Photography is integral to today’s society, though the medium does not replicate reality. As a mere simulation of the real world, the mediation of photography, and its development across multiple interfaces, such as the physical and digital image, have shaped and evolved our system of meaning. Through photography and the replication of those images, the dialogic contexts across those interfaces help shape and interpret the world. When examining the role of photography in physical reproductions like the Mnemosyne Atlas, the Hockney Falco thesis, and exhibition catalogs, compared to digital platforms such as online collections, Google Arts and Culture, and photo manipulation, its clear that the public should be aware of both the pros and cons related to interpreting photographs.
Photography: An Advancement and Misrepresentation
The medium of photography has evolved exponentially since the 1820s to become a platform that creates a universal system of meaning that has revolutionized how we understand the world. Though photographs are merely a simulation of what has been viewed by the photographer, this interface is necessary to perceive and share reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). Photography is a mediation of actuality and has completely changed the dialogic context of how we interpret art history through physical mediums or digital interfaces. As an interface, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the dialogic contexts photography provides (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Though our system of meanings has mirrored the advancement of photography, people should be aware of photography’s misrepresentations in the perception of depth and dimension related to works of art, and ultimately, the limitations when experiencing the art.
The vehicle of photography is both a support and limitation when used to further the field of art history. Without this mediation, viewers wouldn’t necessarily perceive or recognize the connections between certain works of art that were completed at the same time, but in different locations (Mansfield 249). However, as a simulation of the real world, a photograph distorts the artwork’s composition including color, scale, and texture. With this mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an artwork is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Though with its limitations, reproductions of photographed artworks are necessary to research history.
Art history, as we recognize it today, developed in the early twentieth century. After the end of World War I, people were looking ahead to the future and seeking out modern, technological advances related to the art field. Photography, and its ability to be reproduced, was a natural fit for this desire (Kreinik). The reproducibility of photography enabled the artist, historian, or intellect to compare and contrast images from different times and places (Benjamin 252-253). This new ability in photography expedited the art history field, especially by Aby Warburg and David Hockney.
The Mnemosyne Atlas, was developed by Aby Warburg in 1924, but was unfinished before he died in 1929 (Johnson). This “Memory Atlas” was a collage of documents, images, and photographs that were all conceptually linked to one another (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Warburg believed that creating dozens of panels filled with these images would bring about new ways of interpreting and mediating Western antiquity (Johnson). Ironically, the only surviving documentation of his Mnemosyne Atlas are photographs of his panels. Without photography, Warburg’s primitive web of information that connected his ideas would have been lost to history (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).
David Hockney, an art historian, used a similar method to Aby Warburg to illustrate his ideas and connections. Along with the knowledge provided from physicist Charles Falco, the two determined that painters, from as early as the Renaissance, had used optics to create their uncharacteristically accurate paintings. Hockney noted that painters like Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer didn’t suddenly learn how to portray realistic proportions; there had to be a tool (Boxer).
Hockney and Falco developed a thesis and determined that artists such as Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer likely used a variety of optical projections to create their artworks. Some of the suspected devices include concave mirrors and the camera obscura (Boxer). Hockney and Falco essentially proved that optical projection was indeed the driving force behind Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. In Officer and Laughing Girl, its obvious that the foreground figure is unusually large for a painting typical of the 1600s. Other compositions from the same period, like Jan Steen’s Beware of Luxury, often feature figures that are typically the same size, no matter the distance of the figures from one another (Steadman). In Vermeer’s painting, though, the foremost figure dwarves the girl sitting in the chair. The realistic size representation of this officer is seemingly normal for today’s audiences because of people’s familiarity with photographs. However, this nearly perfect optical representation was unheard of during the 17th century (Steadman). The Hockney Falco thesis certainly validates that some artists during the 1300s-1600s used optical projections to create their paintings. This astonishing recourse of art history would not have been possible without photography; the mediation was necessary to compare paintings across hundreds of years.
As defined previously, a photograph is integral to our society’s system of meaning. In the instances of the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis, a photograph’s intent broadens when it is presented alongside others; it no longer represents just the object in the photograph, rather it reflects the development of an artistic period. The photographs used in the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis generated a system of meaning that was previously unidentified. Additionally, the interfaces created by connecting those photographs advances their dialogic relationships. Comparing and contrasting individual photographs is just one method to create a meaning system. Books, like museum catalogs, are also essential to the system of meaning.
