Category Archives: Week 6

Original Culture in Photographic Art: the Native American Perspective

Technologies that produce images, or any photographic art have always been a form of cultural hybridity. Over time, photography in culture has allowed us to see the progression and change within certain areas or within particular groups around the world. In America, many cultural values are associated with photography, film, or video clips, and these values are effective even in today’s society.

One specific example that sets the stage for cultural values as well as a representation of hybrid beliefs within a specific society is Project 562, “A photo project dedicated to photographing Native America.” Project 562 was created and is being conducted by a Native American woman, Matika Wilbur. Wilbur’s dedication and drive to this project is explained when she says, “I have been fulfilling the project’s goal of photographing citizens of each federally recognized tribe in the United States (there are now 566)…My hope, I that when the project is complete, it will serve to educate the nation and shift the collective consciousness toward recognizing our own indigenous communities.” The number 562 came from, at the time, the number of federally recognized Tribal Nations in the United States.

(To see a video summary, Click Here: Matika Wilbur Video )

In Plato’s work, he mentioned the simulation and reproduction of images, including indexical function (a pre-existing reality outside of the image). Wilbur is the first artist and photographer to start a project like this in 100 years, reproducing images that are attempting to give Native Americans a better reputation. The cultural values she integrates and mixes together throughout her work is the modern Native American with their traditional values still in tact. Wilbur wishes to reproduce Native American images in order to show the world how Native Americans can still maintain their original culture while adapting and succeeding in today’s technological society. The wary, disliked savage is no longer the message being sent about Native Americans.

Malraux relates to reproduction and Project 562 in several theories. Malraux mentions that today we face the issue of access to cultural history because we use technologies of representation that “dislocate the objects reproduced from their historical and material contexts, and position them in a regulating narrative…” A narrative that is someone else’s idea, instead of, in Wilbur’s case, what originally took place. Furthermore, Malraux argues that in the artworks of the past are coming into view through technology – especially photography and it’s improving quality of color, clarity, and mass-produced reproductions. Photography today not only has better quality and color, but can be marketed to the masses as well as mass-produced.

Wilbur says, “Most of the time, I’ve been invited to geographically remote reservations to take portraits and hear stories from a myriad of tribes, while at other time I’ve photographed members of the 70 percent of Native Americans living in urban settings.” The cultural values associated with photography are ones of culture, societal norms, or news information. It uses visuals, for example, to show the poverty in fourth world countries or to exemplify the norms of a community. This continues to work in a digital era because it promotes different causes, issues, and opens the eyes of the people to new information. Furthermore, photography can now be unveiled through the Internet in blogs, through social media, and can also be shared by millions of people each day, throughout the world. Relating back to marketing, the Internet has allowed for marketing an artist, and his/her work through technology to become an easy feat.

Wilbur forms a positive image of the Native Americans’ heritage, race, and ways of life, unlike many people before her. She is showing what is real. This is where Baudrillard’s idea of hyperreality comes into play. Many representations of a set group of individuals can be made to seem a certain way, and people can’t understand if it’s real or fake – kind of like reality TV. Many people still squabble over whether a show like the “Jersey Shore” is using real footage or if the scenes are actually set up scene by scene. The Native Americans were portrayed through the media and through history at times as burdens to American soil and were given a bad reputation through means of stories, newspapers, and photography of old, unsuccessful tribes. The audience this information reached was unable to decipher what was real or fake. What are Native Americans really like? Wilbur has begun to spread the positive aspects of the real day in the life of Native Americans in order to diminish that hyperreality. Human intelligence on this topic will begin to cease to be artificial thoughts and preconceived notions. And like Baudrillard’s hyperreality theories, what’s seen in Wilbur’s photos is arguably more powerful through media than in one individual’s direct experience. The “realism” of her photos is becoming a social reality; in other words, visual mediation is the medium of the cultural ideology of representation.

(For a thorough representation of her work, click here: Matika Wilbur’s Blog)

Wilbur’s work is ultimately allowing for intertextuality to take place between worlds – the mix of modern ways with traditionalist values of the Native Americans. The awareness she is creating in today’s society modifies the images of the past and puts a positive spin on the changes being made of the representation of Native Americans. Malraux noticed, “a universalizing abstract idea of ‘art history’- an abstract “cultural encyclopedia” that could be instantiated and represented in art history books.” Wilbur is creating her own art history through the technology of today’s photography, upholding and attempting to tear down some of the theories of reproduction in photographic art.

