Pulled from diverse provenance, techniques, and genres—from the dawn of the field to modern art, from anonymous vernacular pieces to avant-garde and pop art, and culminating in compellingly dissimilar contemporary oeuvres—the works here collected deviate resolutely, both aesthetically and ideologically, from the notion of the photographic imprint as a “clean” or objective depiction of visual truth. Furthermore, they offer sharp insights into the history of the medium—its experimental spirit—and glimpses of a possible, albeit capricious, alternative narrative of cultural history.
This trip down the camera obscura rabbit hole starts, paradoxically, with an absent portrait; a cut paper silhouette of a female profile with an abstracted torso placed over an image-less daguerreotype plate—both layers stacked in the original frame. This object, dating ca. 1845-60, is symbolic of how photography added strata of complexity to the role of portraiture in identity. Within the rigid Victorian outline, the vacant surface becomes a mirror that returns the image of the viewer, a presence always shifting and pointing to the medium’s nuclear illusion: the instant eternally suspended. Henceforth, selected early portraits (dating back to ca. 1890 and ca. 1920) glare back at us from the ambivalent threshold between that first photographic exposure and the tender, or sometimes conspicuous, touch of the human hand.
In two dual portraits, conceivably of two sisters and two brothers posing in rather enigmatic circumstances (the girls clasping hands around a cascading fabric; the two young men facing each other in front of a slightly open curtain concealing no discernable background), the added tracings and highlights dissolve and reemerge as our eye wanders. This confluence of fact and fiction also occurs in two dignified likenesses of black women. The delicate sfumatos, the contouring or sharpening of their features, and the striking sculptural quality in the dress one of them is wearing—together with the inexplicable patch in her forehead—all imbue life and visual interest into originally low-contrast prints made with giant sunlight enlargers. Something similarly captivating occurs in the image of two baseball players (their iconic specificity heightened by the painterly details and the dreamlike foggy background) and the photo-collage of a soldier, which strikes as an apparition, emerging with his cap and shotgun from a blotchy airbrushed peacock-blue background. This work’s multidimensionality—with its added photos of people, plausibly involved in the soldier’s backstory, and seed packet cut-outs bearing rose variety illustrations—accentuates its status as a commemorative item and a psychological dimension often elusive in photography. However much the additions and enhancements made to these works responded to the technical constraints of the medium’s infancy, their moody and mysterious patina is both the essence of their “vintage” and contemporary appeal; their eloquence as deliberate, autonomous objects.
“Changed,” also includes altered photographs incorporated into works of graphic design, advertisement, and media from the 1920s to the 1950s; pictures fabricated for practical ends, to evoke feelings and associations, to convey humor and irony or add visual commentary. This chapter comprises a series of illustrations from a hardware catalogue; a mechanical menagerie of sorts, consisting of single photographs of diverse metal parts painted over to make them more realistic in color and volume, creating a contrast with the flat, untouched backdrop that reminds us of Magritte’s conceptual usage of trompe l’oeil. Also included is a rare collage, produced by the Paris advertising agency Éditions Paul-Martial. With its contrasting exposures and surreal treatment of space and nautical forms—and removed from what may have been a brochure, poster, or magazine ad—this work becomes profoundly evocative. This diverse segment concludes with two bodies of work rooted in mass media: that of editorial cartoonist Vaughn Shoemaker, who used photographic reportage as an interactive basis for his character John Q. Public (debuted in The Chicago Daily News) and Arthur Fellig’s (i.e. Weegee’s) lampooning distortions of Marilyn Monroe. Through Weegee’s mastery with lens and darkroom manipulation, Monroe’s presence and her surroundings become malleable substances—the artist stretches an arm here, a leg there, thickens the torso, or multiplies the subject’s always smiling face. These alterations approach the psychedelic language of funhouse mirror reflections and stand in stark contrast against Weegee’s earlier “straight” photography of crime and urban life.
