“It’s only digital photo manipulations and the images seem so random!” These words roll off the critics tongue and hang in the air during the course of the one on one discussion, cutting deep into the artist’s psyche, initially creating a gulf between the mindsets of the two. The essence of the remark is to question the very nature of popular culture art – not unlike the ‘plinther’ in Antony Gormley’s One & Other sculptural performance at the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square. The ‘plinther’ way up high in the heavily frequented public space, stands before a web cam with a chalk board sign, raising the question to the world ‘But is it Art?’. A question that has attained greater and greater relevance, as the years have passed since Duchamp posed the similar question by challenging the nature of what is an object of art. Reeling from the initial consternation of the statement’s implication, a hasty yet poorly conceived response is returned in an attempt to reconcile the artist’s perception of the work, to that projected within the critic’s statement that misses the point of political arts.
The artist tormented by the statement, latter recalls that photographic image manipulation reaches back to the very infancy of photography, when separate emulsion plates were compiled to create panoramic landscapes. Over the past 150 years with the exponential availability and use of the photographic image, particularly now in its digital form, this visual imagery has become an integral part of daily life. Almost everyone of all ages in developed countries carry a camera of some sort about their person – resulting in a deluge of imagery from the most banal, to the capturing of history’s most important events. Unsurprisingly given the technological revolution with this medium, emerging photographic based practices became an early focus out of postmodernism to form a defining aesthetic. The use of digital media has moved from the role of recording and documenting popular culture arts of the time, to one now that creates its own culture(s), in ever quickening flashes that morph in and out of time often in unison with the latest fad television series or movie franchise.
The recording of history and how it’s interpreted has forever changed. The exposure to mass media and consumer advertising has opened up a brave new world of imagery saturation, with a tech savy generation only too aware yet receptive to the processes of imagery marketing; including the knowledge and cautious acknowledgment of the digital photo manipulation that readily occurs to such images, ranging from the air brushing of features to outright attempts at fraud.
Digital photo manipulation for artistic creations has its own history, also reaching far back into the early life of photography. Long before the early development of digital media, and the resulting computer hardware and software, that transformed the ease and the depth of manipulation achievable for politics and art, artists physically transformed their images through simple collage. The American photographic artist Allen Dutton during the 1960’s and 70’s created fragmented yet intriguing photographic collages. Dutton usually composed the collages from ‘found’ photographs, cropped and pieced together to form interventions with a landscape, and then re-photographed to remove evidence of the collaging process that he had utilized. Digital photo manipulated works such as ‘Plausible Humbuggery of the perspective’ and ‘Who said sculpture was dull’ depict human body parts in unusual arrangements, set in landscapes both rural and urban. Dutton’s work could be considered transitional, as an earlier physical form of a hand produced photoshop – represented in its final state as a single image. A single image, yet created in its origin from collaged photographic fragments – cut, dodged, filtered, scaled, compiled, and then re-merged to a single entity.
Wallace Berman, another artist of this period whose practice up until his tragic death in 1976, was to also manipulate photographic images of popular culture arts. Berman used scavenged advertisements from the mass culture of the time, and then re-photographed the compiled manipulated photographs. His work often represented the aesthetic of the popular culture that surrounded him into politics and art, but when recompiled as collage, these representations often transgressed the considered morals of the time, with the resulting consequences from the authorities, albeit the images were only ‘manipulations and seemed so random’.
Also utilizing collaged photographic images in his artistic practice is Richard Prince. Prince is renown for his powerful advertising images including the unmistakably American wild west cowboy cult images, that take their name from the brand power they depict as the Marlbaro Man, which ironically is based on a fallacy in that the American cowboy is and has been predominantly ethnically mexican. Prince’s work over the years has resulted in the creation of various bodies of appropriated photograph manipulations into political arts, that provoke the accepted reality of the initial imagery. His early image manipulations such as the Nurses Series involved the use of appropriated mass produced book covers, collaging with them other found imagery from girlie magazines to create a new individual reality from the accepted ‘Mills and Boon’ version of love and romance, to imply a tale of lust and lewdness. Prince re-photographed the collaged images with their ambiguous narrative, and printed the resulting image to canvas as popular culture arts. He then sets about to apply liberal layers of paint, applied with an expressionistic gestural method including smudges and drippings.