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Works Cited

Brooks, Katherine. “Project 562 Aims To Photograph Every Native American Tribe In The United States.” The Huffington Post., 14 Feb. 2014. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <>.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux: Imaginary Museum – Google Drive.” Malraux: Imaginary Museum – Google Drive. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <>.

Irvine, Martin. “Mediation and Representation: Plato to Baudrillard and Digital Media.” N.p., n.d. Web. 15 Feb. 2014. <>.

Lamour, Joseph. “It’s Been Over 100 Years Since An Artist Has Done This In America. About Time Someone Did It Again.” Upworthy. N.p., n.d. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <>.

Malraux, André. The Voices of Silence. French, Les Voix du Silence, 1951. Translated by Stuart Gilbert. Garden City, NY; repr. Princeton: Doubleday; Princeton Univ. Press, 1953.

Wilbur, Matika. “Project 562 – Project 562- A Photo Project by Matika Wilbur Documenting Native America.” Project 562 Travel Log. N.p., 2013. Web. 18 Feb. 2014. <>.


Tim’s Vermeer | Optical Technology as a Threat to “Purity”

A product of the transitional time in which we lived, famed philosopher Walter Benjamin had a lot to say about the impact of mechanical reproduction. In a era marked by change, the repercussions of photography inspired musings on similar developments in lithography and other artistic and creative technologies and called into question the degree to which authenticity depended on uniqueness. (Benjamin 1936). Benjamin made the case that an inherent trade off occurred wherein an object’s singular-ness and originality was sacrificed in an effort to distribute the image more broadly to an increasingly diverse audience.

As I pondered these approaches, I found myself contemplating the role of pre-photography image-making and the ways in which quality was assigned to certain types of artists – specifically the great painters whose works now fill the Met, the Louvre, and other renowned art museums. I contemplated historical and modern debates concerning forgeries and the ways in which the international art market’s development of special technologies and skillsets for identifying forgeries continue to unintentionally give rise to ever more sophisticated forgery techniques. Enter the documentary Tim’s Vermeer.

With Rembrandt and Frans Hals, Vermeer is revered as a premier Dutch artist who existed in relative obscurity until the end of the nineteenth century.  Much of Vermeer’s myth is attributed to his mastery over depth and related optical effects and how his masterless and pupil-less career provided no insight into the techniques he used to create trailblazing depictions of reality. However, the Metropolitan Museum of Art defensively ( and perhaps self-preservationally) describes Vermeer’s approach as follows:

“These qualities in Vermeer’s work may have been inspired by an interest in the camera obscura (which projects actual images), but its importance to the artist has been greatly exaggerated. His compositions are mostly invented and exhibit the most discriminating formal relationships, including those of color. In addition, Vermeer’s application of paint reveals extraordinary technical ability and time-consuming care.”

Bringing new meaning to Goldstein’s observation that  “…the image is not only a mirror for the artist’s experience but also for those of the viewer,” (Goldstein 2011) Tim’s Vermeer calls into question the ways in which the inclusion of reproductive technologies taint (according to the Met) the creation of an new piece of art.  As if artists are supposedly pure and unaffected by the world around them, Benjamin’s claim that “in principle, the work of art has always been reproducible” punctuates the degree to which salvage ethnography-esque techniques often introduce technologies that later become associated with devaluing originality. The measured fervor with which the established art world dismisses the idea that technology aided Vermeer’s ability to create such lifelike images echoes the sluggishness and unease exhibited by other large institutions when reconciling the role of technological reproducibility in today’s digital society.



Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Martin Irvine, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Goldstein, Mark. “How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos” Photography Blog. N.p., 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Tim’s Vermeer. Dir. Pen & Teller. Sony Classic Films, 2013. Film.


Deriving Meaning from Photography: A Look at Cindy Sherman’s Portraits

Emily Rothkopf

Photography, particularly of people, is more prevalent than ever in today’s digital and social media driven age.  Society has a fascination and almost addiction to the “art form.”  At every opportune moment, one will pull out his/her smartphone and snap a photo to capture the moment — and that photo will most likely be shared with hundreds on one or more social media platforms.  In fact, there are some platforms where the sole function is to share photos, e.g. Instagram, capitalizing on what people enjoy most about the market leaders Facebook and Twitter.  There is also the infamous selfie, a self-portrait per say, which has so infiltrated society that the word is now in the dictionary.  In conjunction with this, we have a celebrity-obsessed culture where the photograph is our fodder.

