Vik Muniz and others figure out how to make profound photos in a world that generates 30 billion images a year
11:05 am Oct. 19, 20121
“I’m just going to shake your hand, just to say I shook your hand,” said a fan who had walked up to artist Vik Muniz Wednesday night at Aperture Gallery’s opening for Aperture Remix, an exhibition of works by Muniz and nine other contemporary artists, all made using images appropriated from their favorite material from Aperture publications.
Muniz smiled at the woman, and they both walked down a familiar road—she probed about his artistic process, and he answered as if going over his process for the nth time wasn’t the least bit of an nuisance.
“How did you start?” she asked.
“I used to draw and then I made sculpture. I’m not sure when I started being an artist but I know when everyone around me stopped being an artist.” Muniz said, “Around when I was 7.”
Muniz’s work is nontraditional, even quirky, yet always painstakingly crafted. He’s used chocolate to re-imagine classic images; made giant-size re-creations of masterworks out of garbage; one of his latest projects is etching castles into individual grains of sand, then enlarging the drawings through photographic scans. He favors composites rather than stark appropriations, and looks to make images out of anything but traditional materials, so when Aperture asked him to use one of their publications as source material, he did what he’d been doing for years: he tore something up.
“That’s my favorite Aperture book,” Muniz said. “That art book of [Edward] Weston’s, but it doesn’t have that picture.” Muniz said pointing to his work, a portrait of Weston’s lover titled The White Iris, “I actually used the book to make that picture so instead of putting the picture back in the book, I put the book in the picture. If you look at the side, all the bits and pieces are from the book, put together.”
“So you tore an archival book?” the woman asked.
“Yes, it was a first edition!” Muniz responded, “It was very cannibalistic.”
James Welling, another participant in the show, opted for much more straightforward approach, poaching material directly from the original 1950 edition of photographer Paul Strand’s Time in New England, a book of images of New England’s people and landscapes.
“22 pictures and three pages of text were edited out of the 1950 edition of this book,” Welling told me, “So I restored it in a way. I’ve always wanted to make my own version of Paul Strand’s photographs, so I reprinted them.”
Welling fastidiously scanned and tone-corrected all of his images to look exactly like the ones printed in Strand’s book.
If Welling was obsessive, photographer Martin Parr was cautious, showing photographs from his own oeuvre that remind him of his favorite issue of Aperture (#103).
Others pushed the envelope a bit more.
“I recently heard that 30 billion images a year are being created by people with devices, cameras, and phones,” photographer Doug Rickard said. “So every artist, ultimately, whether they are producing images or working with material, has to navigate and make selections that have a profound meaning or narrative.”
Rickard’s narrative was pulled from Uncommon Places, Stephen Shore’s monograph of banal scenes from American’s heartland.
“Stephen is heavily interested in postcards,” Rickard said. “I decided to use postcards as material, almost like negatives, almost like my own postcards.”
Rickard scoured eBay for postcards that resembled Shore’s photos; by using them, he arranged a sort of road trip of 1970s America—its hotels, motels, highways, and byways. The process was akin to another recent project her undertook, photographing images from Google Street View.
“There are endless possibilities broadening photography as an art form.” Rickard said, “What’s happening to us now is that the sheer volume of imagery that’s been added makes the material from which to pull from immense.”
Amateur photography can be generated from an iPhone; technical mistakes can be clone-stamped out, and Instagram makes the bland artistic. This exhibition’s homage to pure, unfiltered photography, executed by ten artists using decidedly impure, interventionist, and almost exclusively digital techniques, seems the perfect antidote to an industry and a medium in flux.
“There are still a lot of traditional photography programs,” said Ryan Vahey, 29, a master’s student at the School of Visual Arts. “And what ends up happening is you have a lot of people that have very similar styles coming out.“ Vahey and some classmates came to support their professor, Penelope Umbrico, who was in the show; she’d used smartphone apps to manipulate photographs of mountains and yielded a moving color wheel of mountains, in disorienting, bright shades.
Vahey and his classmates posed for a photo with James Welling. As a group, they leaned over the camera to see how it had turned out. One of Vahey’s friends noticed that each head had been bounded by a cubby from the cube-like bookshelf behind them.
The photographer claimed no credit for this coincidence.
“More important than doing that,” the gentleman responded, “is noticing that.”
'Aperture Remix' is open through November 17 at Aperture Gallery, 547 West 27th Street, 4th Floor. All photographs by Thomas Bollier, courtesy of Aperture Foundation.
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