Constructed Realities

“Photography is the process of rendering observation self-conscious… Every photograph is in fact a means of testing, confirming and constructing a total view of reality.” 1

Today, visual reality is a mutable concept. As the realities of daily life inevitably collide with the pseudo-reality of the media, it becomes difficult to differentiate between them. We have become so accustomed to simulated terrorism and violence; it is often impossible to recognize when tragedies are real. On September 11th, when terrorist-controlled planes crashed into the World Trade Center, millions of people across the globe watched transfixed, waiting for Bruce Willis to show up and save the day.

Increasingly over the last century, we have learned to see photographically, the image all but replacing the word as a means of global communication. One of the singular characteristics of photography is its perceived ability to uniquely capture the moment. As the artists in Constructed Realities demonstrate, however, photographic “realism” can often be illusory, existing only through the artists’ creation. In the current exhibition, photography assumes a pseudo-realism of illusory appearances. The works are designed to fool the viewer’s eye into assuming the objects in the two-dimensional image exist as realities in nature, when in fact they would not exist without the artists’ direct intervention. In these photographs, the subject/object is the nature of truth and time, rather than the subject matter.

With its invention, photography challenged long-held definitions of truth whereby a consensus of people’s beliefs was considered incontestable, whether in a court of law, or as history. 2 By providing so-called objective “proof,” photography was initially valued for its documenting of unquestionable authenticity. However, at its essence, photography is the revelation of light and the writing of shadow: it composes and decomposes the art of seeing and looking rather than volume and three-dimensionality. As Paul Virilio recently observed, with the emergence of virtual reality and the synthesized imagery of computer graphics, the perception of reality is rapidly becoming blurred. 3 Instead, numerous artists are using photographic methods to construct staged, precisely planned, simulations.

Traditionally, one of the central features distinguishing photography from painting and sculpture has been that paintings are unique, and are produced as a result of, and bear traces of, the originating artist’s physical efforts. By contrast, in most photography the artist’s eye is separated from his/her physical body, and another person following the identical process can replicate the work.

In the works in Constructed Realities, the artists’ essential role is transformed from disembodied eye to deity. As Roland Barthes observed, the word “image” is derived from its root “imitari.” All images are analogical representations. 4 As re-presentations, images are ultimately a form of resurrection, with the artist as creator. This metaphor is particularly valid with many of the photographs in this exhibition by artists including James Casebere, Edwin Zwakman, Florian Maier-Aichen, Craig Kalpakjian, Oliver Boberg, and Didier Massard, whereby constructed small-scale models made of cardboard, paper, cotton, etc. are photographed to appear as though they are real landscapes, rooms, cityscapes, etc. The depicted architectural and landscape rendering of each are characterized by a lack of figural elements. Instead the images are vacant, without human occupants.

For years, James Casebere has created architectural models, using water and light and shadow to give the illusion of real tunnels, hallways and buildings. The temporary, portable nature of his cardboard and wooden models contradicts the generally held perception of architecture as having grand scale and permanence. Many of Casebere’s interiors are based on actual rooms, tunnels, and corridors from existing buildings such as the 18th Century Bullfinch Hall at Phillips Academy. Often these empty rooms offer multiple choices of outlets such as doors and stairways. By projecting the scene forward, Casebere gives the impression that viewers are transported into and moving within the confined spaces.

Like many artists in this exhibition, Edwin Zwakman’s work exists ambiguously as architecture, photography, and sculpture. By combining the mechanical aspects of photography with the construction of typical Dutch landscapes and urban settings, Zwakman reinforces the equivalence between the two. Close examination of his scenes reveals they are like miniature children’s toys, photographed from a great distance to appear real. The realization of the inherently laborious building of detailed models in Zwakman’s work invites extended viewing of the image, thereby contradicting the perception of a photograph as a snapshot of a transient moment.

German artist Florian Maier-Aichen, often photographs from an aerial perspective, whether dense cityscapes or snow-capped mountains. Maier-Aichen’s images are high-keyed and glossy in the manner of travel brochures, and combine real views with digital techniques. As the artist noted: “I invest much labor in my work to hide the actual visible side effects of computer manipulation/practice…” In many of Maier-Aichen’s works, this convergence of reality and illusion can be as slight as a constructed cloud, hovering over an actual urban landscape. In contrast, Craig Kalpakjian’s interiors, although seemingly realistic, are entirely created via technology.