Photographs in one sense are documentary, capturing time for future generations, fulfilling our need for memories and nostalgia.  As the early 20th century philosopher Walter Benjamin put it, photographs become standard evidence for historical occurrences (Benjamin 1936).  But that reason alone does not account for the prolific nature the art form has taken.  Perhaps one reason behind the appeal is that in today’s digital age where so much of what we see is fabricated, photoshopped, filtered, staged, etc., we still get a sense of realness in the photograph.  Voyeurs can more easily relate to and derive meaning from recognized symbols, or the semiotics, of a photograph versus say an abstract painting.  Viewers hone in on the facial expressions, the physical characteristics, the setting, the colors, etc. to derive meaning and make judgments.  These visual cues are so easily processed that most people will derive meaning without even recognizing it.  And before one knows it, he/she will have processed a photo album of 100 images.

Using Cindy Sherman’s portrait photography examples below, I explore how we derive meaning from visual cues, referring to pre-existing realities outside of the image (Irvine 2014).  I go beyond the basic symbolism that is commonly recognized and easily interpreted, and identify my own personal experiences and internal databases that exemplify a more abstract reading.


“…the image is not only a mirror for the artist’s experience but also for those of the viewer,” (Goldstein 2011).

Cindy Sherman is an American photographer known for her conceptual portraits employing herself as the model.  In her History Portraits collection, Sherman photographed herself in costumes, with props and prosthetics, to portray famous artistic figures of the past, like Caravaggio’s Sick Bacchus (Wikipedia 2014).  Sherman’s appropriation of this piece is shown below.  While there are many obvious visual cues tying the work to the Roman era (toga, headpiece, grapes, baroque style, etc.), my own encyclopedia of art brings me to the WWII era.  I am reminded of “Rosie the Riveter” with the female face attached to a flexed muscle.  There is a feminist vibe to Sherman’s photography and this piece is no exception.


 Left: “History Portrait #224” Cindy Sherman 1990, source:; Right: “Rosie the Riveter” J. Howard Miller 1943, source:

Sherman’s Centerfolds collection was inspired by the center spreads in fashion and pornographic magazines.  These portraits again involve Sherman as the model portraying young women in various roles, from a sultry seductress to a frightened, vulnerable victim (Wikipedia 2014).  Some may view the piece below and hone in on the school girl outfit and create a story around that.  However, with visual cues like the short haircut, frightened blue eyes, seclusion, etc., my mind recalls Mia Farrow in the film Rosemary’s Baby.  Farrow plays a pregnant woman who believes her husband may have, in essence, made a pact with the devil via their eccentric neighbors, promising them the child to be used as a human sacrifice in their occult rituals in exchange for success in his acting career.  Her character is riddled with fear, vulnerability and seclusion.

Above: Cindy Sherman “Centerfolds” 1981, source:; Below: Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” 1968, source:

Sherman’s collection Untitled Film Stills consists of black-and-white photographs evoking the American film noir vibe of the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s (Wikipedia 2014).  I was immediately reminded of one of Britney Spears’ early Rolling Stone covers.  I don’t recall purchasing or reading the particular issue but somehow the image was stored in my memory bank.  Sherman depicts a teenage pop culture that transcends generations.  My mind processed the hairbrush, day-dreamy gaze, girly bedroom setting and the ensemble, to almost instantly draw the Spears cover from my encyclopedia of art.

  Britney Spears photographed in Kentwood, Louisiana in March of 1999.

Left: Cindy Sherman “Untitled Film Still #6” 1977, source:; Right: Britney Spears “Rolling Stone” 1999, source:


In a portrait photograph we read signs relating to the style of photography, body language, facial expressions, clothing, era, location, etc. (Goldstein 2011).  On a more individualized basis, we draw on our own experiences, opinions, likes and dislikes when viewing a photograph.  As viewers of this relatively “real” art form, we get to assess, judge, enjoy, and relate, using a process that is typically subconscious and effortless.  In today’s hurried and hyper-mediated culture, the photograph is highly “likeable.”

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Martin Irvine, 1 Jan. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

“Cindy Sherman.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Feb. 2014. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Goldstein, Mark. “How to Convey Meaning in Your Photos” Photography Blog. N.p., 1 Feb. 2011. Web. 17 Feb. 2014.