When printed in an exhibition catalog, photographs garner an altered meaning; a designation as important and academic. The arrangement of photographs in an exhibition catalog inherently identifies these images as “real art” because of the association of a museum specifically choosing to present these artworks (Buren 189). A photo’s automatic identification as something that has meaning and value, in this context, gives the curators of those exhibitions, and accompanying catalogs, unspoken power that influences the public’s interpretation of the system of meaning (Buren 191).
Curators are, inadvertently, providing a biased interface to the system of meaning. As students of art history, curators have developed their professional expertise based on the thoughts and analyses of their predecessors. The identification of an artwork as culturally relevant or technically masterful was most likely given those identifiers decades, or even centuries, prior. Additionally, a curator’s inclusion or exclusion of an artwork within an exhibition, and deciding where an artwork should hang, alters the dialogic context of the display. From beginning to end, curators are controlling the narrative, and usually, there is little room for other voices to be heard (Buren 191). However, the physical exhibition is more limiting than the exhibition catalog.
Exhibition catalogs are typically more thorough in content and description than the display space. With the ability to delve into detail and compare outside images with those inside the exhibition, the catalog provides a lucrative experience to the reader. Though completely static in presentation compared to Aby Warburg and David Hockney’s collages, museum catalogs are another facet to the meaning system. The interface of a catalog allows a more in depth dive into a specific collection, theme, or artist, and expands upon the exhibition’s original interpretation. These experiences have also been made more accessible in recent years with some museums digitizing their catalogs and collections.
Digitizing exhibition or collection catalogs has gained momentum in the United States. The leading provider of these resources is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Through MetPublications, the Met currently makes available fifty years worth of knowledge to the public, for free (“MetPublications”). This unprecedented access to cultural knowledge and history on a digital interface literally opens the Met’s doors to anyone who may not have access to the physical site. Though the digital formatting of a museum catalog is still static in its presentation of information, the digital interface creates a worldwide audience.
Exhibition catalogs, both the physical book and electronic book, are filled with information that is unable to be modified. Within those catalogs, the descriptions of photographed artworks are unable to be changed when new information arises, and cannot be personalized with information that is relevant to the viewer. However, many museums are unintentionally avoiding this problem of fixed information by digitizing their collections. Through this digital platform, the medium of photography can be used by the visitor to generate an unbiased interface free from a curator’s perspective.
Museums that create access to their collections via a digital interface are thoughtfully contributing to the system of meanings. Through the medium of photography, a person can view a variety of pieces within the same museum or collection, and others from different locations across the web. A person can venture and compare artwork from around the world at their own pace. That person can discover new connections and meanings between artworks, periods, and locations without having to leave their homes. Their own system of meanings can be free from the influence of curators or art historians, if they so choose. Yet, if the person decides to acknowledge and incorporate the object descriptions and metadata that is likely attached to the object in an online collection, then the experience and perspective of the curator or art historian is valuable (Buren 191).
While a museum’s online collection can provide the visitor with a plethora of images and information about a photographed artwork, the collection is not necessarily complete. Though a person can compare objects within the same museum, like the National Gallery of Art’s online collection database, a user is typically unable to compare the same artist in one museum’s collection with another. The user may have to open multiple webpages to accomplish this task. However, this frustrating lack of linked open data amongst museums is partially rectified by Google Arts and Culture.
Google Arts and Culture partners with cultural resources and museums across the world to capture high resolution images of artwork. Their partnerships allow a user on the Google Arts website to access photographs of artworks by the same artist without having to visit multiple museum websites (“Google Cultural Institute”). This condensing of information into one cache is an incredible feat in the art history field, and greatly increases the system of meaning for the user. The user is able to create their own system of meaning from their favorite images, and turn those images into their personal galleries (“Profile”). The role of the curator is not limited to those in the field, but is expanded to include anyone who has an interest. The sheer number of dialogic contexts that can be generated from this website is unmatched in ease and accessibility. Though the flexibility of Google Arts allows anyone to interpret their world in a unique way, the mediation of an artwork into a photograph, and then mediated once again into a digital reproduction, is not without repercussions. With this double re-mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an object is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).
Accepting photography as reality is embedded in today’s society. However, photography merely portrays the ideology of realism; it is nothing more than a simulation of reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). While collapsing the 3D world into a 2D space is certainly convenient, the medium is not without its stark limitations. When a photograph is taken of a painting, for example, and then mediated into a physical or digital format, details are inevitably lost (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).
