Don’t believe it, even if you see it! Material, virtual, augmented, non-existent – reality forces itself into our visual spectrum with the energy of an unstoppable force. We can’t avoid having reality filtered for us, condensed and summarized, in the name of speed, efficiency, and globalization. We can, however, discern usefulness and veridity, as well as the intention behind filters and frames that are being used. It is important today to critically consider the visual production of the unreal, of the fake, and educate new ways of looking. In a world increasingly dominated by fabricated information that does not refer to verifiable truths, the extent to which false knowledge can be embedded in visual products reaches heights beyond our imagination, ironically enough.
The medium of photography, historically employed in fields relating to information dissemination, personal and official records, or political discourse, has evolved to be fully accepted as an art form, going from an arid communication tool to a visual genre bursting with creativity and fantasy. The relationship between photography and trust is no longer a direct link. The appeal to reason through the sense of sight has been replaced with the appeal to reason through emotions mediated by the senses. The role of photography has shifted under the load of instantaneous production and circulation, as the line between viewers and producers has been effectively removed.
Despite it having been an epitome of certainty (certainty that what it shows has once been truly there; the certainty that we could learn something about the past when looking at a photograph in the present), photography has moved towards a non-linear understanding of its own time: the present of photography is constantly open to being manipulated. The veridity of the depicted past is challenged, and as consequence, the use of all information in future scenarios becomes harder to anticipate. This is when photography becomes moody, permeable, dropping its historical connection to certainty and reason. We might assign agency to photographs, identify some anthropomorphic intentionality, difficult to contain or frame.
The photograph as proof of existence, as an object that stands for its own trustworthiness has been replaced by digitally modified renditions – the unavoidable moving forward into a world of immateriality. That the immaterial is so often equated with the unreal is interesting, if not slightly frightening. Deception has solidified its position as a visual genre, with digital manipulation leaving very little to imagination. The real or the authentic are a choice, to be used strategically. In this current climate of the all-seeing, the violently visible rendition of all things real and unreal, can we look towards photography as an art form, and inform new understandings of the visible?
Photographer Thomas Bangsted creates multilayered digital puzzles by overlapping images from various locations and different times. This spatial and temporal dimension in manipulating the frame is part of the search for sublime the photographer undergoes. Single shots may take him years to complete, as he shoots landscapes or objects over an extended period of time, in order to explore “new understandings of place.” The “present” is not a quality sought after in his photography. He proves that the “here and now” that has become a mantra of the authentic is no longer necessary in facilitating experiences of the authentic. Many viewers may even uncannily remember having been “there,” subsequently referencing a non-existent time in a virtually unreal location.
Robert Overweg works with the virtual world as a photographic medium. His works mimic reality, albeit in cropped, fragmented spatial scenes, which maintain a sense of artificiality. The unreal is here endowed with a discernable note of the unrealistic. These uninhabitable locations are put together to create alternative public spaces, all the while with a strong tone of fiction.
More subtle scenes of unreal dimensions appear in the work of American photographer Kelli Connell. She manipulates multiple negatives to create the illusion of real places and real people. Her photographs are strong contenders to authenticity, through the complex yet recognizable narratives her characters put together. Nevertheless, it’s the same model who appears everywhere in the shot, giving the scenes a heightened surreal feel. These ambiguous fragments of the world challenge the link between photography and truth, necessarily imposing particular ways of looking.
Photography confronts, demands, insists, interrupts, fills gaps in what we know, and faces us with the falsehood of what we thought real. It can act as a meeting point between individuals, space, and time, and it is just as comfortable acting as a source of ambiguity, surrealism, and fiction. Analysing photography as a construct, rather than a trustworthy replica of reality is critical to positioning ourselves correctly in relation to the knowledge we operate and the truth value of our world.
Words: Elena Stanciu