Irvine, Martin. “Mediation & Representation: Plato to Braudrillard and Digital Media.” 17 Feb. 2014. Lecture.

The Digital, Reality and the Canonization of Art

Layan Jawdat

The readings and discussions that we’re having this week about photography and the assumed direct relationship between “reality” and photography/video/film-based images really make us question the way in which we interpret these media in our everyday lives. When we see photographs, we typically assume they represent some truth or reality (a function of our cultural understanding of the medium of photography, perhaps), but this is not necessarily true. To begin with, photographs depict, or enframe a specific perspective, selectively including and excluding the “reality” they are capturing. Furthermore, photographs, like other works of art and media, can be manipulated–even prior to the digitization of photography and photo editing, this was true.

Malraux’s discussion of the “imaginary museum”  likewise brings up important questions vis a vis the way in which art is shared and understood in today’s world (in which digitization of art collections, or photographs of art works are easily shared on the Internet, or physically on postcards you can purchase at museums). Malraux discusses the implications of the reproducibility of art through photographic reproduction: it creates and cements styles, and likewise de-emphasizes the material importance of works of art. He writes, “For all alike–miniatures, frescoes, stained glass, tapestries, Scythian plaques, pictures, Greek vase paintings, ‘details’ and even statuary–have become ‘color plates.’ In the process they have lost their properties as objects; but, by the same token, they have gained something: the utmost significance as to style that they can possibly acquire.”(Malraux  44-46 in Irvine 5).

Today we experience works of art not in only by observing them in their physical forms in museums, but also online or in books; in fact, this is probably the first and often only way we interact with works of art that are designated as such by the institutions of museums. It seems that projects like the Google Cultural Institute are the next logical step in this technological environment. However, the two-dimensional representation and flattening of artworks, which Malraux discusses, perpetuate the definitions of art and artistic styles that existed prior to the digital age. Although there is greater ability to compare works across time periods, cultures, and their physical homes, what Malraux discusses is still a “dis-located or relocated ‘museum'”(Irvine 2) Thus, it seems to be that besides the loss of the “here and now of the work of art–its unique existence in a particular place” (253) that Benjamin addresses in “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility,” not much has changed in terms of the canonization of art works with digital projects like the Google Cultural Institute, or online with digital archives.

In addition to questions about authenticity and reproducibility, I think the growing availability of “imaginary museums” online also makes us question how we determine the cultural value and meaning of works of art, and their place in our “‘cultural encyclopedia[s]'”(Irvine 3).  Is this not an opportune time to re-think our conceptions of art, and what art belongs in a museum (digital or physical)? Is there more room now to question the meanings and presentations of works of art determine and implemented by institutions like museums? Or is the status-quo perpetuated through the digital projects prevalent today?


Works Cited

“Google Cultural Institute.” Google Cultural Institute€“. Google, 2013. Web. 15 Feb. 2014. <>.

 Martin Irvine, “Malraux and the musée imaginaire: Mediation, Image, and Institution in Benjamin and Malraux,”

 Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Era of its Technological Reproducibility” (1936; rev. 1939),

Whose Sad Keanu Is It Anyway?

Digital memes transcend time and space, as each meme carries a multitude of meanings, timestamps, and geo-locations. Every time a meme is consumed, each one lies “pregnant with all past and future specifications” (Barthes, 1957, p. 58). Authorship is lost in part due to the fact that for every successful meme, thousands more fail in other iterations. By constantly jockeying for position as the most successful variation, these memes partake in a survival of the fittest, ensuring its own survival chiefly through connecting to people on more than simply a cultural level, resulting in an easily digestible image or macro to be consumed by as many people as possible.

It is this discussion of authorship that enters a Baudrillard-ian sense of hyperreality, the author reasserts ownership of digital images that are experienced in ways and places far different from the original ontology. That is to say, that despite assertion of provinciality, the very nature of the digital meme fundamentally breaks apart the limited interpretations considered by the author.

Witness the example of Sad Keanu. In 2010, the image below (Asadorian, 2010) was posted by redditor rockon4life underscored with “I really enjoy acting…Because when I act, I’m no longer me.” The thread entitled “Keanu. More sadness in comments” was moved to the website’s frontpage, quickly exploded to over 281,000 page views (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010).


