Articles by Vik

Making it Real

by Vik Muniz

Life itself is not the reality. We are the ones who put life into stones and pebbles.

Frederick Sommer

The Good Picture

“Smile!” commanded the despotic man in the burgundy jacket. We obeyed immediately, only to be rewarded by the blinding light of a flash. At the age of four, I didn’t question why I should smile without being happy. Apparently, neither did my parents. Smiling for a camera seems to be imbedded in the genetic coding: even the blind do it.

Looking at the impromptu portrait from Sears thirty years later, I am struck by the fact that we–my mother, my father, and I are all smiling in ways we never did in life. Something had been altered; even my ugly orthopedic shoes, which I wore well after my thirteenth birthday, were nowhere to be seen. But somehow our smiles still manage to reveal the twelve hours a day my mother spent behind a switchboard at the phone company, the two jobs my father held as a waiter to support my grandparents and me, and my own confusion toward the world I was just beginning to know. Through the lie of the photograph, I can still discern the desires and intentions of my family as well as our striving to conform to the format of a portrait–to make the “good picture.”

Since the earliest days of photography its development has been linked to increasing control of the photographic process as evidenced in the final print. Traditionally, the photographer concerned himself first and foremost with issues surrounding the quality of the image: ensuring that the subject be properly lit and arranged harmoniously within the frame, timing the picture to capture the best possible moment, and retouching any imperfections in either the negative or the subject’s appearance.

Today, in the aftermath of significant breakthroughs in the field of digital imaging, the photographer’s control over the image is potentially unlimited. This new development raises interesting questions. How will the way we look at photographs change? How can a photograph be trusted as a reliable picture of reality? And how will our memory of the past, which is so often buttressed by photographic images, be affected?

Whenever a powerful new technology has been introduced in the past, it has forced the re-examination of existing technologies and their power and purpose within society. In the nineteenth century, the advent of photography allowed painters to move away from “factual” representation, and to develop a more conspicuous style of execution. Surface and texture became important issues, brush strokes more signature-like; the painting’s “truth” became embedded in its treatment of the subject, rather than in the subject itself. In a similar way, digital imaging has exposed long overlooked aspects of photography, forcing the medium to abandon all ambition toward either absolute truth or persuasive illusion, and to assume a more critical position. As a result, artistic photography has either become more casual (snapshots and unfinished-looking printing) or overtly staged in such a way that the viewer can trace the entire mechanism of representation in the image. This latter strategy, which allows for a greater degree of variety and complexity than the former, is the subject of this exhibition.

It is significant that this investigation of staged photography should occur at a time when technical developments in the field of digital imaging have ostensibly rendered pre-photographic fabrication completely obsolete. In the face of such sophisticated technology, set-up photography can be used as a critical tool to expose the photograph’s illusion of reality. By choosing to fabricate their subjects and photograph them without much artifice, the photographers in this exhibition ultimately resurrect a nostalgic view of the photographic subject as staged presentation.

Double Negatives

A kid I know was watching the Oscars. When the actor Christopher Reeve came on stage he said, “Everyone thinks this guy is Superman. I know who he really is. His real name is Clark something.”

When an actor pretends he is someone other than his character, he reinforces the presence of his role with an act of false denial. The play within the play in Hamlet, for example, allows the truth to emerge. A similar thing happens when we attempt to photograph things that are in themselves representations of something. The simple exercise of discerning what is real from what is fake within an image makes us instinctively raise and lower, like an elevator, the grounds of our belief.

Since 1840, when Hippolyte Bayard took an image of himself as a drowned man to protest France’s failure to acknowledge his participation in the invention of photography, we have lived with the knowledge that photography does not always tell the truth. However, the eye takes enormous pleasure in being fooled and we have even developed a taste for such hoaxes. The joy we experience in looking at photographs of fabricated images–the Loch Ness monster for example–comes partly from the fact that while these images (whether you believe them or not) cannot prove the existence of this mythical creature, their utter audacity an unreality has the peculiar effect of underscoring the reality of the world outside the photograph.

