Play and Photography


Browsing through the library a few months ago, I picked up a book that had been recommended to me: Taiyo Onorato & Nico Krebs’ The Great Unreal. According to one of my photo professors, “it’s an ‘All-American’ Road Trip,” and the artists agree: “We dealt with our own preconceptions of the American Road Trip.” The book contains a wonderful play of reality and fiction, which is to say, a play between images that seem “tampered” and ones that we might consider to be more “intact” (or a straight-forward representation of reality). But for Krebs and Onorato, the work is different. 
Onorato & Krebs, The Great Unreal.

            Speaking of their following book, which uses the same road-trip method as The Great Unreal, Onorato & Krebs are clear: “there is no neutral image.” Their work is “not a documentary work,” but “pure invention. It’s a fabricated image. It is a reproduction of how we look, how we perceive, how we understand or misunderstand.” It is the nature of all images, according to them, to be fabricated. They elaborate that the medium’s natural fabrication might have to do with framing or cropping or retouching or choosing which moments to display, and I would add that how light passes through a lens onto a pretty-flat sensor that converts light to electronic signal might introduce another layer of “fabrication” to the mix. 

             Which is a different layer of “fabrication” that Susan Sontag discusses. For her, photos document an event. And an event, which is a situation worth photographing, is determined by ideologies, so that photography reifies ideology. (Photography also, Sontag suggests by following Walter Benjamin, levels all values, which would undermine any particular ideology.) The camera is the tool that evidences “reality” (or a way of looking at reality): photos provide “pieces of information” that “certify experience.” Sontag uses travel photos as a prime example (in 1973, a relevant critique predating a social-media generation). A trip happened only if it was photographed. And photography, here, takes on the “documentary” role of some sort of tourist (or family-vacation) ideology (like the myth of the American Road Trip), promoting a pathos-like sentiment of nostalgia. 

            If there is a “natural” relationship between images and fabrication (following Onorato & Krebs), and, at the same time, images are treated as “evidence,” then, as both photographers and consumers of images, we’re perpetually fabricating evidences (wrapped into ideologies guiding our vision) of our own lives. And it is here that I wonder at this paradox: that images both construct and dissolve ideology. Our hands seem tied: just as there is “no neutral image,” there is no image that can escape this tension. Following Onorato & Krebs, the best we can do is play between the poles, between reality and fiction, and between ideology and reference to an experience unframed.


            I went to two photography exhibitions within the past couple months. The first postered the walls with too many low-resolution photos of Italy. The photographer liked Italy. So she used her photography grant money to go to Italy and take street photos. That was the whole idea. They were not very good. 

            The second exhibition displayed film photographs of Ireland. I told the people around me that the pictures reminded me of Instagram. They played on some Instagram tropes. Someone else told me that they did not understand the photos; that they all seemed random. The artist said that each photo “testifies beyond the surface of [her] experience,” directly “to the essence of [her] quest for the exploration of herself in the vast expanse landscapes within the context of the world around [her] during [her] travels.” (She also says that these photos speak to the “mundane moments that determine our existence,” and I think, “WHICH IS IT: the mundane surfaces that, by being mundane, suggest surface, or the photos (also purely surface) which (somehow, magically, because you want them to) are supposed to be deep?”). Travel photos, which were travel images of landscapes, somehow suggest self-exploration. I can think of no lazier link from photography to some individualistic, romantic, self-discovery ideology than to present random travel images and expect them to communicate that personal “essence.”

            I have a trip coming up. I plan to bring my camera. And even if I’ve given up on “certifying experience,” I wonder, beyond my intention, which experiences I’ll incidentally certify, or which reality (or unreality) I will, through a play of technology and reality, fabricate. Here are a few question I’m thinking of:

            What makes a travel photo a travel photo (could you take a picture of your hometown as if it were a travel photo?)
            Can there be in image, following Sontag, which is not nostalgic? 
            How do images expose or subvert myth? How do they uphold it?