Penelope Umbrico is a New York based artist that uses photography as a medium to investigate the cognitive and collective paths governing the “society of images” where she – as well as we – lives and operates. This concept, which is nowadays fully established, saw its appearance in Guy Debord’s book Society of the Spectacle, first published in 1967. The essay marked the beginning of a new political and historical era characterized by the separation of the images from real life: everything that was directly lived before has now moved away into representations.
Almost fifty years later, Debord’s idea is more relevant today than ever. The digital boom, driven by new technologies and social networks, has hypertrophied the visual aspect of our lives, constantly dubbed by a parallel unavoidable stream of images. This condition is the framework of Umbrico’s research, who collects recurrent visual elements taken from everyday sources – such as furniture catalogues or online pictures portals – and then reassembles them into serial projects that reflect on specific semiotic mechanisms.
Nomen omen: like Homer’s wife in the Odyssey, Penelope unravels and reweaves the shroud of images in a potentially infinite back-and-forth process which is best exemplified by her most famous series, Suns from Flickr (2006-2007). Here, the artist simply took all the pictures tagged with the word “sunset” on the photo-sharing web site Flickr, made Kodak snapshot prints and displayed them in a massive wall installation. The result is a clear demonstration of how repetitive, unavoidable and yet powerful is photography’s expressive vocation.

Penelope Umbrico, People in front of Suns from Flickr, from the series Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006 - ongoing
Penelope Umbrico, People in front of Suns from Flickr, from the series Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, 2006 – ongoing

I find your artistic parabola very fascinating: you were trained as a painter and you later became a photographer, realizing abstract images – as much as the term “abstraction” can be applied to photography. Today, your practice is based on pictures made by others, that you elaborate and combine in collections where the overall significance is always wider than the sum of the parts.
During this process of detachment from pure creation in favour of reinterpretation, what has kept unvaried in your approach to the image, and what has changed instead?
I started using photography because it had a certain kind of evidential veracity to it, and I found seductive the play or tension between its practically invisible surface with its illusionistic depth, and the flatness of the paper on which that sat. With painting it was exactly the opposite for me – the canvas was impossibly physical and the substance of paint, though also physical, always insisted on its own flatness. There was this kind of paradoxical inversion: where the very flat photographic surface could infer depth, while the built up canvas surface remained flat.

Can you explain a little what you were painting and how that led to photography?
At the time I was making semi-abstract paintings of found images of common everyday objects. When I started taking out of focus, or otherwise distorted, photographs of them, this brought them to life for me. A photograph, or at least my photographs, of an object, questioned the value of these objects and spoke about perception and representation, both conceptual and physiological, more than painting them ever could. There was something about the indexicality at play, not only in the record of the thing before the camera, but also the record of the process of recording.
I think this is an element that has remained the same in my work – an interest in the record, the reference and in a kind of recursivity. Actually, I never thought of that earlier work as abstract, partly for same reasons that you qualified the term in relation to photography (the reference always to the referent, however unrecognizable), but also because I considered that work to be a straight document: the image was the result of a process by which the camera was performing a function (in this case, a function other than the one it was intended for). This is not altogether different than what I am doing now: I use images to represent something other than what they were actually intended for. My subject is still photography, and what I do is documentary in this sense – it just looks different. That was 1988-89, the most advanced pedestrian tools were disposable 35mm film cameras and one-hour labs, now we have smart camera-phones and the Internet.

Penelope Umbrico, TVs from Craig List, 2011
Penelope Umbrico, TVs from Craig List, 2011

Talking about the Internet: we all know the tremendous impact it has been having on the fruition of photography, as it became, in a relatively short period, the main source of iconographic research and exchange. From the semantic and cognitive point of view, one of the biggest consequences of this process is that, for the first time in his history, mankind has a linguistic index at its disposal that is universally shared and understood.
You are playing the interpreter’s role in this visual Babel – what does this entail?
Universally shared, perhaps; I’m not sure if “understood”. In fact it is often something I don’t understand, or I am wrestling with, that drives me to spend so much time sifting through the “visual Babel”.
Interesting, to say I play the interpreter’s role – I’ve not thought about it this way. For me it entails engaging with the content I find there, to the point that it becomes something else, takes on another life, and points back to its source in an unexpected and critical way. I guess in this way, I’m not a very good interpreter: I only interpret what I’m interested in, and then make things stand for something else, often the opposite of their originally intended meaning.