Although the tabloids that regularly feature such images are now produced by complex technological processes, most of their images still maintain a low-tech feeling; we can clearly discern the retouching, the intentional blur, the artificial materials employed to fabricate aliens, devils, and Elvis apparitions. These same imperfections, accidents and distortions have also become the semaphores of reality in today’s set-up photographic representations.

Making it History

The camera records what is focused upon the ground glass. If we had been there, we would have seen it so. We could have touched it, counted the pebbles, noted the wrinkles, no more, no less. However we have been shown again and again that this is pure illusion. Subjects can be misrepresented, distorted, faked. We now know it and even delight in it occasionally, but the knowledge still cannot shake our implicit faith in the truth of a photographic record.

Beaumont Newhall, The History of Photography 1964

During the early days of photography all studio photographs were necessarily ritualized and in this sense, set-up or fabricated. The sheer number of exposures necessary to create a satisfactory image required long, ceremonious preparation not only by the photographer but also by the subject, who had to “become” the image beforehand. Still-life vignettes needed to be carefully arranged, portrait subjects well combed and dressed in their finest attire. Some even wore perfume.

The introduction of the calotype, a technique developed in 1840 by the British mathematician, scientist, and linguist W.H.F. Talbot, opened a new era in the history of image taking and set-up photography. Although slightly more complicated to produce than the daguerreotype, the calotype allowed a great deal of post-photographic manipulation and, unlike the daguerreotype, enabled an infinite number of reproductions to be made from a single negative. Manipulation of the negative permitted the photographer a number of corrections and “enhancements” that would not be noticeable in the final print.

In order to advance the status of photography it became necessary to reinvent it as “art” and by the 1860s it was no longer enough that a photograph simply be well executed. One of the ways in which photographers transformed the medium was by creating pictorial allegories. Allegorical photographs can be traced back to 1843, when John Edwin Mayall of Philadelphia made a series of daguerreotypes to illustrate the Lord’s Prayer. Later, during the Victorian era, the allegorical genre grew to embrace theatrical fabrications and dramatic lighting, and photographers began to expand their control over printing effects and manipulated negatives.

Theater became the main subject for the most notable artists of this period, including Oscar G. Rejlander, whose highly elaborate photographs such as The Two Ways of Life often involved the assemblage of more than twenty negatives depicting epic moral tales. Henry Peach Robinson, a contemporary of Rejlander, illustrated Shelley’s poem, Fading Away, using a constructed image of a frail young land on her deathbed (actually a healthy girl of about fourteen). Robinson’s photograph profoundly shocked the Victorian public, who felt it in poor taste to represent a scene so painful to look at. However, paintings depicting far more painful subjects were commonly accepted at the time.

Photography’s power to disturb and move public opinion was soon put to use in the coverage of the American Civil War. Fierce competition led photographers to enhance the shock value of their photographs. Even the dead were made to perform for the camera. Timothy O’ Sullivan, for example, physically re-grouped scattered corpses to achieve the horrific atmosphere of A Harvest of Death. In Alexander Gardner’s Home of a Rebel Sharpshooter, the same dead soldier’s body appears in several different settings. In a similar way, although for a different purpose, Edward S. Curtis would later photograph the same Native American in a variety of costumes as part of his survey on different Indian tribes.

The work of pictorialists F. Holland Day, Guido Rey and Richard Pollock propelled allegorical photography in the twentieth century. Day, a friend of Oscar Wilde’s, gained notoriety through his dramatic re-enactment of the crucifixion (posing himself as Christ) in Study for the Crucifixion; Pollock and Rey devoted themselves to recreating scenes from famous Renaissance paintings.

By the turn of the century allegorical photography had gradually shifted its focus away from such complex fabrications and had begun to feature more mundane settings and scenes. But in the early 1900s the work of Photo-Secessionists such as Alfred Stieglitz marked a renewed emphasis on post-photographic techniques; for these practitioners the effects obtained by toning, diffusing and texturing became as important as the subject.

