Unseen Photo Fair 2015 / Photography Eats Itself? ‘Metapicturism’ at the 2015 Unseen Photo Fair
A pair of grey stilettos stand abandoned on black sand. Bare footprints lead to the water’s edge. But the incoming tide erases the footprints, and then washes the shoes away. Maria Friberg’s video shown by London’s Pi Artworks is a metaphor for change and for demise, reminding us that all people and all things must pass. Here at the Unseen Photo Fair, Friberg’s video also symbolizes the fluid state of photography. For some years now, it seems that traditional modes of practice have been in decline, being supplanted by more introspective photographic approaches and techniques, such as process-fixated ‘New Formalism’. But to what extent is this true?
With its emphasis on the new and the now, Unseen, which takes place each September in Amsterdam, is a good place to consider such a question. In keeping with Photomonitor’s British Isles focus, let’s see if the UK galleries at this commercial fair can help us assess where photography is now, and where it might be going.
At Webber Represents, one of Austrian artist Thomas Albdorf’s images depicts shards of glass in a blanket, suggesting they are in a studio. But the shards reflect a mountainous landscape, suggesting they are outside. Albdorf is very much an ‘interrogator of the medium’, and his key concern seems to be with photography itself. His work is well executed, and it is difficult to tell the extent to which his photographs are ‘straight’ or manipulated. Elements of one image improbably repeat in others. What is ‘real’ and what isn’t, we ask ourselves? Everything seems uncertain, in flux, disorienting, disconcerting. More about form than about content, Albdorf’s photographs say much about photography. But if they speak of anything else, it is not clear what. They probably fit neatly into a recent trend commonly called ‘Constructed Photography’, primarily concerned with ‘creating work that blatantly bears the mark of its making, and wears its structural form like an exoskeleton’.
New Formalism. Constructed Photography. Perhaps these developments are unsurprising. In societies where many people spend much of their time in front of image-filled screens, maybe it is only natural for artists to be making images about making images. And given that everyone is a photographer now, perhaps serious photographers and artists see a need to demonstrate a deeper understanding of their medium as an integral part of their work. Or to put it another way, they feel a need to be ‘meta’. But are these new introspections overly clinical and free of real meaning, with practitioners navel-gazing down a self-referential cul-de-sac?
If you look at Melinda Gibson’s Lunar Caustic exhibited here by Flowers Gallery, the answer is no. Prints made from a sliver of collector Thomas Sauvin’s half-million-strong archive of Chinese vernacular negatives have been reworked by Gibson, who has part-destroyed the images using hydrochloric acid and silver nitrate, compounds which made photography possible in the first place. Hoisted by their own petard, the resulting photographs are poetic and compelling. Trees or a middle-aged man’s face seem to be consumed by the chemical decay, all terrible and beautiful purples, blues, and yellows. In a sense, this is photography eating itself.
Gibson herself puts it more thoughtfully: “As photography develops,” she has said, “histories, past and future can sit together on one surface.” Like much Constructed Photography, Gibson’s prints comment on the photographic process itself. But like Maria Friberg’s video, Gibson’s prints also represent people and things beyond photography. Their indexicality – what they are pictures of – is important, and the photographs strongly suggest their subjects are ephemeral, or at least in flux. But unlike much of the Constructed Photography trend, Lunar Caustic’s images speak beautifully about the world as much as they speak about photography. And they are not cold and esoteric, meaningful only to the photo-cognoscenti.
Also at Flowers Gallery, John MacLean’s Hometowns depicts the hometowns of famous artists. By intervening in the scene itself before taking the picture, or by creating effects in post-production, MacLean makes sure each image echoes the art of the artist in question. John Baldessari is represented by outsized paper dots on the pavement. William Eggleston is denoted by a lurid red seat belt hanging out of a dull white car on a grey street, colour exploding into a drab image. As with Albdorf, we are often unsure whether we are looking at phenomena captured when the shutter opened or wrought by some later magic. And as with Albdorf, we can be sure that these are very much images about images. And also as with Albdorf, any wider significance is not readily apparent.
But Hometowns goes further: rather than photographs about photography, these are photographs about photographs. And Hometowns doesn’t stop at photographs, but also references paintings, taking in artists such as Wassily Kandinsky and Bridget Riley. More generally, then, MacLean’s are photographs about pictures.