One of the great advantages to photographers of digital photo manipulations, is the control over the work as subtle changes occur on the screen instantaneously. The availability of this technology to a photo-montagist such as John Heartfield during the 1930’s would have had a profound impact when he painstakingly cut photographs and re-glued them into new configurations. Heartfield created a series of political art montages for a German magazine in the lead up to the Nazi era, and the technology would no doubt have led to an aesthetically different outcome, although the essential ingredient is the idea behind the work and its relativity to the period that makes the work so poignant as politics and art.
Throughout the 1980’s and 90’s, digital photo manipulation equipment and software enabled the artists to readily transform their captured images. This transformation through the adding of other components into the image’s composition, or the convenient removal and alteration of other aspects of the image, changed the dynamics of the artist’s relationship to the image completely. While the technological developments have enabled artists to explore the mechanisms of this new aesthetic direction in politics and art, the work is still ultimately about the ideas that are explored. The photograph and its digital manipulation are only the means, or rather the medium of choice to achieve the articulation of those ideas of politics art.
The electronic format of digital photo manipulations readily enables artists to control the transformation or the merging of images, thereby providing them with a visual medium that is fresh for ideas to be readily developed. The taking of either intuitive, staged, or found images and then the morphing of those images into forms that are surreal, sublime or even gothic, the artist has the means to present the viewer with medleys that often have a serene visual aesthetic while commenting on popular culture arts. The work of collaborators Anthony Aziz and Sam Cucher, captures a synthesis of ideas and concerns regarding the perceived form of the known. They create a sense that the person or object portrayed in their work is real in the here and now, rather than the portrayal of just a digital photo manipulated image. In their 1994 ‘Dystopia’ series of work an allusive effect is created, evident in the piece titled ‘Rick’ where the head and shoulder portrait of a young adult male depicts a face with all of the sensory organs eerily concealed under skin. No eyes, mouth, nose or ear orifices are visible, only the outline and contours of what should be there, but isn’t. Many of their latter works also combine imagery of human skin with scenes that are computer generated, which in so doing they purposely remove this ambiguity with regard to the manipulation of the image as political arts.
Margi Geerlinks in her 1998 piece ‘Girl knitting baby’, works within the space of manipulated yet intricately detailed realistic photographic images. Her images are obviously digital photo manipulated, not through the level of abstraction, but through the unnatural morphing of objects. In this particular piece, Geerlinks depicts a young adult female dreamingly staring out beyond the frame of the picture as she is knitting from a ball of yarn. The shape of the woven wool transforms into the human form of an infant’s lower body and legs. An illusionary symbolic representation to the knitters day-dream contemplation and desires for a child, depicting an element of popular culture arts.
Similarly with Jeff Wall’s 1992 piece titled ‘The Giant’, where two photographs of differing scale are combined into a single image, creating a disparity of size between the objects depicted within. These otherwise random images of what appears to be a stair case between levels within a library or similar, juxtaposed with an unrelated image of a standing naked elderly female, holding what appears to be a paper note. As with Geerlings piece, Walls has positioned the secondary object into the background at an appropriate place and firmly fixed it with shadows through digital photo manipulation. In this piece Walls has the naked female with her feet fixed to the floor, leaving the viewer to determine and define the narrative between the disparate objects within.
Nick Knight also similarly to Aziz and Cucher, has created manipulated images that combine human forms and attributes, with other computer generated or manipulated surroundings that resemble body shapes. In his work ‘Dolls’ 1999, Knight applies computer generated body, hair and face markings, to that of a young female face. In so doing he creates an almost painterly appearance, that leaves the viewer with a sensual tension between femininity and the decorative. In another piece titled ‘Sweet’ 2000, Knight overlays manipulated ambiguous eclectic images over another female head and shoulder portrait. In this piece he creates a delicate tapestry, challenging the relationship between form and beauty. Both of these pieces by Knight, while obviously created through digital photo manipulation of otherwise random images, have resulted in the creation of works with an illusory richness of colour and form.
