Until recently, photography was defined by its fidelity to the real world. Photographs were used as evidence, they were journalism, documentary, diary. Even a work of photographic fiction seemed to be proof that what you were seeing had, at one point, physically been there in front of the camera. As Andre Bazin said, photography satisfied, at last, our eternal itch for likeness.
Of course, that was never entirely correct. There have always been all manner of ways to manipulate the photographic process so that it might conjure up a vision of something entirely incorporeal (never-mind the more fundamental question of how something lit, staged, framed and developed could ever seriously lay claim to truthfulness). Now – in an era of Photoshop and Afterlight and fake solar flares and #NoFilter – there are many, many more ways in which photography has been divorced from the real. “The idea that photography has any fidelity to the truth is kaput thanks to digital,” says Kiron Robinson. “We’re freed of that. The photograph is no longer indexical…so what is it?”
For his new exhibition – We Told Ourselves We Needed Separate Beds to Sleep (at the Centre for Contemporary Photography until 28 June) – Robinson has used photographic source material to construct a series of 42 new images which consider that very question. In two neat lines running along both walls of the CCP there are, variously, photographs, photographs of photographs, photographs of objects placed on photographs, photographs of photographs on top of other photographs, photographs which have been scanned and re-scanned, photographs which have been cut and folded and flipped and marked and collaged. That is to say, this is an exhibition about photography. More specifically, it is about how we look at photographs and in turn how photographs shape how we look at the world.
Green landscape 2 (2015) is a scan of an image from an art magazine - the inside curve of the spine clearly visible. Yellow on yellow with other colours providing contrast (2015) is a photograph of a bright yellow cup on top of an advert for a bright yellow Prada bag. In Young woman kissing old man while he turns his head away (2015), a fashion magazine has been folded and then scanned, so that a model seems to be planting a kiss on the cheek of man from several pages (and centuries) earlier. In other works Robinson has stuck pieces of tape, paper, post-it notes and other marks over part of the image, which has then been scanned or re-photographed or both. The aim, Robinson explains, is to flatten the photograph. He’s interested in the way these interruptions lure your attention away from the subject of the photograph and back to its surface.
“Photography is in a state of anxiousness,” says Robinson. “Image is the language of this part of the century. It’s the language we speak in more than words, but it’s become unstable.” Yes we all know that photos aren’t faithful representations of the visual world, but that promise is still incredibly powerful. And so, photographs – however they might now be made or distributed, no matter the subject – teeter between the material world they're depicting and their own material manifestation as a thing, a flat two-dimensional image.
In addition to “anxious” and “unstable”, Robinson also talks about photography in terms of tension, delusion, faith, truth, doubt, deception and of course fidelity. If that all sounds rather intimate, that’s because it is. “I think photographically. That’s how I think no matter what I’m making…” says Robinson “I’ve always really enjoyed photography and photographs. I love looking at them.” But, he goes on, “Why do we need more images? Why on earth do I need to make any more images?”
What is photography? isn’t just a conceptual question, a matter of redefining the parameters of photography for a digital era. For Robinson it’s also a deeply personal question because embedded within it are a series of other perhaps more interesting concerns, not least of which, why photography? and what is a photographer?
>> Maura Edmond
>> 6 May 2015