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Photography, but not as we know it

A new show in New York explores how social media are changing the way professional photographers work

George Pendle | January 5th 2016

It has been estimated that in 2015 more than a trillion photos were snapped. Instagram, the popular photo-sharing app, claims that some 80m new photos are uploaded to its site each day. We are clearly taking more photographs than ever before, so it’s a bit of a shock, when one enters the survey of new photographic talent at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, to discover that it contains very few actual photos. 

There are videos and books and print-outs and even a completely reconstructed subway bookstore, but the humble snapshot is in short supply. This, the curators assure us, is kind of the point. The mobile phone has turned everyone into a photographer and social media have provided a gallery for all our work. We are creating a vortex of images every day. Where does that leave the professional photographer?

The answer provided by the 19 young artists featured here is entertaining if unsettling. While photographs have traditionally been prized for their ability to capture the moment and cement it into an eternity, these new photographers view their medium more like quicksilver, something that transmutes and dissembles. Photography has always been an art of elision – a shot is framed to exclude certain parts of reality and to highlight others – but since the rise of the digital image the reality found in the viewfinder is more malleable than ever, its final meaning less certain. 

A terrific example of this change can be found in David Horvitz’s “Mood Disorder” (2015). Horvitz photographed himself with his head in his hands and uploaded the image to a Wikipedia page on mood disorders. He then tracked the image as it started to spread across the Internet. Soon it was being used as a stock image to illustrate blogs and forums on depression and addiction. It seeped into news stories on mental health and bankruptcy. It was used on German, Dutch and Italian webpages which Horvitz then printed out and pinned to MoMA’s walls. The effect is like looking at the medical chart of a disease spreading through a body – a truly viral image – yet it also shows how shared our visual vocabulary is, how common our common denominators are.

The Sun, as seen in Mishka Henner’s 12-volume work “Astronomical”

The limitations of the photograph are on glorious display in Mishka Henner’s book, “Astronomical” (2011). It consists of 12 volumes, each of 500 pages, showing photographs of the solar system – the width of each page representing one million kilometers – starting with the Sun on page one (above) and ending with Pluto on page 6,000. The encyclopaedic girth of the books suggests they contain some kind of astronomical wisdom, but as a video of the volumes being flicked through shows, all they contain is page after page of endless blackness. It’s a humbling and humorous message about photography’s limits, a shaggy-dog story with no punch line. 

Those looking for something like a traditional photograph can turn to the work of Lucas Blalock, although his photos don’t offer much solid ground on which to stand. Instead you are presented with a confusion of the digital and the real, a masterful display of how one world is impinging upon the other. In “Picture for Mark II” (2013) Blalock uses Photoshop to multiply a single image of wood grain, creating a churning, abstracted landscape. Even more confusing is Blalock’s “Strawberries (forever fresh)” (2015, top) in which he photographs strawberry sweets and mixes them with  fragmented photographs of real strawberries in the same image. While the two types of strawberry don’t look the same, the cognitive dissonance caused by the conflation of genuine fake (the real candy) and fake genuine (the photo of the real strawberry) provides a visual hiccup that is weirdly disconcerting – the treachery of images in full effect.

Lieko Shiga’s photographs of village life in Japan are a mixture of the quotidian and the surreal 

In this show photographs are clearly not to be trusted. Yet there are occasions in which photography seems to be able to transcend its trickster qualities, or at least harness them for illumination. In 2006, Lieko Shiga became a resident photographer in a small Japanese village and took to documenting the people, festivals and official events of the community. Yet in a series of huge images we see pictures of a town that is strangely askew. Otherwise unremarkable documentary pictures have been tweaked and coloured by Shiga not in order to deceive us but to create a frisson of magic realism. An old couple standing side-by-side stare nonchalantly at the photographer without seeming to notice that the man has been impaled by a tree (pictured). A collection of pot plants sits in the middle of a road leaking suspiciously dark liquid onto the asphalt. A wok flies ecstatically through the air behind a chef’s back. The scenes are murky and half-shrouded in darkness so it feels as if we’ve stumbled upon them. They are unsettling photographs, unexplainable and quotidian. As with so many of the images in this beguiling show they seem to say, “This is not real, but this is reality.”

Ocean of Images: New Photography 2015 Museum of Modern Art, New York, until March 20th

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