentially unlimited number of copies.

Between analog and digital photography

Contemporary artistic practices alternate the use of analog and digital photography, questioning the relation and differences between both methods while opening a variety of plastic research fields.

Penelope Umbrico, Range of Masters of Photography © Bruce Silverstein Gallery
Penelope Umbrico, Range of Masters of Photography
© Bruce Silverstein Gallery

Range of Masters of Photography, a series by the American Penelope Umbrico (b. in 1957), was exhibited in the fair’s PRISMES section (Bruce Silverstein gallery). Her art work is at the heart of the move to question the relation between analog and digital images, shedding light on the differences between both approaches; reflecting on limited and unlimited reproductions, and on the manipulation of classic works of art with new popular image devices. Umbrico works with photographs of mountains taken by masters of analog photography, using the images as they appear online and in printed media. She then rephotographs and processes them using about a hundred iPhone applications with filters, which are omnipresent nowadays to simulate image “flaws”. In this sense, she re-questions the stability of the image that the original master photographers were trying to attain. Void, a series by Chinese artist Jian Pengyi’s (b. in 1977), also exists between both techniques. The artist starts his process by working with analog photography, he then scans the picture and inkjet prints it on large format photographic films (178,6 x 140 cm, Blindspot Gallery). In contrast, Moroccan artist Μustapha Azeroual (b. in 1979) uses the latest digital printing techniques on lenticular supports to realize abstract and contemplative paintings which change according to the light. The Radiance series shows five digital photographs of an Icelandic landscape which were placed on top of each other and then printed on a lenticular support. Alongside this, the artist works with older techniques involving long processes, such as the daguerreotype and the gum bichromate (galerie Binôme).

Time compression

Contemporary art involving digital photography is often realized through lengthy procedures, as we can see with German artist Andreas Gursky (b. 1955), whose digital works are usually the result of long editing using software. The artist assembles elements from several photographs shot in one location and, through this process, he creates one image which is then revealed to be a time compression of that location (some examples of the places depicted are the ceiling inside the French Communist Party Headquarters in 2003, which was shown in the exhibition of the Centre Pompidou’s new acquisitions and the 1993 motor show, shown on the stand of Mai 36 gallery). The German artist Martin Liebscher (b. 1964), uses the same principle when he stages himself at the Swiss International Conference negotiation table through a photomontage of personal portraits, introducing an element of fiction into a formal space (Martin Asbaek gallery). In a nearby room, the Danish artist Eva Koch (b. 1953) shows us another form of time compression through the video of a red poppy : the flower blooms and dies hastily, symbolizing an abrupt dream, an elusive instant of anguishing beauty.

Plasticity and political criticism

For analog as in digital, the specificities of each medium are implicated when it comes to the expression of historical, social and political criticisms. The White Lady’s series, realized by the Israeli artist Uri Gershuni (b. 1970) during a residency in Düsseldorf, is an example of this practice (Chellouche gallery).

Uri Gershuni, The White Lady © Chellouche Gallery
Uri Gershuni, The White Lady
© Chellouche Gallery

In the series, Gershuni takes analog photographs of a detergent factory ran by the Henkel brand. After making two prints from each of the series’ photograms, he puts one of them in a clothes-washing machine. The washed image comes out almost faded or completely immaculate. In his work, Gershuni presents two prints side by side : the clear image of the industrial location confronting the washed image alongside it, almost or completely erased. The White Lady, founded in 1922, was the advertising image of the detergent brand known as Persil. Its slogan invoked the values of a “clean” family, values that were reused for fascist purposes in Nazi propaganda. Taking a similar line, South African artist Hank Willis Thomas (b. 1976) critiqued apartheid in his work, staging two characters : one of them with the face painted white and the other black, both of them dressed half in one color, half in the other. The digital print on C-print is covered by a Plexiglas slab with a Lumisty film which makes the image blur according to the spectator’s movements; the faces and bodies of both characters dissolve when we look at them from a certain angle, creating a new type of kinetic art (Crossroads, 2012, gallery Jablonka Maruani Mercier).

The constant extension of photography’s field

In today’s world, the use of high resolution images has almost become a dictate; however, although the majority of the fair’s pieces are high resolution photographs or moving images, we can also find a Low resolution work by Jim Campbell (b. 1956). The artist presents a low-resolution LED board programmed with video footage of pedestrian and vehicle traffic. A slightly opaque Plexiglas slab is placed at an angle of thirty degrees from the LED board, having a blurry effect on the image which becomes almost abstract. Although we could say Campbell’s work is Low resolution and low energy, it is still high-tech; having graduated from ΜIT, the artist puts his engineering expertise at the service of his art work (Bryce Wolkowitz gallery).

Yorgo Alexopoulos, Long Swell © Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery
Yorgo Alexopoulos, Long Swell
© Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

In the same gallery, The Long Swell (2014) a work by Yorgo Alexopoulos (b.1971) updates our concept of romantic contemplation through the video of a landscape with a vibrant ocean, realized entirely with digital animation. He offers the visitor an infinite horizon, with waves whose colors go from golden yellow to dark blue. Paris Photo reveals that photography is in a process of constant reinvention and the art of writing with light keeps redefining its forms through digital techniques.

Maud Maffei
Publié le 16/11/2016
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Version française

David Hockney, John St Clair swimming April 1972 © David Hockney Studio, courtesy Galerie 1900-2000, Paris Penelope Umbrico, Range of Masters of Photography © Bruce Silverstein Gallery Mustapha Azeroual - Radiance #5, 2016 © Courtesy Galerie Binome Mustapha Azeroual - Aurora, série Radiance #4, 2016 © Courtesy Galerie Binome Andreas Gursky, PCF, 2003 © Collection du Centre Pompidou Uri Gershuni, The White Lady © Chellouche Gallery Hank Willis Thomas, Croassroads © Jablonka Maruani Mercier Gallery Yorgo Alexopoulos, Long Swell © Bryce Wolkowitz Gallery

David Hockney, John St Clair swimming April 1972
© David Hockney Studio, courtesy Galerie 1900-2000, Paris

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