With the emergence of photographers such as Paul Strand and Edward Weston in the 1920s “straight” photography became the new artistic criteria. One outcome of its practice was the rise of a new puritanical attitude that effectively banned fabricated photography as the subject of serious artistic discourse until well into the 1930s.

One of the reasons behind the change of attitude toward photographic embellishment was the popularization of the halftone press, which finally enabled newspapers and magazines to illustrate their articles with photographs. Photography and text seemed to validate one another, fostering a subconscious belief in the veracity of the photographed event.

Paradoxically, while the lineage of straight photography can be traced back to the introduction of the halftone, the halftone also precipitated the birth of commercial photography; this in turn created a ready market for the manipulated images used to promote the new post-war consumer goods. As art historian Naomi Rosenblum notes, the idealized images commercial photography demanded “conflicted with the ÔNew Objectively,’ a philosophy that emphasized Ôthe thing itself.'” In fact, most trickery used to produce commercial images aimed at the crafting of “perfect moments” that seemed natural and spontaneous. At the same time, Rosenblum observes, Bauhaus and Constructivist artists and photographers, in a utopian effort to make excellence available to all, proposed to wipe out distinctions between fine and applied art.

Many outstanding photographers in the 1920’s responded by ignoring the division between self-expression and commercial work that the pictorialists had been at such pains to erect around the turn of the century. Artists such as Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, Moholy-Nagy and Paul Outerbridge graced the early days of advertising with their work. Borrowing the glittery glow of cinema, fashion and celebrity photography flourished through the lenses of Baron Adolph de Meyer, Horst P. Horst, Edward Steichen and Martin Munkacsi. Advertisers were willing to be influenced by what artists had to say about design, type and composition, even allowing Surrealism to enter the structure of commercial publications. Some of these early influences remain unchanged to this day.

This successful liaison between art and commerce marks perhaps the apotheosis of set-up photography. But as the world of commercial photography grew in complexity it required more specialization on the part of its player. Artists could no longer control the entire process: art directors, stylists, photo editors and over-demanding clients reduced the job of the photographer to that of an uncreative technician. The love story between fine and commercial photography came abruptly to an end.

Meanwhile, government programs such as the Farm Security Administration and photo-based weeklies such as Life, Look, Paris Match, and Picture Post, offered documentary photographers a wide array of employment possibilities. In America, the Depression was combated with inspiring photographic images, many depicting the nobility (as well as suffering) of working-class Americans. Lewis Hine, Walker Evans and Berenice Abbott wrote extensively on the importance of truth in photography and its social implications. Nevertheless, photographers were not opposed to “enhancing” composition and treatment of light in their “documentary” photographs. Margaret Bourke-White, for example, rearranged a line of flood victims standing under a billboard (At the Time of the Louisville Flood, 1937) which exalted “the American way,” to create a more “aesthetic” image.

In the climate of conformity and economic complacency of the 1950’s photographers turned from the social and political, and focused instead on more intimate and personal interpretations of the world. And to some extent, just as the invention of photography freed painters from documenting reality, so the new medium of television, with its ability to present images “live,” seemed more immediately “real” and so prompted photography to develop in other directions. Inspired by abstract art, many photographers sought to expose pure form, while photo-journals such as Life began to feature aerial, microscopic and astronomic photography.

During the 1960s and early 1970s artistic photography was predominantly documentary in nature; nevertheless, many photographers did begin to question the photograph’s documentary validity. This trend continued in the work of numerous artists in the 1980s, who often borrowed, and subverted, the manipulative strategies of the mass media.

With the introduction of digital photography in the 1990s, renewed interest in the mechanics of representation has developed. As a result there has been a resurrection of a low-tech, labor-intensive approach to depicting objects and images. Many photographers have abandoned sophisticated equipment to experiment with alternative cameras, many homemade. Others have downsized the apparatus of media fabrication to the intimacy of their studios by making toy scenarios, theatrical allegories, and “portraits” of handmade subjects.