Oliver Boberg’s triptych, Himmel IV, captures memories of gazing upward at a cloud-filled sky, inviting musings on perceived representational forms suggested by cumulous clouds. The optical illusion is so realistic that realization that the clouds are in fact constructed from cotton produces a sense of vertigo and disbelief in the viewer. Similarly French artist Didier Massard’s romantic landscape with its dramatically rising, tree covered cliffs and plunging cascade of water calls to mind the “photographic” 19th Century German and Hudson River School paintings. To achieve this realism, Massard painstakingly builds his tableau with mosses and digitally enhanced materials. Only the oversized textures of features such as water and sand reveal the scenes’ fictitious nature.

Hiroshi Sugimoto and Vik Muniz mold inert materials such as wax and dust, to create the illusion of reality whether famous personages or appropriated, iconic works of art. In all of these works, the artists are not just stopping time and light, but actually creating sculptures, and then capturing them on film in such a realistic manner it is difficult to determine their substance, scale, mass, and materiality. Brazilian Muniz makes simulations of simulations, drawing attention to the nature of photography and art in general. His use of dust, and its sculpting into recognizable forms implies the passage of time. Each of Sugimoto’s photographed effigies is characterized by an extraordinary life-like appearance; but at the same time the subjects’ eerie emptiness reflects their missing, animated, vital essence. In all of his images, it is absence itself that remains constant and present.

In taking on the traditional subjects and roles of academic painting, many of the current photographers craft tableau through montage and other technological means. Visual truth becomes a slippery slope in the images of David Levinthal, whereby toy cowboys are photographed like Marlboro men, and dolls are imaged as models of soft porn. Artists Tracey Moffatt, Izima Kaoru, Yoshio Itagaki, Gregory Crewdson, and Anthony Goicolea, construct vignettes of characters in cinematic contexts, often using images of themselves, their family members, or recognizable actors.

Australian Tracey Moffatt’s photographic stories unroll serially like film. To create her synthetic tableau, the artist uses herself as central character in her short narratives that often involve violence, set against artificial backgrounds. In the same manner, Izima Kaoru, sequentially sets the scenes of a murder. Using familiar Japanese celebrities, each high-keyed, serial photograph moves successively closer, creating the sense that viewers are slowly approaching the victim and her/his often-gruesome circumstances.

Yoshio Itagaki uses digital means to play on humorous stereotypes. Whether Japanese weddings, banished Native Americans or global tourists, Itagaki photographs images of people being photographed on the moon. The lunar backdrop and visible image of the Earth are incidental to those being photographed, reflecting humans’ essential egocentric nature. Gregory Crewdson, meanwhile, explores stereotypes about art making. The carefully assembled and staged elements of his photographs confirm the opposition between artifice and nature. The artist often uses a large production crew to create his mysterious, ambiguous narratives.

Catherine Chalmers’ cockroaches are initially invisible against the aloe. They only gradually are perceived, camouflaged as tiny reptiles, blending in with the spiky plants’ similar stalks. As with the works of the other photographers in the exhibition, the resulting images represent a heightened reality that is convincing at first glance, but whose artifice only reveals itself over time.

Anthony Goicolea’s work has been described as depicting “a kaleidoscopic, nightmarish army of Ritalin riddled bullies from an all-boys private junior high school”. 5 His counterfeit photographs, which often feature bizarre images of violence, incest, sex, and even cannibalism, are actual digitally enhanced self-portraits of the artist. The beautifully staged settings, clothing, and compositional arrangements camouflage the repeated likenesses of the artist. In each work, youthful replicas of Goicolea assume different mannerisms, actions and genders, the results often reflecting adolescent fears, wishes, and fantasies.

Ultimately, whatever the common perception, all still photographs are deceptive illusions. They exist as paradoxical images; physiochemical, two-dimensional objects reflecting a three dimensional “reality” whether developed optically from nature or thanks to the artists’ construction and imagination. Still photography is incapable of realistically rendering volume, weight, and the multi-dimensional nature of the world as perceived by the human eye. As a result the artist-created and manipulated subject matter of the current exhibition’s works extend the complexity and nature of photography. By laboriously constructing the photographed images, the artists in Constructed Realities turn time back on itself; forcing viewers to first believe the illusion, then, as they understand its unrealistic nature, consider the nature and construction of truth and reality.

Barbara J. Bloemink
Las Vegas, Nevada
February 2002


1 John Berger, “Understanding a Photograph”, Essays, op.cit. p. 292.
2 Paul Valéry, “The Centenary of Photography”, in Classic Essays on Photography, Alan Trachtenberg, ed., New Haven, Ct.: Leete’s Island Books, 1980, p.196.
3 Paul Virilio, “Photo Finish” in The Promise of Photography, New York: Prestel Books, 1998.
4 Roland Barthes, “Rhetoric of the Image”, Classic Essays in Photography, op. cit., p. 269.
5 Randy Gladman, “Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Anthony, Goicolea,” NY Arts Magazine, May 31, 2001.


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