New York Photo Review
Volume 4 Issue 22 May 21 to 27, 2013

The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Touched by the Digital Wand

After Photoshop - Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age

Photo by Debbie Grossman . Source:
Debbie Grossman, "Virginia Norris, Homesteaders and Town Founders" 2010.
Although “After Photoshop” is presented as an independent exhibition in the Modern Photography gallery at the Met, it is in fact the extension of the nearby show of manipulated photography from the 19th through the 20th century, “Faking It.” That is not to say this show does not have its pleasures, but it does not really address the issue of how digital processing is changing the way we view photographs.

Rather, with only a few exceptions, its primary concern is with how the photographic tropes and practices used since the beginning of the art and extensively documented in “Faking It“ are continuing today, albeit with new digital technologies.

First the pleasures. The show has works by 19 artists (17 individuals and one collaboration) some of whom are not well known, but whose work is enjoyable and substantial. There are some decidedly old school pieces — Beate Götshow’s too-beautiful-to-be-real landscape, (multiple pasteups), Osamu Nakagaw’s hyper detailed cliffs near Okinawa, and Robert Polidori’s intricate Varanasi cityscape, the latter two composed by digitally combining images focused at different planes. These photographs stand out largely because the image itself, rather that the process of making the image, is uppermost in the minds of the viewer and presumably the photographer. Debbie Grossman’s faux-documentary photographs altering the 1930’s pictures of small town New Mexico taken by Farm Service photographer Russell Lee (to produce an all female version of the town) fall into this category as well.

Not so many others. Process is uppermost on the minds of artists like Jason Salavon, who averaged together portraits by Franz Hals to produce a generic version of the old master. Or Joan Fontcuberta, who collected images through Google searches for “Photo” and “Foto”, then used a density mapping technique to reproduce the first photograph taken by Niépce in 1826, creating a large scale version of it using thousands of small photographs. As in many contemporary works, the concept is as important as the imagery, if not more so.

Photo by Beate Gütschow . Source:
Beate Gütschow, "LS #3" 1999.
The installation of the show is itself very process oriented, each piece is carefully dissected in the wall labels, describing the craft as much as the art of each print. Mirroring “Faking It”, the pre-Photoshop show, we see pieces in which the computer is used to correct shortcomings in the recording medium itself (such as with Polidori and Nakagaw ); or where photographer Kelli Connell plays with multiple exposures to have the same model appear twice. In others, images are transformed to make them look more “artistic”. Kota Ezawa has made a Walker Evans photograph into a planar abstraction; Tom Friedman, turns a photograph into a series of colored stripes; and Thomas Ruff takes a random, mildly pornographic image, and by blurring and exaggerating it, turns it into a readymade Hans Richter.

One of the more fascinating sections of the larger pre-Photoshop exhibition illustrates the quasi-scientific attempts by early twentieth century anthropologists to approximate racial and social types by combining multiple portraits into composites. (We all know that some people just look like criminals.) In the digital show we are duly shown that same technique using modern digital technology (the “Hals” portrait by Saladon or merged images of world leaders by Nancy Burson). Finally we see the ‘Surrealistic’ photographs of Bradley Rubenstein “Girl with Puppy Dog Eyes”, or the dreamlike buildings of Flip Dujardin and Craig Kalpakjian.

Is there anything new under the digital sky? Perhaps. Not directly as a result of Photoshop, but as a consequence of the super abundance of visual information available and viewed each day. Matthew Jenson’s piece from 2008, “49 States” takes Google street-views from each of the states (I don’t know which state is missing) and puts them up on a big grid. Unfortunately, he has chosen pictures where the camera is more or less directly facing the sun, and thus this cross-country road trip seems to be a constant struggle to squint through a glary windshield. The individual pictures are unremarkable and almost un-viewable, (at least to this confirmed, tongue-hanging-out-the-window, Street View voyeur.) Again, the impact of the piece is in the concept, not the imagery.

If there is one elephant in this room not mentioned, it surely has to be Andreas Gursky — record holder for the world’s most expensive photograph (or is Cindy on top this week?) and one of the masters of digital prestidigitation. His gigantic photo-realistic creations, Rhine River II, 99 Cent Store, and various Hotel Lobby images are some of the most iconic of our time. But notable in this context is the fact that the digital, fantastic element in these pictures is entirely underplayed. The imagery is the primary focus, and many viewers can go years without realizing that these pictures are some of the ultimate, photographic ‘fakes’.

We live in an age where just about all images we see, certainly the photographic ones, are touched with the digital wand, and perhaps we will only understand the pervasive effects of this when we eventually do move into the era of “Photography after Photoshop.”

After Photoshop - Manipulated Photography in the Digital Age

Metropolitan Museum of Art
1000 Fifth Ave.
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Tuesday, September 25 to
Monday, May 27, 2013
Hours: Tues - Sun 9:30 - 5:30; Fri, Sat to 9 pm.

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