Mixing media – photography, sculpture and the construction of images

Christine Gückel, 2010, Filter for fotografi Nr.5

In contemporary art photography, the creation of artistic hybrids between photographic, sculptural and installation practices has become a widespread tendency. This artistic approach is not radically new, however. Rather, it is rooted in the experimental practices of the avant-gardes of the twentieth century.

Principles of Fabricated Photography
In her photo series Axiome (2009), Cologne-based artist Tamara Lorenz creates a chain of propositions, a system based on a filigree construction of things taken from everyday life, carefully kept in balance by formal conditions. Laths of wood, varnished in white, grey or black, are arranged into lines and geometric shapes in front of a white foil, which Lorenz then photographs. Thematically differentiated by boards cut into triangles or semi-circles, by a trellis, an inverted chair, or by fragments of words printed on sheets of white paper, each of the structures explores and defines the space in its own way.

The space itself, however, is hard to grasp. On the one hand, the viewer’s immediate perception of it is hindered by the staging of the objects: by inaccuracies, displacements, overlaps and the confusing structure of the underlying shadows caused by a strong frontal and mostly dual illumination. On the other hand, the abstraction of the photographic exposure reduces the sculptural constructions into two-dimensional formations and this transforms not only the objects’ substance into artistic material, but also the spatial drawings into graphic ones, an impression that is endorsed by the small format, the serial context and the often only slightly varied motif of the images. Emphasising in her photographs the superficial structures of the arranged objects, Lorenz turns three-dimensional depth into a levelled screen, using the medium’s potential of subsuming perspective to create single forms with new outlines and artistic coherencies.

Lorenz has cited the German artist Jürgen Klauke, her former professor at the Academy of Media Arts Cologne, as an important inspiration in the building of ephemeral arrangements with the sole purpose of banishing them into the photographic surface. With this she refers directly to the early beginnings of photographic approaches referred to under the umbrella term ‘Fabricated Photography’, (1) which was coined by the American photography critic A. D. Coleman. (2) In the 1970s, he transferred terms from the sphere of theatre and film to photography in order to describe an art photography no longer seeking to document an available reality, but to invent or construct its own. (3) Based on his extensive categorisation, a broad conceptual spectrum of imprecise definitions and terms emerged, including ‘staged photography’, ‘constructed photography’, ‘arranged photography’, ‘manipulated photography’, ‘invented images’ and ‘constructed realities’, which have still not been satisfactorily clarified.

The influence of mass media
The term ‘Fabricated Photography’ covers the work of artists who exclude the immediate outside world by de-contextualising parts of it or by staging the motif directly in their studios, often setting up an elaborate backdrop. Especially early adopters of this tendency had a strong affinity with advertising, theatre and film, not only borrowing the working methods from these disciplines, but often their aesthetic qualities too. (4) Cindy Sherman’s play on clichéd notions of gender roles and mass-media stereotypes in her series of sixty-nine Untitled Film Stills (1977–1980) may be seen as paradigmatic of this. Such ‘cinematographic’ staging comprises many general aspects of Fabricated Photography, such as the embodiment of an underlying artistic concept; the artist’s multi-faceted role as director, producer and often actor; a specific orientation towards the viewer; and the representation of a narrative. While the staged work of artists like Jeff Wall, Eileen Cowin or Duane Michals suggests a potential story, in parts through titles (Wall) or ostensibly interpretive texts (Michals), photography does not have to be staged to evolve a narrative, and vice versa, as the photographs of Lorenz exemplify. Thus the German art historian Christine Walter makes a distinction between staged and constructed/arranged photography, defining the former as “scenic, narrative representations”, and the latter as “still lifes” or “abstract compositions”, underlining a more technical approach. (5)