As we move ahead into the 20th Century, notions of anonymity, celebrity, and notoriety are further interconnected with the many ways in which ready-made images have been appropriated, decontextualized, and transformed. In Marcel Duchamp’s “Wanted: $2,000 Reward” (1960), the artist procured a spoof announcement from 1923, designed for the amusement of tourists, and altered it by gluing two dark headshots of himself and adding his alter ego Rrose Sélavy to the already extensive catalogue of aliases listed. “For information leading to the arrest of George W. Welch. alias Bull, alias Pickens. etcetery, etcetery,” reads the text in urgent tabloid style: “Operated Bucket Shop in New York under name HOOKE, LYON and CINQUER” it continues, hinting at a kind of perpetual displacement of identity. This fixing and unfixing of individuality is also present in the hermetic “Man in Box” (ca. 1960s), of unknown authorship: a photograph of a free standing open box enclosing the photo of a man dressed in white covered by a piece of obscure glass. The instant recognition of a dandy complexion is immediately confounded by the non-specificity of the blurred details; a comforting sense of three-dimensionality undermined by an ultimate flatness.
On the other side of the spectrum is Andy Warhol’s “Most Wanted Man No. 11, John Joseph H., Jr.” (1964), a screen print involved in the creation of a 20-foot mural, suitably titled (after a NYPD booklet) with the double entendre “13 Most Wanted Men.” The naked face in the mugshot, picked in the wrong circumstances from the dark mass of anonymity, transforms through the artist’s vision into a James Dean-type character in a plausible poster of a film (never) titled “N.Y.C POLICE / 369 857 …” Warhol’s mural—consisting of the enlarged photos of all 13 wanted felons—was covered with silver paint only 48 hours after its unveiling by order of Governor Nelson Rockefeller. We can find the flip side of such political censorship in the dogmatic overtones of a woven tapestry based on a popular photograph of Mao Zedong playing ping pong. The original photo was taken by the Chairman’s full-time personal photographer Lü Houmin, a fact that underscores the role of staged and replicated photographic images as emblems of propagandistic historical narratives—and otherwise echoes “ping pong diplomacy,” or the rekindling of American-Chinese relations in the 1970s.
Altered photographs from the 1970s to the present indicate a gradual tendency to disguise, deconstruct, and dissociate images from their original contexts or obliterate referents altogether. In Dieter Roth’s “Düsseldorf” and “Heidelberg” pieces (from his “German Cities” series), the artist reproduced photographic postcards of landmarks in a grid. The very concrete and mundane imagery was then painted over with semitransparent solid colors—save for the shape of a single monument that appears superimposed to the different views. Barry Le Va’s photo-collages add spray-painted layers of abstraction onto already abstruse images of African artifacts. Gerald Slota’s literal and figurative scratching, cutting, burning, or piercing through the photographic chimera, speaks of the postmodern tendency to expose the artifice built-into all representational systems. Galerie Gugging’s Leopold Strobl and Johannes Lechner (alias Lejo) construct mentally charged settings that are reflections of nothing but the artists’ minds. Strobl utilizes photographs in printed media to create hybrid works with naturalistic pictorial facets such as texture, three-dimensionality, and depth of field merged into his very distinct sense of perspective and use of abstract volumes. Inspired by found photographs of nameless people, Lejo creates multilayered collages with visual analogies and juxtapositions that evoke the fortuitous associations and the dislocations of memory.
Whether “intervened” or not, all photographic images seem to exist in the land of make-believe, and perhaps—despite art’s finest efforts—reality is not a thing to capture but to be created. “Changed,” hence reaches its conceptual apex with Ellen Carey’s subject-less “Pull with Mixed and Off-Set Pods” (color positive and negative prints, 2011): non-representational photographs made with a large format Polaroid 20 x 24 camera. Mixing and off-setting the Polaroid pods—or the envelopes that hold the dyes—Carey creates novel color combinations and irregular shapes within the “pulls,” a verb turned into a noun to denote these vertical abstract shapes. The artist’s Polaroid practice transcends the picture/sign duality and, in her words: “frees the image from the centuries long tyranny of something to be captured.” The process thus becomes the subject, and we return to the foundation of photography as a “drawing with light,” or to the very beginning of this journey and the latent image that never was.