The Front Page

Artists and Photojournalism

Lyra Kilston

I
Andy Warhol's well-known series Flash November 22, 1963screenprints of images incessantly circulated in the four days between John F. Kennedy's assassination and funeralreframed these iconic moments, mimicking their inescapable and ceaseless repetition. In one piece, a superimposed arrow points to the window Lee Harvey Oswald allegedly fired from; in another, Jackie Kennedy smiles just before the shooting began. Flash foregrounds the public's morbid, voyeuristic desire for the depiction of tragic events and points to the effects of replication upon an image, reducing it to a huskan empty signifier. This series, like much of Warhol's work, investigates the use and role of news images in our culture, while his bright, graphic screenprints suggest that even portrayals of tragedy can be used to sell ways of thinking.

While Warhol may have been one of the first artists to harness the power of mass-media imagery, this practice remains a vital source of artistic inquiry. Certain artists are unified by the impulse to question the objectivity of photography in terms of the media, exposing decisions made after the camera clicksmediated decisionshow an image is framed by subjective placement, repetition and commentary. To adapt an image from the news is to isolate it from one context (ephemeral, disposable) and transport it to another, inviting a different and extended kind of engagement.

Suspicious of the objectivity of mass-media outlets or of the veracity of photography itself, the act of reappropriating images raises a number of questions: why is this moment depicted and not another? Who decides that this is today's most important piece of information? Does the current flood of information contribute to a sense of passivity and hopelessness? Artists who employ tactics of reappropriation are often commenting on the power of distribution and those who control the editing and dissemination of information.

Take Sarah Charlesworth's series Modern History (1977 1979), which investigates the role mass media plays not just in documenting but also in creating history. For two years, Charlesworth cut photographs from the front page of several newspapers and affixed the images to solid gray backgrounds. By omitting captions and accompanying text, she drew attention to the potency of each image and their ambiguity as purveyors of information.

For part of this series, she focused solely on the media coverage of the kidnapping and assassination of Italian Prime Minister Aldo Moro. She collected dozens of images from the front pages of international newspapers every day and arranged them with their mastheads on dark backgrounds. Adhering to their native scale and orientation, this series revealed how different media outlets present the same event, which, in turn, shaped public discourse. Incisive and highly influential, Modern History exposed the mechanics of creating information hierarchies, which lend magnitude to an event, construct the memory of the event itselfand, in essence, construct modern history.


Sarah Charlesworth, Il Messaggero, April 21, 1978, 1978
From the series Modern History, 1977-1979
Silkscreen on paper

II
Much of the media overwhelms us with a sense of being present; we feel we know and because we think we know, we think we care.
Alfredo Jaar


Pia Lindman, New York Times Performances, 2003-2005
(left to right)Orozco Room, NYU, NY, 2005, Mexico City, 2004, The Lab Gallery, Mit, Battery Park, NYC, 2005

While Warhol and Charlesworth were responding to the events and media of their time, the intent and impact of their work is still deeply relevant, despite the evolution of information dissemination technologies. Today's glut of information presents artists with new possibilities and forms of dissemination and, in turn, demands a new mode of critique. Negotiating the sheer volume of available information is a challenge unique to contemporary life.

This notion is expertly explored in Gigantic Intervention (2004), a recent work by Colombian artist Carlos Motta. To complete the project, Motta downloaded and printed photographs from the front pages of three international newspapers every day for six months. Sheets of paper bearing these images were then stacked neatly on the shelf of a galleryleft for visitors to take and instructed to crumple and throw on the floor, thereby performing (or reenacting) the pervasive and mindless habit of casually consuming and discarding information.


Carlos Motta, Gigantic Intervention (detail of installation, 2004
Inkjet prints crumpled on the floor
Courtesy the artist

As Motta observes, Images of violence seem to touch us for an instant, disappearing at the moment of turning the page or changing to the next news station on TV. 1 This habit is challenged as he asks us to physically reject each image. In Gigantic Intervention, celebrities and race riots received the same democratic fate. Once positioned as issues of central importance, they are summarily and literally discarded. An avalanche into obsolescence continues, raising no audible alarm.

