> The Photograph as an Art Object

Felicity Cole / The Photograph as an Art Object

March 2013

In 2012 the Deutsche Börse prize for photography was won by a man who is not a photographer. The prize, which is awarded for “the most significant contribution to the medium of photography” was won by John Stezaker.  His photographic collages incorporate found images, postcards and mechanically-produced  illustrations from magazines and books, which are cut out and combined together in a  different context. The three-dimensional element of his work requires the audience to consider the physical nature of the images, which is a theme that is increasingly evident in work that is labelled as ‘photography’.  Artists are combining photography with other media such as sculpture, painting and embroidery to produce work which can cause us to question the very nature of photography today.

The manipulation of prints and negatives is not new. The pictorialists scratched and combined negatives and painted on prints in order to advance the acceptance of photography as an ‘art’. Photographers such as Frank Eugene, Gertrude Kӓsebier and Edward Steichen had begun their careers as painters so their incorporation of painting techniques into their photography was no surprise. In 1899 the critic Sadakichi Hartmann wrote of Eugene’s work, “He is essentially a painter, and looks at photography merely as a new medium to express his artistic individuality…We can find in his work all those qualities known to every student of painting”.[1] Throughout the history of photography, artists such as Man Ray have used techniques which ensure that the resulting prints present few of the indexical qualities for which photography has long been acclaimed.  But how do the artists of  today, working in the digital age, differ from their predecessors and what motivates their practice? This article will look at the work of four contemporary British-resident artists who are challenging the boundaries between photography and other media: Julie Cockburn, Aliki Braine, Darren Harvey-Regan and Nathalie Hambro.

Like Stezager, Julie Cockburn is not a photographer. Originally trained as a sculptor, she works with found images which she transforms through cutting and collaging, as evidenced in her 2012 image  ‘Blue Jumper’.  She also adds other media such as embroidery, drawing with biros and correction fluid or sticking plastic onto the surface of a print, as seen in her image  ‘Face’.  The art world has long privileged the unique object and Cockburn’s interventions transform the reproducible print into an original art object. Her work is frequently categorised  in exhibitions as ‘photography’, however, and it raises questions as to the limits of the medium today.

Cockburn typically works with portraits, which she alters in order to hint at hidden characteristics of the sitter. For Cockburn, however, the indexical nature of the photographic portrait amounts to an ‘incomplete truth’ which she expands through the use of other media.  She combines the documentary tradition of the photograph with the imaginary possibilities of drawing, sewing and collage. Her aim is not simply to facilitate the acceptance of the work as ‘art’ in the manner of the pictorialists but to inject layers of suggestion which cause the viewer to embark on an imaginary journey, querying who the portrait subject really was, rather than accepting the photographic evidence. She has said of her work “I try to unearth something that isn’t being said within a photo. Photos have a flatness, a promise that they don’t quite fulfil”.[2]

Aliki Braine  also trained as a sculptor. Unlike Cockburn however, she has, until recently, used photography in her work in the traditional sense of using a camera to create an image. Yet the resulting prints are not quite photographs in the customary, indexical sense. Her work is rooted in the traditions of landscape painting and, like Cockburn, she felt frustrated by the documentary constraints of photography: “I was seeking out the archetypal landscape. I was going out into the landscape, but couldn’t find it in the real world, so I needed to rework the photo to meet my aesthetic concerns”.[3] Braine’s solution was to treat the photographic negative as a surface for manipulation. Braine paints and draws on the negative in black ink to create an eerie white blanket in the resulting print, as seen in her series ‘Draw Me A Tree’ of 2006  or the ‘White Out Sky’ images of 2007, in which imaginary ‘clouds’ are interspersed with real ones. She also works with pins and hole-punchers to transform the negative into an abstraction, as seen in the series ‘The Hunt’ of 2008.  The series references a painting by Paolo Uccello, but Braine’s abstractions force the viewer to conceptualise and imagine beyond the photographic evidence presented in the print. Thus both Cockburn and Braine challenge their viewers by inviting an imaginative discourse with their images. Unlike Cockburn’s images, however, Braine’s prints retain their reproductive quality, although she has stressed that the interventions on her negatives weaken them to such an extent that she can only work with very small editions.

Braine’s recent work takes the process of abstraction even further. She has stopped loading film into a camera and hole-punches colour film which has been developed, but not exposed. The result is a print on paper with grey and black tones which hints strongly at the use of a photographic process, although the indexical qualities of photography have now been completely eliminated. The image exists purely as a physical object in itself with no element of photographic representation of the referent.

Another artist whose work constantly questions the relationship between a photograph and the referent  is Darren Harvey-Regan. The incorporation of physical objects into his work frequently raises questions as to whether the artwork is a photograph or a sculpture. A recent example is his work  ‘Phrase (a fragment), Fragment (a phrase)’ in which a rock is mounted on a wall above a photograph of the rock, which rests on the floor. The initial impact of the rock hanging where a photograph would normally hang immediately brings into question the relationship between the rock and the photograph. But although we are told that the rock is the same object portrayed in the photograph, they look different. The rock can be viewed from different angles, which give rise to different shadows and plays of light, all of which are different from the viewpoint portrayed in the photograph. We become aware of the image in the photograph being distinct from the rock that we are looking at and hence we recognise the photograph as a physical object  in its own right, a physicality that is underscored by the solidity of the rock portrayed.

The concept of the photograph as an object becomes more immediate when the photographs take the form of a photobook, an object that is designed to be picked up and whose pages must be physically turned in order to see the photographs. Nathalie Hambro’s recent work  ‘Sin – Unseen’ is a limited edition artist’s book which presents a series of her polaroid images.  Her broad-based art practice is reflected in the work: Hambro has previously worked as a designer of jewellery and handbags and she is an award-winning author. The book design reflects a theme which is recurrent in her recent work – the incorporation of industrial materials.  She frequently presents her photographs in hand-tooled frames crafted from metals which incorporate elements such as ball-bearings and  copper mesh and which form part of the artwork itself.  In ‘Sin-Unseen’ the photographs are presented inside a perspex cover secured with a lock whose combination reflects the edition number, and the title is stamped into a stainless steel strip. The book is housed in a pouch constructed  from reflective industrial fabric with an embossed metal tag and is accompanied by a pair of hand-dyed gloves. The book’s design and its physical qualities are clearly of equal importance as its photographic contents.

The common theme in the work of the four artists discussed is their combination of photography with other media, which challenges the categorisation of the work.  The physical nature of the work is paramount, which perhaps reflects a reaction against the pervasion of screen-based imagery which surrounds us today. In one sense they are continuing a tradition of manipulation and enhancement in photography but, in this digital age, the ‘handmade’ is perhaps assuming new importance. These artists are creating unique ‘objects’ or producing work in very limited editions which counter the ease of reproduction of digital work today.

Felicity Cole

[1] Sadakichi Hartmann, An Exhibition of Prints by Frank Eugene, Camera Club of New York, 1899, n.p.

[2] Julie Cockburn in discussion with Bridget Coaker and Aliki Braine, Daniel Blau Gallery, London, 13 February, 2013

[3] Aliki Braine in discussion with Bridget Coaker and Julie Cockburn, Daniel Blau Gallery, London, 13 February, 2013