Belfast Exposed present Rural Fluorescent by Jill Quigley, who has incongruously decorated barns, sheds and pallets with hi-vis strips, with the intention of ‘disrupting traditional imagery of the countryside’. The photographs attempt to counter the politicized or romanticized version of rural Ireland commonly depicted in paintings and photographs. So Quigley’s are also photographs about pictures.
But it isn’t just photographs about pictures at Unseen. There are also lots of photographs of pictures. Division of Labour’s booth has Stuart Whipps’ work, which includes an intriguing photograph of a photograph of a rock next to a rock. London gallery Edel Assanti exhibit Gordon Cheung’s manipulated photographs of still-life paintings of flowers, where all is far from still, far from well. Some kind of digital acid rain is destroying the paintings, destroying the flowers, destroying everything. This linear destruction looks to be a result of human action, and the series title New Order suggests a new reality of environmental catastrophe caused by people. Cheung’s are photographs of pictures, but they whisper about the world beyond their borders.
At South Kiosk’s booth, Thorbjørn Andersen’s prints are also photographs of paintings. The paintings are Andersen’s own, executed on transparencies and then printed onto photographic paper using an enlarger, magnifying their imperfections and idiosyncrasies. The resulting series – Artefacts, Evidence and Dust – is epic and tumultuous. These small prints suggest nothing less than the beginning and the end of the universe, all creation and death. They recall Man Ray’s Dust Breeding in their ability to evoke a much bigger picture, except with Artefacts, Evidence and Dust this is on a cosmic rather than a merely aerial scale. Andersen’s are photographs of pictures which speak powerfully of things far, far beyond the frame.
What conclusions can we can draw from all this? For one thing, the UK galleries at Unseen confirm that image-makers are continuing along an introspective path. Albdorf and Gibson’s series follow the concerns of Constructed Photography – photography itself. Others, however, such as MacLean, Quigley, Cheung and Andersen are making photographs not about photography, but about and of pictures.
Perhaps these are all parts a broader macro-trend: New Formalism, Constructed Photography, and here photographs about photographs, photographs of photographs, photographs about painting, and photographs of painting. In the end, these are all pictures of and about pictures. They are all ‘metapictures’.
And while introspective image-making can be clinical and meaningless, metapictures cannot always be written off as overly-clever navel-gazing. As artists such as Gibson, Cheung and Andersen show us, their approaches can produce photographs which work on multiple levels: they speak about image-making, but they also speak about a bigger picture. They demonstrate that ‘Metapicturism’ can be a vehicle for an eloquent artistic commentary on the wider world.
But the corollary of this trend towards Metapicturism is that ‘classic’ modes of photography – more straightforward pictures of the world – are out of fashion. The work exhibited by UK galleries at Unseen bears this out. But there is one notable exception.
Ironically, The Photographers’ Gallery – which has in the past been accused of being overly contemporary and modish to the exclusion of more traditional photography – flies in the face of this vogue for image-based introspection. Its exhibits have a distinctly old-school flavour, the standout work being Evgenia Arbugaeva’s wonderful Weather Man series, shot at a remote Arctic meteorological station. It could be described as documentary photography with a strong twist of magical realism. On one level it tells the story of Slava, a middle-aged meteorologist, but on another it is about the young photographer’s yearning for home. It is also a lyrical commentary on the passage of life, symbolized by an open door leading us into the abyss of the polar night.
Perhaps Arbugaeva shows that young practitioners are still breathing spectacular new life into more old-fashioned modes of photography. But for good or ill, her work runs contrary to the prevalent trend of Metapicturism, which may dominate commercial gallery photography in the UK (and elsewhere) for years to come.
– text by Simon Bowcock
The 2015 edition of the Unseen Photo Fair took place in Amsterdam in September.
 New Formalism has been with us for quite some time:
‘..perhaps the dominant, and certainly the most discussed, strain in contemporary photographic practice: namely, what might be termed New Formalism. Falling under this broad rubric are photographers such as Christopher Williams, Eileen Quinlan, Anthony Pearson and Walead Beshty, all of whom are concerned to varying degrees with exposing, exploring and manipulating the rudiments of the photographic process, often reverting to pure abstraction to achieve these ends.’
Christopher Bedford, Catherine Opie, Frieze Magazine Issue 117, September 2008
 Aaron Schuman, Construction Sight, Frieze Magazine Issue 170, April 2015
 Interview with Melinda Gibson, Unseen Magazine 2015
 Profile of artist Jill Quigley, Unseen 2015 website http://unseenamsterdam.com/photographers/3959