Motta's Untitled 117 (Bellavista) (2002) also deals with our voracious and habitual consumption of images. Here, the subject is not what the media emphasizes but rather, the nameless victims whose visages inadvertently serve political narratives. Untitled 117, named for the victims of an ethnically-motivated massacre in Colombia,2 is an installation of pieces of wood regularly spaced on the floor, each cut in the shape of an image affixed to its surface. Sourced online, the images are often blurred or grainy, so it is not immediately obvious what they are. Each is, in fact, the distorted or foreshortened body of a person killed during bouts of political turmoil. By affixing these images to pieces of wood, Motta restores volume to bodies rendered flat by photography and imbues the final record of each life with a tangible durability. We may still look to photography for facts, but when they depict horrors, feelings of distance and separation are often vast. However, holding one of Motta's effigies in my hand elicited a disturbing sense of callousness and culpability, and this distance shrank.

Roland Barthes once wrote that photographs of catastrophes fail to affect us because as we look at them, we are in each case dispossessed of our judgment: someone has shuddered for us, reflected for us, judged for us; the photographer has left us nothingexcept a simple right of intellectual acquiescence 3 This process of mediation erodes the image of a dead body, reducing a human being to a mere bit of data. Motta, however, mines image archives not for the known and repeated but for the statistically forgotten. Around each of his images swarm hundreds of other momentsstories muffled by the blast of the chosen instant.


Jon Kessler, The Palace at 4 a.m., 2004-2005
Mixed media, aluminum, CCD camera, video monitors
Dimensions variable
Courtesy the artist and P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City
Photo by Tom Powell Imaging

III
Artistic representation is expected to present a subjective perspective. This becomes more complex when an artwork is representing an image that, by its nature, is supposed to provide an objective perspective. What is the effect of transforming a news imagesomething supposedly factual and unalteredinto art? Are concrete facts lost or is the veracity of the image itself called into question?

New York City-based artist Joy Garnett paints directly from images she downloads from the Internet. Searching with keywords, such as guerrillas, fundamentalists, heroes and martyrs, she downloads dozens of images at a time, prints them and then waits until their context has evaporated from the public memory. The images thus become signifiers not for a specific political situation but for violence, mourning or warfare in general. Portraits of devastation, shock and desperation are depicted in Garnett's vivid brushstrokes, while titles add to their anonymity and imitate the laconic shorthand so prevalent in rushed, online communications, such as Demo, Burn 1, Burn 2, and Nomad 1 (all 2001 2005).

Like Leon Golub and Gerhard Richter, painters who draw heavily from mass-media imagery, Garnett is interested in how we read photographs of violence, what they withhold from us and how painting affects their content. Painting these images, she believes, interprets them through the slow filter of the body, and remakes them as purely subjective, contemplative objects. 4 This transformation changes the image at a fundamental level. Sifting through the endless number of online image banks, Garnett selects but a few images for a new lifeones that demand a very different kind of looking. The shelf life of an image that under normal circumstances expires within a day is thus magnified. Looking at paintings, Garnett adds, is something we seek out, whereas media images come to us when we are at our most passive. 5 When images appear in a newspaper, we simply read the caption and are finished with it, perhaps allowing ourselves to be struck momentarily by the desperation in the faces of the subjects; ultimately, however, we would move on to the next article. In viewing a painting, we tend to create our own narrative tension, which increases our involvement with the image. Garnett questions how formal composition shapes our emotionsand, by extension, our opinions.

Finnish artist Pia Lindman is also concerned with our reception of media imagery, particularly its ability to manipulate us in an emotive capacity. For her work New York Times 09/02 09/03 (2002 present), Lindman reenacted gestures based on images of Americans, Palestinians and Israelis depicted in moments of grief in The New York Timesprivate moments of horror and mourning broadcast internationally for consumption. Questioning why personal displays are publicized so relentlessly, Lindman first traced outlines of the images onto vellum and then performed them on camera.6 Without imbuing the gestures with emotion, she duplicated depicted gestures, like an outreached hand or slack jaw. She writes: By exhibiting both the tracings and the re-enactments, I aim to illuminate some of the relationships between a photograph, its mediation, and the idea of original content, in this instance, human emotional reaction to terrorism. 7 The result is a set of simple drawings and gestures emptied of context, available for authenticrather than manipulatedprojections of grief.

Garnett and Lindman, while using very different approaches, both draw from the factual premise of photojournalism and translate the mediated distance of images to a human scale, filtering them, as Garnett says, through the body. At issue is not whether photographs depict something true but, rather, how images are presented to us and what we in turn do with themhow we absorb, block, relate to or distance ourselves from them.


