Reconstructing the Language of Photography

Arab Boycott

With ‘mixed media’ artists being sneered upon by photography purists, writer Cat Lachowskyj reasons that binding an artist to a single medium is reductive to the creative process.

from the series Laying Bare the Fictional Side, Marleen Sleeuwits

Interior no. 54

from the series Laying Bare the Fictional Side, Marleen Sleeuwits

On 25 April, 1874, readers of the Parisian magazine Le Charivari opened the freshly-printed pages of a brand new issue, leafing through the day’s playful, illustrated contents. One article in particular had people talking: a quirky exhibition review of contemporary painting, written by local artist Louis Leroy. The imaginative works, characterised by calculated, visible brush strokes, were described with sarcastic disdain. “I was just telling myself that since I was impressed, there had to be some impression in it,” wrote Leroy. “And what freedom, what ease of workmanship! A preliminary drawing for a wallpaper pattern is more finished than this seascape.” That satirical review, titled ‘The Exhibition of the Impressionists’, facilitated the birth of the genre we now unflinchingly refer to as: Impressionism.

As Leroy stood in front of Monet’s Impression, soleil levant, contemplating the work with patronisation, he might not have realised he was also standing in the salon of anotherexperimental artist: Félix Nadar. As a photographer, Nadar was known for his peculiar and inventive techniques, from aerial shots created using hot air balloons to the unpopular use of artificial light. The fact that he made a point of hosting such an influential exhibition of controversial paintings makes sense, as his own legacy is now coloured by the welcome embraceof new methods and deviations from photographic norms.

Minister of Petroleum, from the series Medium of Exchange, Sheida Soleimani

Over a century later, purist tensions still exist across all creative genres, and it’s something we constantly hear about in discussions on photography. If we use digital processes, it is realphotography? What about Photoshop? What if you cut up your images and piece them together with bits of non-photo stuff (the dreaded miscellaneous category of ‘mixed-media’ is enough to drive any purist up the wall)? And what about that god awful stitching we’re seeing on so many prints these days? Don’t even think about throwing in something like paint or illustration (the primeval arch nemeses of the photographic medium – a tempestuous feud that has existed since the daguerreotype was merely a whispered rumour).

All this extra fuss has got to be a method of distraction. If the image itself was actually great, you wouldn’t need all these trimmings. Just like Moholy-Nagy (I’m talking about Lucia, not László – time to set the record straight on that one) shouldn’t have needed photomontage, and just like the Lumiére brothers shouldn’t have bastardised our faultless black and white photo-universe with the autochrome. Just like Nadar didn’t need to pave the way for flash.

Contemporary artists using photography often find themselves in a particular bind when it comes to defining their medium. The structures of museum cataloguing, gallery wall labels, exhibitions and art fairs force creative minds to define their work as one thing and one thing only. But more often than not, the most important aspects of an artist’s work are in the messages they convey, not the short definition of the medium they happen to be using.

Evan proposal for found image and blue resized right, from the series We will have only a future tense, 2018, Andrey Bogush

Untitled, from the series We will have only a future tense, 2018, Andrey Bogush

For artist Andrey Bogush, photography is the logical endpoint to a network of explorations – it’s the final documentation of his process. In his work We Will Have Only A Future Tense, he uses digital manipulation and scanning to explore his inner thoughts. The ‘photograph’ is actually a map of his creative process, so that we can trace his judgements, steps and source material after the fact. He tells Unseen, “The physical photograph acts as a placeholder, a space to facilitate an idea.” It’s the last step that we can hold onto, while we point at all the other, more important work he’s just waded through.

This idea of a photograph as a final form also rings true for Marleen Sleuwits, who plays with the limitations of a flat photograph as it documents her dynamic, three-dimensional experiments of proportion and perception. The artist alters empty spaces, using props to transform bland rooms into impressive, striking experiences. But how can we photograph an experience? For Sleuwits, this is exactly the point. The act of photographing her final product shifts her work into a flattened optical illusion. We question whether we are looking at a painting or digital manipulation, only to realise that her intricate manipulations were mosaicked together in real life, and the photograph is merely a document of this intense labour.

Interior no. 52, from the series Laying Bare the Fictional Side, Marleen Sleeuwits

Minister of Petroleum, Qatar, Former US President, from the series Medium of Exchange, Sheida Soleimani

That final, concluding snapshot is also traceable in the work of Sheida Solemani, whose projectsnot only incorporate collage and film, but also – wait for it – sculpture. Her most recent series Medium of Exchange harnesses a vibrant, commercial aesthetic, commentating on the oil trade between the U.S. and Middle East. For Solemani, the process of construction is the most significant feature of her work. Each intricate detail is catalysed by her expansive research. She collects source material from other imagery, creating props and backdrops in a static studio setting. She explains, “I regard the act of taking the photograph as an aggressive final step; flattening the sculptural frame and recording the set before it decays or is torn down.” We are drawn to these glistening images like a flock of magpies, and once we’re in front of them, we start to dissect what they are saying about incredibly important issues. All that hybridity and manipulation seems worth it, no? Surely the critical message is more important than the creation of a ‘pure’ photographic object.

At the end of the day, when we chip away at the giant, rough slab in front of us in an attempt to locate a definition of ‘real’ photography, we neglect the momentum that drives the history of the medium: creativity. Artists approach their work as a vessel for their inner thoughts and imagination. Photography is a vehicle, like language, but the ideas that it expresses are bigger than the confines of shutter speed and the decisive moment. Photography, like all art forms, will always work to bust through its own walls of limitation, and that’s okay. Let it.

Cat Lachowskyj is London-based writer, researcher and photography archivist, and is currently an editor at LensCulture. Her academic research focuses on colonial photography of Tibet, and a book of her recent findings will be published by the Rijksmuseum later this year. Cat contributes numerous articles on photography to various print publications including Unseen Magazine, The British Journal of Photography and AnOther, and her column ‘Silvering Out’ is featured in each quarterly issue of Rvm Magazine.

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