Ideas about the Contemporary Role of Photography within Digital Culture and Artistic Practice | Melanie Bühler | Montag, 27.04.2015

Remnants of the Index: Hanging on to Photographic Values – The Installation Shot

Having reflected on the selfie and how it connects to the canonical qualities attributed to the analogue photograph, in this last blog post, which concludes my series of posts for the “still searching” blog, I will discuss the installation shot as a second example of how traditional values associated with the classic photographic image continue to live on as part of online culture.
With the installation shot that documents contemporary art exhibitions, a specific image genre has emerged that builds on another traditional photographic value: the image as an objective imprint. In recent years, a specific pictorial genre has surfaced for presenting exhibitions online. Most frequently the artworks in such an installation shot are set against a white, pristine background. The image bears no traces of human presence, is perfectly lit with artificial light and shot with a wide-angle lens. This specific aesthetic has been featured especially prominently on Contemporary Art Daily, probably the most important online image blog dedicated to presenting art online. Beyond this blog, this kind of image has also become increasingly pervasive elsewhere, as the way to successfully show art online.1The role of Contemporary Art Daily and the properties of the installation shot have been brilliantly contextualized and theorized by art historian Michael Sanchez: Michael Sanchez, “Contemporary Art, Daily” in Art and Subjecthood, edited by Isabelle Graw, Daniel Birnbaum and Nikolaus Hirsch (Berlin: Sternberg Press, 2011).
Goutam Ghosh at Standard, Oslo. Installation view from Contemporary Art Daily.
Sascha Braunig at Foxy Production, New York. Installation view from Contemporary Art Daily. Photo credit: Mark Woods
Translating the aesthetics of the white cube into a pictorial composition, these photographs would like to make us believe that no human has ever touched these perfectly retouched images. They show no stains, no blemishes, no bodies, just works, well lit against a backdrop of pristine white. As such, and by removing all the worldly, bodily, potentially dirty or otherwise imperfect traces of our daily lives, these images create the illusion of absolute objectiveness.
In doing so, they seem to represent pure objects, void of human interference between the object and its representation, a quality that traditionally has been attributed to analogue photography. By smartly staging art objects in front of a lens – using proper lighting, positioning the works against a white backdrop and choosing the right angle – and then digitally enhancing the objective properties of the image – by taking out blemishes and shadows, enhancing color contrasts etc. – this photographic value becomes a set of aesthetic properties enforced by digital means. Interestingly, a quality that is linked to the technical properties of an analogue photograph – the direct, objective imprint of light on paper – now becomes aestheticized. Even though we might know that these images have been retouched, stylized and worked on, we still accept them as documents, desiring and having internalized that which the photographic image continues to stand for: objective truth. Going even further, these images can be read as the amplification of the objective properties Bazin describes: “For the first time, between the originating object and its reproduction there intervenes only the instrumentality of a nonliving agent. For the first time an image of the world is formed automatically, without the creative intervention of man.” Ironically with the installation shot, the effects produced by the nonliving agent have intensified, although they are now created by human beings; the aesthetic effects that further enhance this non-human status and these objective properties are indebted to the human labor invested in these images.
“When seeing an image of an exhibition, we assume that what we see is the documentation of an actual event – a shared and witnessed reality.” Quote/screenshot from Soy Disseminated by Rebecca Stephany and Nora Turato, 2014
“In digital photography, any lens shorter than 15mm is considered ultra-wide. Shot with an ultra-wide lens, a living room becomes a reception hall with tiny benches, an exhibition space becomes a cathedral with tiny dots.” Quote/screenshot from Soy Disseminated by Rebecca Stephany and Nora Turato, 2014
“LED lights, we don’t do spotlights.” Quote/Screenshot from Soy Disseminated by Rebecca Stephany and Nora Turato, 2014
The reality produced by the installation shot feeds back into the actual staging of artworks in gallery and exhibition spaces. Aiming to mimic the aesthetic that has been proven to circulate images online so successfully, the installation shot influences the way objects are presented as part of exhibitions.2Michael Sanchez makes this point explicit when he describes how the lighting installed in spaces was specifically chosen to mimic the glow of the screen: “These galleries all employ a large number of high-wattage fluorescent-light fixtures, as opposed to more traditional spot lighting, making their walls pulsate like a white IPS screen (the now-ubiquitous LCD technology introduced by Apple in 2010).” Michael Sanchez, “Art and Transmission”[2011], Artforum (Summer 2013). As such, it exemplifies what Vilém Flusser described some thirty years ago: “Instead of representing the world, they [images] obscure it until human beings’ lives finally become a function of the images they create. Human beings cease to decode the images and instead project them, still encoded, into the world ‘out there,’ which meanwhile itself becomes like an image – a context of scenes, a state of things. . . The technically produced images that are all around us magically restructure our reality resulting in a global image scenario.”3Flusser, Vilém, Towards a Philosophy of Photography (London: Reaktion Books, 2000), p. 10. The image scenario created by the installation shot thus informs how art is presented in physical exhibition spaces. As such, exhibiting works in galleries and other venues becomes a function of feeding back into the online image stream of documentation shots, further enhancing the “truthfulness” and objective quality of these images.
When considering the installation shot and how the value of objectivity continues to inform this particular image genre, one can observe objectivity as being enhanced and intensified in a twofold manner: firstly, through an aesthetizication (digital enhancement) of its defining properties and secondly through the dynamic produced from the reality created by the image. This example shows that despite the fact these images become objectively less objective, their effects would like to make us to believe exactly the opposite. The value of objectiveness thus lives on, despite the fact and enhanced by the fact that the photograph’s direct relation to the object has been layered by human interference and digital manipulation.