Sharon Hayes, In the near future, 2005
Performance
Courtesy the artist

IV
The camera is just as capable of lying as the typewriter. 8
Bertolt Brecht

Two recent works, both exhibited in New York, parody the power of the media to construct ideology and celebrity. The Palace at 4 a.m. (2005), a dizzying kinetic installation by Jon Kessler, is an abrasive caricature of the media's power to sway, sell products and overwhelm viewers with a disorienting barrage of vital and/or useless information, a.k.a. infotainment. Hundreds of stacked television monitors screen images shot by tiny video cameras, which jerk around, showing crude handmade tableaux such as puppet politicians placed in front of revolving postcards, fake airplanes in front of photographs and collaged pictures of American soldiers and Arabs against bright blue paint, which parodies the bluescreens used to film false backgrounds. The enormous installation whirrs, clicks and snaps like the rowdy image-making machine it is, revealing Kessler's deep mistrust of fair and balanced reporting. Overwhelming and acerbic, it compares the creation of news to a gaudy carnival of strategically simulated realities.

Another manner of critiquing the media is to mimic its methods. In a reversal of Pia Lindman's response-based performance, Sharon Hayes staged nine separate actions in Manhattan as part of a project titled In the near future (2005). For each, she stood alone in a public place holding a large protest sign. Messages ranged from blatantly humorous to sarcastically thought-provoking, such as ACTIONS SPEAK LOUDER THAN WORDS. Hayes invited friends to photograph her repeatedly, resulting in hundreds of images that were later projected simultaneously on nine slide projectors. This hyper-documentation points to how important media dissemination is to the life of a political action and plays on the axiom that more coverage implies something is somehow more important.

V
Today, we have twenty-four-hour news channels, digital manipulation, corporate media mergers and instantaneous access to information (and, here at home, a ban on images of coffins returning from Iraq). In an increasingly image-obsessed culture, the manipulation and construction of images (picture President Bush in a flight suit beneath a Mission Accomplished banner...) has created an atmosphere of deep skepticism and disregard. Artists who re-contextualize news images are not calling for a cessation of said images, nor are they critiquing all images presented by the media. They are responding to a part of our visual culture that demands the utmost scrutiny, seeking a transparency that is sometimes best accomplished through de-contextualization and transformation.

As Susan Sontag wrote on photography, It is always the image that someone chose; to photograph is to frame, and to frame is to exclude. 9 This remains true today. These artists' diverse and incisive works probe beneath the front page, questioning the political use of framing, exclusion and repetition. They ask us to look twice at what we are being told we should see and to recognize the degrees of mediation that occur between an event and its depiction. As our media evolves, becoming more bloglike and seemingly democratic, the ability to create elisions also grows. Accuracy becomes the needle in an ever growing haystack. With so much imagery and so many opinions on hand, it is perhaps easier than ever to bury the truth beneath a cacophony of perspectives. Information is power, and as such, its apparatus demands scrutiny and critique; these artists remind us that we can resist manipulation if we look closely enough.

Notes

1 From artist's statement, www.carlosmotta.com

2 In a speech delivered by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), May 23, 2002 at The Center for International Policy, he reported that at least 119 people died in the incident: a church bombing in Bellavista, Columbia; a third of the victims were children. An additional 95 people were wounded, 40 listed as missing, and thousands displaced. All of the victims were of African descent. http://ciponline.org/colombia/02052317.htm

3 Roland Barthes, Shock-Photos, quoted in David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes, New York: Aperture Press, 2005, 32.

4 From artists' statement, www.joygarnett.com

5 From an e-mail interview with the artist on February 3, 2006.

6 The accompanying video was titled Lakonikon and images were collected and bound into a book, Black Square).

7 Pia Lindman, The New York Times, Monuments, Art and Affect: Re-enactments in gray-scale, Art in the Age of Terrorism, Graham Coulter-Smith and Maurice Owen, eds, 87.

8 Bertolt Brecht, originally published in A-I-Z Magazine, 1931. Quoted in David Levi Strauss, Between the Eyes, 15.

9 Susan Sontag, Regarding the Pain of Others, New York: Picador Press, 2004, 46.

« return to table of contents