Documenting the non-documentary
Although they will differ thematically, technically and stylistically, all Fabricated Photographs have a fundamental aspect in common: they exempt themselves from Roland Barthes’ oft-cited definition of what he sees as the essence of photography: its ‘indexical referentiality’. While, as he points out, the ”photographic referent” implies an immediate correspondence to a given extra-pictorial reality (the ‘that-has-been’), (6) these photographs invent and produce a staged presence. Turning away from the demands of photographic realism, as formulated by ‘straight’ photographers like Paul Strand or Walker Evans, the intentionally staged motif allowed independence in capturing ‘the decisive moment’. (7) As the cultural philosopher Gerhard Lischka states, this finally led to the separation of the medium as art from its long-established role as document. (8) However, the concept of inventing a reality exclusively for the camera originated simultaneously in a documentary usage of photography to fix ephemeral art forms such as Happenings, Fluxus or Performance art that are only available to a limited number of people. The documentation of these artistic practices by means of photography and film, later video, provided not only the opportunity for preservation, but also for publishing the performative action, even if the photographs initially had not been considered as autonomous artworks. Yves Klein’s famous performance of Anthropometries, for example, presented in 1960 at Galerie Internationale d’Art Contemporaine in Paris, was documented by three professionally assigned, but rarely mentioned photographers. (9)

The later incorporation of recording media by Performance Art, as in the multi-media concerts and events of Fluxus and Fluxus-associated artists such as Wolf Vostell, Nam June Paik or Joseph Beuys, finally led to the elimination of the audience, or rather to its transformation into an imaginary one, represented by the camera. The creation of an independent and detached artistic space opened up the possibility for self-reflective investigations, like the video-studies of the plastic potential of ordinary materials made by Richard Serra or John Baldessari, as well as for analysis of both the socially determined collective body and the individual artist’s body. In Anna and Bernhard Blume’s series of photographic performances, for instance, the petit-bourgeois collective body is confronted through the subversion of a domestic setting by means of everyday objects such as potatoes, vases or furniture that, as in Ödipale Komplikationen? (1977/78), dynamically interfere in the hilarious play of mother and son. The individual body and its sexual, political and aesthetic connotations are explored in the photographic works of artists like Eleanor Antin, Urs Lüthi or Jürgen Klauke.

The photography of objects
Klauke’s later work, in particular, seems to have inspired Lorenz. Here, he had moved on from his “theatre of self” – masquerades of multiple identities created in the early 1970s – to a “theatre of society” (10) characterised by the formalised staging of everyday objects that act as representatives of interpersonal structures and behaviour. However, unlike Klauke, who uses the medium to transmit pictorial rather than specifically photographic content, Lorenz exclusively plays on the visual potential of the photograph. Her abstraction of objects and space through photographic exposure is an important characteristic of Constructed Photography. Barbara Kasten’s early constructivist-geometrical compositions of glass, boards and mirrors, or Manuela Barczewski’s arrangements of layers of old windows, decorated with small colourful triangles or rectangles, for example, show a close resemblance to Lorenz’s series. That is to say, these works are all defined by the transformation of things into artistic designs, while formally and thematically focusing on the resulting transfiguration of the single elements of the images. However, artists working more figuratively, like Peter Fischli & David Weiss, also utilise the (ironic) distance that results from the de-contextualising and disembodiment of arranged objects.

Between sculpture and photography
This decontextualisation of objects and the removal of their function in Lorenz’s work leads to an indexical irritation on the part of the viewer. At first glance, it is unclear whether the photograph itself is the artwork, or just the documentation of an exhibition. This ambiguity, which occurs particularly in her earlier series, is emphasised by the fact that, like Kasten or Fischli & Weiss, she also works with sculpture and installations. Elements such as the fragility of the construction (the single components of Axiome, for instance, surely could not withstand the viewer’s movement) or the chosen perspective, unmask the arrangements as ephemeral staging. Nevertheless, the uncertainty as to whether her photographs are artworks or documentation directs attention to the tradition of photographic reproduction of artworks and its impact on the development of art and art history since the nineteenth century. This famously found expression in Walter Benjamin’s essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (1935) as well as in André Malraux’s idea of a “Museum without Walls” (1947). (11) According to Benjamin, the reproduction of a work of art leads to the loss of its unique aura and originality due to its detachment from its spatial and temporal origins. This, as he states, has led to the artwork’s emancipation from its traditional ritual context, and to its embedding in an altered aesthetic system. (12) Benjamin’s concept of an art history based on and determined by photographic reproductions greatly influenced Malraux’s idea of a continuously available “Imaginary Art Museum” – “a collection of sculpture that could fit into a few bound volumes”. (13)