A strong example of a photograph flattening a painting into a physical or digital format is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. This painting is widely known, and a person is quick to associate Starry Night with navy blue swirls contrasted with a golden moon’s corona. The quick brushstrokes of the composition whip the painting and draw the eye from the left to the right. When viewed through a 2D interface, like a print or online, the viewer is losing vast amounts of depth and texture that would be noticeable in person.
The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has Starry Night in its collection (“Vincent Van Gogh”). Only in person is a viewer actually able to grasp the dimension of van Gogh’s painting. The physical surface of this composition is laden with impasto. The undulating thickness throughout the canvas is exceptionally noticeable when the lights on the artwork hit the surface. This reflection of light provides a depth that is lost in a photographic or digital reproduction. This thickness is especially lost when viewing the crescent moon in the upper right corner. It is completely unknown to a viewer that only has access to a physical or digital reproduction of the work that this entire composition has a texture that captures audiences.
The experience of viewing Starry Night in person is both an individual and group event. In MoMA, groups of people crowd the painting and a dedicated security guard protects the painting from viewers. The mob mentality is to get a glimpse of the painting, and this energy radiates across the gallery. Sharing this experience with others heightens the excitement surrounding this painting, and an armchair view simply does not provide the same energy. A person who is only able to view van Gogh’s work from a remote location is missing more than just the vibrancy and texture of the composition; they’re missing the shared experience of wonder and homage to a great artist.
Unfortunately, the fallout of photography doesn’t end with flattening an image and losing the human experience. When one searches for Starry Night through Google, the results are a myriad of images that reference the painting. On first glance, its noticeable that the results vary in perspective, color, and crop. For a viewer that has not been personally exposed to the painting in MoMA, which search result simulates the painting the best?
The wide variety of search results demonstrates the rise of photo editing. Through editing tools such as Photoshop, a person is able to manipulate an image that distorts the original painting. Photo reproduction inevitably alters the painting’s material history and changes the reception of the original piece, and subsequently, Starry Night’s interpretation (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Photo editing has become universal, and the tools to obscure history are accessible to nearly everyone. Though photo manipulation is inevitable when generating a reproduction of a painting and other classic mediums of art, photo manipulation doesn’t necessarily hamper the effect when a photograph is the intended medium (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).
Andreas Gursky is a widely known German photographer famous for his larger than life photographic prints. Some of his prints, such as Paris, Montparnasse measures 4.4 feet by nearly 10.5 feet and Rhine II measures 5.1 feet by just over 10 feet (Gursky “Paris, Montparnasse” and “Rhine II”). Gursky freely and openly uses photo manipulation to create these gigantic prints (Farago). His images are not merely composed of one photograph; both Paris, Montparnasse and Rhine II are stitched together from multiple photographs during post processing (Sooke).
Gursky creates a new reality by stitching multiple photographs into one image (Sooke). The human eye is not capable of perceiving the grand architecture and landscapes that are in his photographs. The even clarity and perspective of each image is only possible through the medium of photography and digital post production (Nayeri). Additionally, in Rhine II, Gursky has made an effort to make the print more pleasing to the eye by color correcting, and most significantly, editing out a power station that disrupted the print (Nayeri). It is important to note that although people tend to view Gursky’s photographs as objective, the prints are anything but unbiased. Ralph Rugoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale Artistic Director, noted “Andreas is not a journalist doing reportage” (Nayeri). He continued to elaborate that photography “… which we, for official purposes like passports and school IDs, trust to be an accurate picture of the world, has always been something that can be lent to fiction as well as to fact” (Nayeri).
The medium of photography, though commonly referenced as a replication of reality, is nothing more than a simulation. The interfaces that are used to interpret the world have evolved alongside the development of photography. From grouping images in a collage or museum catalog to digital platforms such as online collections or Google Arts and Culture, the mediation of an artwork into a flat surface has been unavoidable. Though photographing a painting collapses depth, perception, and texture into a 2D space, the mediation is needed for the public to generate excitement and open the dialogue to share multiple perspectives. The difficulties associated with photography are less of a concern when an image is meant to be a photograph, but as seen in Gursky’s work, the viewer’s grasp on reality is warped. Photography as a medium, inclusive of both positive and negative aspects, across all of its iterations and interfaces, is absolutely necessary to the dialogic context of how the world is interpreted.
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