From the Archives

From the Archives – The Culture of the Copy

Today from the archives, we bring you an early #Hashtags column on images, photography, and the movement from two dimensions to three. Though this post was originally published on January 24, 2012, the distinction between “real” and “unreal” continue to be germane to both contemporary art and everyday culture.

Jerry McMillan. Wrinkle Bag, 1965; black-and-white photographic bag construction with shelf and Plexiglas cover; 12.75 x 11.75 x 7 in.

“Cameras are the antidote and the disease, a means of appropriating reality and of making it obsolete.” —Susan Sontag

In her 1977 essay, “The Image-World,” Susan Sontag wrote that the practice of photographyand the overabundance of images that come along with itleave us desensitized to the “real” world. Despite the fact that photographs are considered traces of their subject, we typically see photographs as independent, material objectsseparate from their original subjects and somehow more palatable. They even occupy a specific moment of time, different from our own, turning the present into the past and the past into the present.

But Sontag was writing about the role of the photograph as she knew it, which never included sculpture or photographs functioning not just as traces of objects but as actual simulations, or three-dimensional copies. The last year has seen a rise in artists working with photography in sculpture, with more than a few of these artists choosing to juxtapose “real” objects with their 2- or 3-dimensional photographic copies. Is there a difference between images functioning like this in the world and “the image-world” that Sontag describes? Or are they one and the same?

Ironically, even as Sontag was puzzling over “The Image-World” and the rest of the essays that would become On Photography, searching to delineate a niche in the fine-art world for photography, curator Peter Bunnell took an even larger step. In 1970, Bunnell launched “Photography into Sculpture” at the Museum of Modern Art, “the first comprehensive survey of photographically formed images used in a sculptural or fully dimensional manner.”

The show included a work by Jerry McMillan called “Wrinkle Bag” (1965)–perhaps one of the first of its kind. “Wrinkle Bag” was not merely a photograph, but a high-quality, black-and-white reproduction of the texture of crumpled paper, cut into the shape of a brown paper lunch sack. In its recent re-manifestation at Los Angeles’s Cherry and Martin Gallery, “Wrinkle Bag” looked eerily contemporary, perhaps because this type of photographic reproduction has resurfaced recently in the works of contemporary artists, like Urs Fischer, among others.

Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns?; installation view, Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 2008.

In 2008, Fischer collaborated with Gavin Brown on the exhibition Who’s Afraid of Jasper Johns? at the Tony Shafrazi Gallery. Fischer and Brown hired a photographer to document the gallery’s previous show, Four Friends—which included work by Donald Baechler, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, and Kenny Scharfand then wallpapered the gallery with the images, printed in a 1:1 scale.  The results were chaotic, with the photographed work punctuating, even interrupting, the current exhibit.  There were even moments where a photographed object was juxtaposed against the original, as in the case of the security guard.

Fischer repeated this technique last year for his solo exhibition at the New Museum, taking photographs of the entire third floor, including the ceiling, and then re-papering those same walls at a 1:1 ratio. Two-dimensional images of the side of the exit sign line up with the exit sign itself; the ceiling is covered with a huge photograph that includes two-dimensional images of flickering florescent lights, right next to the lights themselves.

Urs Fischer. Marguerite de Ponty, 2010; installation view; mixed media.

By all reports, this was a challenging room to walk through, although reactions variedmany went through too quickly and missed the minor details. Conversely, the reward for those who took their time was an unsettled feeling brought on by the proximity of “real” and “unreal” copies of the same object. There is a visceral difference between experiencing a photographic image on its own and as an image returned to its original context, or placed back in the image world as an object.

Perhaps the most intriguing of these artists is Miriam Bohm, who has completed multiple series, including Inventory and Areal, in which she photographs objects such as packages, arranges those photographs in ways that echo the original arrangement, and then rephotographs them. The result is a complex layer of images, leaving you, as the viewer, with nothing concrete save the object of the photograph itself. In the words of Brendan Fay, writing for Artforum, “In Bohm’s hands, it is the photograph’s presence as an object that provides the most immediate basis for apprehending the image it contains.”

Miriam Böhm. Inventory XII, 2010; chromogenic color print; 23.6 x 17.7 in.

“Our unlimited use of photographic images not only reflects but gives shape to this society, one unified by the denial of conflict.”

Sontag was curious about the image-world she described, including whether it was the only variety possible. She even proposed an ecology of images, or a mitigating of sorts. In reality, we’ve gone the opposite direction–more images surround us than ever–but when artists insist on reinserting an image back into its original context, or even threaten to use it to replace an object, it’s hard not to believe there’s a shift afoot.