The computer bit has leveled the hierarchical relationship of reality over representation, giving the image an unconditional autonomy. This autonomy is the ultimate achievement as well as the ultimate failure of the digital image. The more the digital facsimile astonishes us with its capacity to transform, the more it erodes our faith in all images. The photographers in this exhibition acknowledge this state of affairs, and through telling details enlist the viewer in the discovery and exposure of the mechanics of their illusions.

The Bad Actor


Once during a third-rate performance of Othello, I had the chance to experience the beneficial shortcomings of perfectionism in representation. Joey Grimaldi, the actor responsible for incarnating the Moorish celebrity, conveyed, with heavy Brooklyn accent, hopeless stuttering and transparent amateurism, the image of a jester with his face painted black. During the entire play I observed no break in Joey’s embarrassing inability to persuade the public of the metamorphosis of his identity. As a result of this mediocre performance, the character alternated between Joey, (married, two kids, a plumber from Astoria who took theater lessons on weekends), and the jealous Moorish general in constant search of bad advice. The reality that leaked from the character of Othello made it possible for the whole dynamics of theater to become transparent and comprehensible. This frenetic negotiation, even though unable to bring to mind either the character of Othello, or that of Joey, illustrated with great clarity the essence of representation.

The difference between a chemical and a digital photograph is like the difference between a shadow and a ghost: While digital images (like ghosts) have lost their bond with the material world they continue to borrow its forms, whereas chemical photographs (like shadows) must rely on the material world to achieve their form. For the artists in Making it Real, the importance of “doing it chemically” comes from their innermost desire to preserve a link between fact and fiction. Yet just as the photo-chemical bond between reality and image will always exist, so too will the invisible differences that separate the chemical from the digital image continue to exist as hidden lies. As Lewis Hine once remarked, “While photographs may not lie, liars may photograph.”

Set-up photography has consistently evolved synchronically with commercial demands for an idealized subject, and for this reason it reveals a great deal more about the photographer’s intentions than it does about the subject portrayed. As we start to unveil the patterns in the relatively short history of photography, we may be able to look at pictures with the same concern for their artifice and formal rhetoric that, for example, we bring to the appreciation of theater.

By choosing to play with the permeable borders between fiction and illusion, the artists in this exhibition convey a concern with out decaying belief in reality as something that can be impartially defined and objectively recorded by a neutral witness. In practice, fictional fiction is perhaps as close as we can get to reality. As theater director Constantin Stanislavsky once pointed out, the hardest role an actor will ever play is that of an actor, especially a bad one, for there is nothing within an actor’s memory that he can use to portray such a character. He will have to depend entirely on his imagination; he will have to act twice as much in order to make it real.

The point I wish to make is not that we have lost a grasp on “reality” we once maintained, but that the emergence of digital imaging is opening up new ways of thinking about the photographic image. As Fred Ritchin writes: “We have before us a chance to explore a new beginning, or at least an exhilarating turn. One hopes that the discussion will not simply blame or applaud the technology for all that is and will be happening to photographic imagery. The discussion should question the nature of photography and is potential role in our evolving society.”

What’s Wrong with This Picture?

When I worked for an advertising agency in 1979, my boss, a certain Mr. Souza, spent most of his time terrorizing us young trainees with a litany of techniques on how to make things look “more real” .He would always allow certain imperfections to remain in the last draft of photo ads: a speck of dust, a scratch on the products package, some lint in the model’s sweater “touches of truth,” as he described them. However, our “touches of truth” never seems to be the same as his. When we confronted him, he explained that the essence of hyperreality wasn’t simply about making mistakes, it was about being able to communicate them. Anything believable that happens in media, he said, does so because it carries a feeling that it should not have happened in the first place; that goes for selling deodorant or for reporting a plane crash.

I never forgot those words. I left the agency shortly after Mr. Souza got fired for sloppy work and decided to become a sports writer.