Tibor Kalman in his 1993 sensational ground breaking work on race, rocked the establishment press of the time. He brought to the attention and exposed to the public at large, the relative ease of digital photo manipulation, challenging their established beliefs in photography as a truism as being no longer valid, the joining again of Politics and art. In his pieces titled ‘Queen Elizabeth what if…?’ and ‘Michael Jackson what if…?’ Kalman changed the skin colours of his subjects, to raise awareness as to how people are categorized according to their skin tones. Ironically, Michael Jackson in real life did undergo such a metamorphosis, to which the general public reacted with abhorrence at this slant to popular culture arts. Kalman’s work although not involving manipulation of multiple images, did play an important role in educating the public at large as to the potential future with digital photo manipulation.
Traditionally the photographic image implied a record of a single instant in time from a single point of perspective. These limitations warranted the photographer to either assemble a staged shot, or to passively await for the ‘decisive moment’ for the elements to compose within the camera’s view. Digital photo manipulation of images has removed these constraining limitations of traditional photography, to now enable the photographer to take control of both multiple perspectives and the joining together of instances of time.
Challenging the single point perspective, Andreas Gursky overcomes the constraint of the single lens through the manipulation of his photographs by the seamless joining of two or more photographs to create his images. Gursky’s photographs do not overtly hint at any such digital photo manipulation. When joining his images or his changing of specific colours, he takes care to alleviate any distraction that may result. As a consequence of these multiple perspective creations, the panoramic scale of Gursky’s work is greatly enhanced. In his 1996 piece titled ‘Atlanta’ the actual seam is unidentifiable, but its position is still identifiable due to the alignments of the two perspectives.
Mary Frey in her piece ‘In her Bedroom’ 1997, manipulates the representation of time, to create a fantasy environment of a scene that is familiar in its ordinariness, however at the same time foreign in its impossibility. The image depicts an elderly woman, seated adjacent to a small table assembled with picture frames, resembling a shrine of images to loved ones. The woman’s head is lowered, she covers her eyes with her hand, her fist is clasped and her partially exposed face appears grimaced. The reflection in the mirror tells a differing tale. Shown is a rear view of an elderly man standing between the seated woman and the mirror, appearing to have his hand reaching in front of him, approximating the position of the woman’s shoulder. A ghostly apparition perhaps, attempting to provide consolation to the grieving spouse. The image is powerfully emotive, albeit only a digital photo manipulation.
David LaChapelle is a contemporary photographer having evolved his digital photo manipulation of futuristic fashion shoots, exaggerating aspects of celebrity’s profiles creating popular culture arts. He creates his own visual fantasy worlds within each work, erotically charged and wildly imaginative in their surreal settings. His piece titled ‘Pieta with Courtney Love’ 2006, is an intensely blasphemous work depicting Courtney Love in a photo blended interior/exterior landscape, looking angelic while holding the crucified marked body of her deceased husband Kurt Cobain. The perversity of these two characters being set within a pivotal religious setting, along with the symbolism of the various objects within the composition, would be confronting for many with combining of a relgion, politics and art. LaChapelle’s digital photo manipulations of white-trash kitsch celebrity culture, hint at a society that is manifestly media-centric, with an unhealthy appetite for anything that is celebrity regardless of its notoriety or popular culture arts.
Unsurprisingly, artists examine every facit of life, utilizing all available resource, materials and mediums to depict their interpretation of the world about them. Digital Photo manipulation, and the creation of random imagery is just not surprising, nor outside the ‘norm’ of our brave new world. Photography has for many decades had to combat the accusation of ‘But is it Art?’, and thus as technology develops at such an astonishing pace, it is the medium at the proverbial ‘coal face’ or cutting edge, at which you would expect to find artists operating within popular culture arts.
“Photography has always been a medium whose use and whose reception has been inseparable from the process through which it forms images. Even small changes in the photographic process have created profound changes. So, as digital technology has shaken the very foundation of photographic practice, it is clear that photography will change into something quite unlike what it used to be. … digital photography is no more that a means to an end, a medium through which to transmit … ideas.”
 Photography Reborn Linkin, Jonathan Harry Abrahams Inc, New York 2005 pp.115