Since its beginning, photography as an artistic form has passed through several crucial moments: the subordination to other creative disciplines and practices, the emancipation from the claim of truthfulness and, more recently, the problem of authorship.
What do you think the future holds, in terms of new challenges for photography?
… and now more than ever there are so many different kinds of photography, that trying to think about the future of photography is like trying to think about the future of mark making, or the spoken word! People speak for all kinds of reasons – mostly for communication, but sometimes it’s only Babel, or we speak to hear our own voice… and no one is listening. Which ties back to your previous question about how one navigates the “visual Babel”.
The kind of photography I look for and use in my work is quite different than the kind I make. I look for the small talk, the visual Babel, and in what it can tell us about ourselves. And, right now anyway, I am absolutely dependent on this kind of photography in order to make my work.
This means my work changes depending on tagging trends and point-and-shoot camera technology. I’ve had to stop adding to one project because camera phones now have facial recognition and I can no longer find images of silhouetted people in front of sunsets, which was a result of the camera is exposing for the sun, not the intended subject. In another project, higher resolution point-and-shoot cameras are showing me things I only suspected were there in the same sort of images five years ago.
But let me qualify: I also participate in the “babel”. I’m very conscious of allowing myself the joy or utilitarian convenience of taking pictures in this way. I just don’t think of it as my work. I wouldn’t say the work I do is joyful, or utilitarian: it’s always challenging somehow, and often, after some amount of struggle, very gratifying (and occasionally fun), but I am reliant on all the joyful image sharing and tagging that’s going on, and all the pictures people take of things they don’t want anymore, in order to make my work… So, instead of traveling the world documenting a particular subject for an idea I have, I travel web-space, sometimes for weeks, months, collecting images as I go in order to finally get what I need to make a point or ask a question.

Screenshot from Penelope Umbrico's computer
Screenshot from Penelope Umbrico’s computer

The dichotomy you depict is a compelling point…
Well, I am particularly fascinated by the individual need to assert a presence online, when in fact the very condition of this presence is a kind of individual erasure. Perhaps this is a challenge for photographers – especially with regard to the issues around authorship, or the promise of visibility, community and intimacy that photography once held.
It’s questionable whether the scripted images we see on Instagram, Facebook or Flickr, that are made with cameras programmed to behave in predetermined ways, can foster any sort of subjectivity or individuality. So the question of authorship in relation to photography’s appropriative nature (its inherent indexicality and the early struggle to claim mechanical reproduction as an art form) is now even more complicated when everyone is basically taking the same picture.
To me, the abundance of this kind of image taking is representative of the collective, not the individual – in total it adds up to an inadvertent self-portrait of the world. As an archive of material, if you read it this way, it has the potential to reveal unexpected things. This is how big data works: even the most individual images in this context become anonymous and decontextualized. It’s the new street.

