Photography in Isolation
Collaborating and Communicating through Images
by Ellen Wang | 18th August 2020
During the isolation period of the COVID-19 pandemic, a large number of artists had to adapt their practices to work in isolation. Albeit the limitations, the isolation provided opportunities to reflect on what can be done under such restrictions. Parameters can be used effectively to facilitate reconsideration and reinvention. In the case of photography, a medium that has already infiltrated the Internet, the new parameters made not only artists but also viewers take a fresh look at the photographs and other images as vehicles of exchanging ideas at a distance.
In an online lecture in April organised by the International Center of Photography in New York, writer, curator and photo-historian David Campany notes that as early as 1863, Oliver Wendell Holmes, an American physician who wrote perspectively on photography, may have predicted the world of social media:
‘...You see him at his desk or table with his books [...] you notice the lamp by which he reads – the objects lying about; you guess his condition, whether married or single; you divine his tastes, apart from that which he has in common with yourself. By-and-by, as he warms towards you, he sends you the picture of what lies next to his heart [...] And so these shadows have made him with his outer and his inner life a reality for you; and but for his voice, which you have never heard, you know him better than hundreds who call him by name, as they meet him year after year...’
Here, Holmes describes what he calls a ‘photographic intimacy’ between two people who have never met each other, showing an example of a person’s essence (or the representation of which) communicated through a portrait photograph, a peek of the sitter’s life, much like a picture sent through Messenger on Facebook.
The following instances illustrate how artists and curators collaborate through images made in isolation. While some artists have been using social media platforms such as Instagram to communicate with exclusively visual language, others are commissioned by museum curators to reflect on how mobile-phone cameras have changed the way we look at and interact with photographs.
Dialogue is a project inspired by the writing of Holmes mentioned above. In July 2017, Company, who had been living in London before moving to New York earlier this year, and Miami-based artist Samoylova set out to explore the possibility of complete strangers coming to know each other simply by exchanging photographs. The rules are simple: no use of text, moving images, or sequences; images are always square but the content is unrestricted. The visual conversation is constructed through either thematic or formal associations between one image and the following. For instance, a photograph of a tree trunk and its shadow is followed by a picture of traffic poles, which share the similar vertical form with the tree trunk and the shadow.
Screenshot of Instagram profile page @dialogue_aandd
I first heard of the project in a lecture by Company in 2018, when the Instagram page was only known by few. Yet, in the past two years, this project initiated on Instagram, has evolved into two exhibitions and a book. The exhibition at Galerie Andreas Schimidt, Berlin in 2018 presented the works as a large split-screen video projection that lasts for five and a half hours. The video format showing immersive image sequences is perhaps closer to a presentation on an Instagram page. Apart from being shown on digital screens, the project was brought onto printed pages by Fulcrum Press in 2019 with the title D&A Dialogue. The book is designed in square format, just like the images you would see on Instagram.
Poster of Dialogue, the exhibition at Galerie Andreas Schmidt, 2018
The Instagram account @commonplace is another collaborative project between an artist and a curator. In photographer Susannah Baker-Smith’s and curator Susan Bright’s case, they take on the roles of editors rather than image-makers. Similar to @dialogue_aandd, the images here are connected by their shapes, colours, patterns and themes, sometimes between two images, sometimes found in a few images in a sequence.
Screenshot of Instagram profile page @common_.place
Explained in the profile, the account name comes from commonplace books, an information management device used by writers, readers and scholars since antiquity until the nineteenth century. A commonplace book is represented in the form of a book collecting and documenting information that shares a common topic, compiled quotes, letters, poems, recipes, proverbs and other kinds of items of knowledge. For Baker-Smith and Bright, Instagram becomes ‘a repository for observations, excerpts, and images.’ In the screenshot above, a 1942 photograph by Weegee, capturing two offenders in a paddy wagon covering their faces with top hats, is paired with a photograph by Eugène Atget showing a Paris shop window displaying mannequins wearing hats. The caption of the later one reads: ‘Different continent, different time, different intent, but for me Weegee and Atget seem mysteriously linked.’ Perhaps it is the hat-wearing human figures that connect the two photographs; perhaps it is the strongly present diagonal perspective lines in both photographs. Not much context is given in most of the posts, yet it is the ‘mysterious’ connections between these images that show us the magic of images that cannot be articulated in words.
In response to the lockdown, @the.ongoing.moment is an ‘exquisite corpse’ game played by six photography curators for ‘photo nerds’ with ‘a little extra time at home’ (according to one of the participants, Sarah Kennel, curator of photography at the High Museum of Art). The account’s introduction tributes the project to Geoff Dyer, author of the book The Ongoing Moment, and Henri Cartier-Bresson, the French photographer who introduced the iconic concept of ‘the decisive moment’ in photography.