The “paparazzi shot of a seemingly dejected-looking Keanu Reeves” (Lankshear & Knobel, 2012, p. 51-2) is most interesting for the purposes of this post not for its memetic qualities of spread, growth and recognition, but for its contested authorship. Shortly after the image gained traction on Reddit, a number of pop culture sites including Urlesque, BuzzFeed, and TheDailyWhat covered Sad Keanu as the next big meme. (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). For much of the resulting month, photoshopped images of Sad Keanu in other contexts flowed across social media including its own Tumbler, It was this repository of Sad Keanu images that received a Digital Media Copyright Agreement (DMCA) “takedown notice.” Splash News, a celebrity and entertainment news outlet online, claimed ownership of the images, and demanded any site showing the images immediately remove them from those servers.

According to Dan, a blogger on SadKeanu, over 270 posts were to be taken down despite their contention “that it can fall under ‘fair use’,” but that “both myself and my partner don’t have any time or resources to fight it” (Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu, 2010). This stems from the misapplications and misconceptions of fair use and DMCA as much as the “don’t ask, don’t tell” and essentially, “don’t care,” nature of today’s memetic and remix culture. Roth and Flegel (2013) note this incongruence, “When fans with little or no legal expertise invoke and interpret copyright, they reveal that copyright does not attend to the complex realities of creative production, nor the very active consumption, engagement with, and re-articulation of cultural artefacts and texts in society to effectively police at the grassroots level” (p. 216-17). Copyright has not kept pace with the advance of of technology nor the speed at which images and memes are transmitted, and has ultimately lost the “hearts and minds” of users in its war on transgressors of fair use. Lankshear and Knobel argue the manipulation of digital imagery is part of the new literacies. “Provided with a proper toolkit of digital affordances that even a person who lacked artistic talent could “create a collage of images and text to contribute to a popular online meme, such as the Sad Keanu meme” (p. 51).

Keanu-1In addition, in using these affordances, multiple hyperrealities are created, as meaning is added and subverted to be experienced by viewers in vastly different ways. A viewer experienced with The Simpsons will interpret the inclusion of Sad Keanu in a markedly distinct way as compared to someone unfamiliar with the Simpsons or Keanu Reeves for that matter. At the moment of experience, the application of the various cultural values at work are transformed into a new hyperreality.

It should be understood that Splash News suffered no direct damage here; they weren’t impugned or denigrated by the Sad Keanu macros and remixes, although in some cases, some rights holders use copyright as suppression beyond commercial purposes. As Goldman (2012) points out, takedown orders unnecessarily “provide(s) a protocol for folks trying to suppress truthful negative information–acquire the copyrights to the content containing the unwanted information, and then use the newly created threat of copyright infringement to force that information off the Internet” and that this protocol is much easier to enforce given “visual/aural content than purely textual content because (a) people need to see/hear some things with their own eyes/ears, and (b) it’s much easier for others to extract and repeat textual information without running afoul of copyrights” (Goldman, 2012).

Individual users simply making a macro for a snide reply to a friend, or even in the subversion of the image for political commentary should not expect cease and desist letters marking them as delinquents. The genie is out of the bottle, and the efforts of Splash News to stuff it back into a container so limiting and unavailable to those with affordances described above only serve to harden resolve against copyright. What could be seen as a benefit to these burgeoning artists simply remains as a boon upon their shoulders, weighing down their creativity and limiting any chance of creating and subverting meaning through digital remix.


Asadorian, R. (2010). Sad Keanu. Image. People. Retrieved from,,20442843_20446944_20883614,00.html

Barthes, R. (1977), On the death of the author: Image, Music, Text: Essays, Second Edition, HarperCollins UK

Dawkins, R. (1976). The selfish gene. New York: Oxford University Press

Dawkins, R. (1989). The Selfish Gene, Oxford: Oxford University Press

Goldman, E. (2012, May 14). The dangerous meme that won’t go away: Using copyright assignments to suppress unwanted content—Scott v. WorldStarHipHop. Eric Goldman Tech. & L. Blog.  Retrieved from

Keanu is sad / Sad Keanu. (2010). Know Your Meme. Retrieved from

Lankshear, C., & Knobel, M. (2012). ‘New’literacies: technologies and values. Teknokultura. Revista de Cultura Digital y Movimientos Sociales, 9(1), 45-71.

Roth, J., & Flegel, M. (2013). ‘I’m not a lawyer but…’: Fan disclaimers and claims against copyright law. The Journal of Fandom Studies, 1(2), 201-218.