This notion of reproduction reminds us of the inherent ‘sculptural function’ of the photographic image when acting as representative of three-dimensional constructions. This concept was put forward in the early 1930s by Brassaï, when he entitled his surrealistic photographs of used tickets and other everyday objects Involuntary Sculptures. Whether or not such sculptural function can be ascribed to Fabricated Photography is unclear, since it can already shift fluently between media. Lorenz’s work, for example, is an examination of the “sculptural treatment of materials, [a] play with form and non-form, and [an] interest in sculpture and process”. (14) But the artwork’s appropriation of qualities usually attributed to sculpture does not automatically imply the appropriation of this medium’s functional characteristics, and photography per se is two-dimensional. For this reason it is important to consider the context of the representation. As an artistic and thematical continuation of the Axiome, the photograph of the ProZOrd (2010) series integrated into Lorenz’s multi-media installation Sit back and enjoy the real McCoy (2010), for example, is not only the documentation of her artistic staging of objects, but also part of the installation. Plastically separated from its surroundings by the size and depth of its frame, the photograph becomes part of its own representation.

1. As proposed by Christine Walter, Bilder erzählen! Positionen inszenierter Fotografie: Eileen Cowin, Jeff Wall, Cindy Sherman, Anna Gaskell, Sharon Lockhart, Tracey Moffatt, Sam Taylor-Wood (Weimar: VDG 2002), p. 22.
2. A.D. Coleman, ‘The Directorial Mode. Notes toward a definition’, in Artforum International, no. 1, vol. 15, September 1976, pp. 55–61. The later exhibition Fabricated to be photographed (1979) at the Museum of Modern Art in San Francisco, curated by Van Deren Coke, initiated the theoretical discourse.
3. Coleman differentiated between documentary (e.g. ‘straight photography’), interpretive (e.g. ‘street photography’) and intervening/staged photography (e.g. still lifes, studio photography or portraits).
4. Walter states that Hollywood had a great impact on establishing these photographic concepts in the USA. Walter, Bilder erzählen! Positionen inszenierter Fotografie, p. 14.
5. Ibid., p. 25.
6. Roland Barthes, Camera lucida, reflections on photography (New York: Hill and Wang 1981) [Paris 1980], pp. 76ff.
7. Henri Cartier-Bresson, The decisive moment (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1952) [Paris 1952].
8. Gerhard Lischka, ‘Du bist dein Ebenbild. Klauke ist sein Ebenbild’ in Kunstforum International, vol. 88, 1987, pp. 204 –240, 218.
9. Harry Shunk, John Kender and Charles Wilp; cf. David Green and Johanna Lowry, ‘Splitting the Index. Time, Object, and Photography of Joseph Beuys and Yves Klein’ in Sculpture and Photography. Envisioning the Third Dimension, ed. Geraldine A. Johnson (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 1998), pp. 148–165.
10. Peter Weibel, ‘Klaukes Kunst zwischen subversiver Körperpolitik und performativen Akten’ in Absolute Windstille. Jürgen Klauke – Das fotografische Werk (Ostfildern: Hatje Cantz, 2001), pp. 51–69, 65.
11. André Malraux: The Psychology of Art: The Museum without Walls. (London: A. Zwemmer, 1949) [Paris 1947].
12. Walter Benjamin, ‘The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction’, in Illuminations: Essays and reflections, trans. H. Zohn (New York: Schocken, 1968), pp. 217–252. [Paris 1935].
13. Geraldine A. Johnson, ‘Sculpture and Photography. Envisioning the Third Dimension’, in Sculpture and Photography: Envisioning the Third Dimension (Cambridge MA: Cambridge University Press, 1999) pp. 1–19, 4.
14. Deborah Bürgel, ‘Heroes of Everyday Life’, in Tamara Lorenz – so oder so. Foto- und Videoarbeiten 2004-2007, ed. Andy Lim (Cologne: Darling Publications, 2008), pp. 61–64, 62.