Screenshot of Instagram profile page @the.ongoing.moment
On 2 June, the account posted a black square with the hashtag ‘blackouttuesday’, reacting to George Floyd’s death and the racism and police brutality it revealed. Kennel followed the post with a photograph from Adrian Piper’s Food for the Spirit, a series documenting the artist’s performance isolating herself to enter a disassociate stage. Piper was influenced by her reading of Immanel Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason which led her to question her material existence. The photograph Kennel posted shows Piper emerging from darkness naked with a camera in her hands pointed towards a mirror. The darkness of the image links it to the ‘blackouttuesday’ black square not only visually but also conceptually, reflecting on the representation of blackness, silence, and existence.
Screenshot of @the.ongoing.moment’s Instagram post
4. ‘Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists’, 2017
The challenge of showing these online collaborative projects for art institutions is obvious: how can we properly adapt digital projects to physical presentation? One of the examples is the exhibition Talking Pictures: Camera-Phone Conversations Between Artists at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2017. Curated by Mia Fineman, assistant curator at the Department of Photographs, the show examines how mobile-phone cameras have changed the ways photographs are made, presented, and viewed with the increasingly dominant use of smartphones in visual culture over the past decade. Twelve artists were commissioned to invite a partner of his or her choice to play a game of ‘pictorial ping-pong’, sending images or short videos to each other from November 2016 to April 2017. Over the course of six months, the artists were asked to upload their work to an iCloud account to avoid file compression on messaging apps. The participants are image-makers from a range of backgrounds, including American artist Nicole Eisenmann, Chinese multimedia artist Cao Fei, and Nigerian-American writer and photographer Teju Cole.
One of the most memorable collaborations is the exchange between photographers Manjari Sharman and Irina Rozowsky, both of whom were pregnant and due by the end of the project. Their photographs are diaristic snap-shots of beautifully-composed ordinary moments reminiscent of the work of Rinro Kawauchi. From pets, meals, swelling bellies to their newborns at the end, the subjects of Sharman and Rozowsky’s photographs are immediate, intimate and unapologetically honest (You can see an installation shot in this article on Engadget).
While the presentation of Sharman and Rozowsky’s conversation was more conventional, presented in two rows of prints on a wall, the displays of other projects experiment with how immaterial communications can be exhibited: four projects are slideshows on digital monitors and six of them are on iPads or printed as books displayed on tables. The gallery became an archive of visual items of all sorts.
So, how has smartphone photography changed our relationship with images? Fineman answers in a wall text that camera phones have turned photography into ‘a fluid, instantaneous, ephemeral medium, closer to speaking than to writing.’ The spontaneous, ordinary, personal qualities common to the images exhibited in Talking Pictures represent what Fineman sees as the reinvention of photography.
What the three Instagram projects and the Met exhibition have in common, apart from the use of Internet platforms, is that the role of the artist has become closer to that of an editor. They had to be aware of not only the individual images but also the connection between these images. These exchanges of images illustrate that photographic meaning depends as much on gaps and the invisible connections as much on what can be represented visually. Before the prevalence of phone-cameras and the Internet, communications through images happened primarily on paper, in letter, diaries and magazines; visual culture was defined by the printed pages, where the relations between images were relatively definitive by force of the editor. In the digital age today, when images are looked at on electronic screens, images are experienced closer to moving images, their organisation closer to montage (take Trevor Paglen’s exhibition ‘From “Apple” to “Anomaly”’ at the Barbican for an example). The connections between these montages of images become malleable and open to possible meanings. When we are scrolling through an Instagram profile page, images are constantly moving: one image appear after another after another.
In an earlier article, I discussed the politics of museum wall text, and the intertwining intentions of the artist, the curator, and the exhibition staff behind the text. Yet, the obsessive need to put an explanation or introduction next to every artwork signals a contemporary cultural populism and an aversion to the subconscious that accompanies it. What is at stake here is the qualities that are core to the value in art – intricacy, ambiguity, and freedom from articulation.
In the digital realm where images collide and our daily experience of images feels more akin to fragmentary and multi-directional montage, what can be expressed through these montages is accentuated, as well as the significant role of editing. Some of the greatest works in the history of photography such as Nan Goldin’s The Ballad of Sexual Dependency and Larry Clark’s Tulsa are in debt to editing. Early as in 1943, Sergei Eisenstein had named this creation of montage, in the space between images, ‘the third something’ in his The Film Sense. Today, the online visual communication projects we have looked at have proven that with the aid of the Internet, artists are able to collaborate in isolation, reminding us of what can be read in and between images that words cannot explain.