In Mountains. Moving, your last project which is still going on, you employ your smartphone’s integrated camera to take new pictures of the images of the mountains photographed by masters such as Ansel Adams. I think that the originality lies here in the choice of stressing the lack of control that we as users have on the device, considering that all the elements of the picture – colour, tone, contrast and even orientation – are set by the application software. The antithesis with the way how the original picture was taken is evident – but, more generally speaking, what is your position about the development of mobile photography?
Related to the idea of user lack of control, this project is also about the idea of the script – both in terms of software, as you say, as well as image content (sunset, mountain, portrait, the Grand Canyon, the Eiffel Tower…). A script is something we follow, something we already know – it’s what we are looking for when we take a picture of something that we’ve already seen, because it’s been photographed a million times. Software tools give us all the pre-sets we need to re-make the photo-worthy world as we already know it… but better, of course. I guess this has always been the case with all technologies.
I love these technologies as much as anyone, but I take issue with the claim that they make photography and image authoring democratic just because anyone can use them. For one thing, not everyone has access, but within the large group that does, in many ways the illusion of choices we’re given masks the actual limits of choices we really have. This seems to me to be tyrannical, especially when it starts to define, in our own minds, who we are, what we want, how we want to be seen, how we see the world… Big data and big corporations aren’t just targeting us through marketing, they are teaching us how to see the world the way they see it and giving us platforms on which to project those images of it – all the while praising us for our creativity and individuality (“Think Different”). Unless one knows how to subvert or hack the tools, this is quite limiting to those who want to actually do something different.

Penelope Umbrico, from the series Mountains. Moving, 2012 – ongoing

I see your point, but this sounds so negative…
I know, and in fact, I love digital photography, digital video and the Internet… as well as smartphone camera apps and the really dumb filters they have! That’s why I was excited to find the perfect subject, the mountain, to use with them: in my mind, the mountain’s material stability and the master photographs I found of them, are perfect material to be considered by the camera app’s immaterial instability. Particularly fascinating to me are the overwhelming number of “light leak” and “chemical burn” filters. They are the simulation of light (the first and foremost element of all photography) in the form of the mistakes of analogue film photography, made within the vacuum of a chip where there is no light, no space or perspective, and where the chemicals are probably worse than the darkroom chemicals it simulates. I’m calling the newest body of work from this project Light Leaks and Chemical Burns.

These new technical tools you are talking about are generally very easy to play with. What is their effect on the user? Can we speak of emancipation?
Of course user-friendly mobile photography has liberated photography in general, by way of allowing its users not having to be overly concerned with the technical aspects of it. Perhaps this has made anyone who is thinking seriously about photography more reflective or accountable for what is being said in a photograph. That is, since most people can now take a half decent picture, if you want to express anything of substance with the medium, you must have an idea about it. I remember when photo teachers used to say: “If you have to explain the picture, it’s not a good picture”. I don’t think anyone can affirm this any more. Maybe it’s the post-modern concerns of intentionality and context that have become emancipated, and that can only make good photography better. Which is not to affirm, of course, that we should forget about the technical aspects of photography, but that it’s not enough just to take a good picture anymore. And no amount of digital enhancement or manipulation is going to help if there’s no idea behind it … as the saying goes: “Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”.

Is there a place for thoughtful resistance to always having to say something of substance?
Yes, but that is also intensionalized. One way or another, I think there needs to be some sort of critical resistance or provocation involved in making good photo-based work. We could call this a new form of “concerned photography”, where the concern is for the subject of photography, rather than the subject the photographer is photographing.

A picture from Penelope Umbrico's studio in New York
A picture from Penelope Umbrico’s studio in New York

Does this mean you are advocating for a conceptual approach to photography?
I guess so. I see so many students disenchanted and cynical about contributing to the increasing stream of images they see everywhere. They really struggle to make meaningful images. Or, conversely, they frantically make collections of any possible image type they can find multiples of online. Tumblers of collected cool images are great, but it takes more than that to develop something that adds to what already exists, rather than just repeats it. It’s technical, formal and conceptual all working together – you can’t separate them, and finally I think we all know that. Maybe the real challenge is a problem of impatience – it takes time to develop anything of substance, and taking our time is something we’re becoming less and less able to do.

Teaching is an important part of your activity. How do you combine it with your artistic practice? Is there ever a conflict between the creator’s subjective motivations and the educator’s guiding role?
All my work is in some kind of dialogue to photography – I don’t dictate what the dialogue will be, but I really do challenge the dialogue to make it meaningful. I think I do the same when I teach.
And since the subject of my work and the subject of what I teach are both photography, there’s no conflict between my subjective motivations and my role as an educator – they both inform and learn from the other.

This article was published on YET magazine #6, August 2014

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