By John Kennerdell
My mom, who in her eighties has become an avid onliner, just emailed me some photos from Alain Delorme's Manufactured Totems series. She also forwarded a note from my brother, referring to my family role as internet mythbuster: "John will undoubtedly call this a hoax."
Well no, not really. The "Manufactured" in the title offers a hint, and the description on Alain's website makes it more explicit: "...the author breaks the rules of the documentary genre, playing with the edit and the color to present us a type of 'augmented reality.' " (For "edit," from montage in the original French, I think "elements" might be a better translation in the context of still photography. In other words, he's compositing.)
Photographers can and will manipulate their images, and of course have done so pretty much since the birth of the medium. Few of us have a problem with that, provided that they don't try to present the result as something it isn't. As I see it, Delorme has given fair warning: these aren't documentary photos.
No, if I have a concern it's to do with the words rather than the pictures. The term "augmented reality," while it comes from the field of real-time computer-generated sensory input, on one level makes a nice description of what's going on here. You probably won't find anything quite like these images on the streets of Shanghai, but you'll certainly see the vehicles that inspired them. On the other hand, "reality" is a fairly loaded word, to be used with care. And "augmented" feels like just the kind of vague qualifier that holds real potential for abuse. (Look for instance at what happened to "enhanced" once it got attached to "interrogation techniques.") Even if you accept the term here, as I suppose I do, that sensation below your feet just might be a very slippery slope. As photographic "reality" increasingly goes off in its own infinite directions, how do we hold the line on the language we use to describe and delimit it?
Meanwhile, not to lose sight of the work itself: Manufactured Totems is a very cool project, well worth a look.
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Original contents copyright 2010 by Michael C. Johnston and/or the bylined author. All Rights Reserved.
Featured Comment by Stan B.: "Not that augmented...."
Featured Comment by Jeff Hohner: "Interesting art, but not as photography. The fact that the artist presents his work as photographs creates an unnerving dissonance in the viewer. This may be one of his artistic goals and it is an entirely valid one. But because of the historical nature of photography as a more of less documentary medium, one that fixes individual and whole slices of time, I think the artist owes his audience a more explicit description of his montage technique than he has offered. I'd go so far as to request each image be accompanied with the caption 'photo montage.'
"Without such an explicit disclaimer these images are frustrating to parse. For example, most people are aware of the large loads of light goods that can be transported on two wheels. This familiarity combined with our general trust in the veracity of photography leads the viewer to take the preposterous assemblages depicted in these images as real. Without a clue that the images have been manipulated, what else are we to believe? The artist dares us to break out of our faith in the truthfulness of the photographic image, you might say? To use our common sense about physics, balance and scale? Fair enough, but that is a fairly mundane artistic goal already serviced by any number of images already floating about our culture. In the age of Photoshop and the Internet, this point has become a game and a joke. This is clearly not his goal. He has more serious goals at hand presenting as he does themes of work, scale and place, the particulars of which suggest themes of history, change and class.
"Perhaps the dissonance of trying to parse the 'reality' of his pictorial elements is integral to his project, but for me I find it a huge distraction and I get closer to the work, and enjoy it immensely more, once it has been removed by acknowledging the artifice in his technique.
"Put more succinctly, without artspeak—when I first saw the image of the bikes with tires and ladder, I thought to myself, 'What a shot! Waiting for the background to frame the tires, and capturing another fast moving object, the guy with the ladder, also in perfect composition! Whoa!!' Only later, after some reading and clicking, did I realize this was not what I was looking at. The work took on new meaning, still rich but quite different.
"(To stir the pot further, these works should have been painted. What the artist seeks to convey here, figure, place, pregnant composition, is painting's forte. Choosing the medium of photography interferes with his message as I argue above.)"
Mike adds: A short quote from Roger Moore's contribution to the Comments section: "...a Chinese coworker got a set of these pictures in a chain email yesterday. She thought they were real...." Reinforces your point in your second paragraph.
Featured Comment by Pardik: "One thing that Alain Delorme does in this mocumentary is that he breaks the mirror in Hans Kemp's 5th picture. He takes a cliché from the documentary genre (overloaded light transport), and does what everybody unconsciously has been thinking of while looking at Hans Kemp's wonderful photos: throws them off balance, thus (at last) releasing all the tensions in them. Too much then has become too much. When everything is over the guy crucified to the mirror probably finds he doesn't hold his breathe anymore, and can maybe even laugh at the whole thing."