2.4: Is appropriation appropriate?

TASK

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Have a look at the artists mentioned who appropriate images taken by other people:

and write around 300 words describing your response to artists and photographers working in this way.

Is appropriation appropriate?

Most if not all art is in some sense ‘appropriation’. Ideas and communication exist or have meaning within a certain context of meanings created by other people – whether it is adaptation, development or dialectical response. Although artists may mix influences, exploit potential of new materials and there is a continuum from adaptation to ‘new’ creation. In some cases the inspiration may be less other artists than other people – is it artists and photographers who are the creators of portraits, or those who they portray? The long history of young women ‘muses’ of male painters? How far is my painting or photographing someone whose clothes and appearance I find attractive or interesting ‘appropriating’ their creativity in their own identity – aside from the privacy issues?

Explicit acts of appropriation in art – for example Dada, Warhol and Sherrie Levine make the act of appropriation a political statement – questioning who owns ideas and creativity. And in some cases exposing the often arbitrary ways in which ‘value’ is created in the art world by powerful people with money. This may have little to do with rewards to the artists themselves.

In relation to photographers using Google Street View, I think this is a perfectly valid way of generating images that opens up possibilities that are different from those where the photographer is the one behind the lens.

Michael Wolf is primarily interested in the aesthetics of the images. The fact that they are taken randomly means that ‘decisive moments’ are often rather ambiguous is a way that is quite difficult to reproduce unless the photographer uses the camera’s automatic timer. They leave interpretation of the action and meaning to the viewer. Many Google images in the early days were characterised by pixelation and image noise also creates a  certain aesthetic that some have likened to the pixelation techniques of Roy Lichtenstein and Andy Warhol. Though I find Google pixellation more evocative because of its blurring of ‘reality’ and the blurred out faces.

Currently these characteristics are changing – people hearing of the Google Street Car visit in advance are now staging images and most tourist destinations at least are in high resolution. But anyone who thinks that trawling through millions of street view images in the search of a few ‘decisive moments’ is easy or ‘not art’ has never tried to do it! It requires a lot of research to decide where one might look. There are then the same possibilities for cropping and image manipulation as in photos taken from behind the lens.

Jon Rafman takes this tension between the random nature of the image and subsequent imposition of meaning in the selection and viewing processes even further. His work explores the relationship between the “real” and the “virtual” in contemporary life, urging viewers to reconsider the boundaries between the two. In 9-Eyes – he finds in Google Street View images a spontaneity and authenticity he finds is lost from current street photography. He just takes straight screen shots of the images. He sees the fact that they are captured by a roving robot by chance as a more poetic ‘modernist’ notion of god – God does not care about reality, just observes. Watching but does not take a moral stance. The human gaze then interpretes, finds meaning, beauty and stories. I find many of his images extremely evocative in the power that tension creates – removing many of the compositional conventions and choices from the photographer somehow gives the actual actions captured by the camera even more poignancy.

Doug Rickard uses the potential of Google Street View in a different way – actively seeking out areas of America where the Street View car goes but are in many ways a no go area for other outsider photographers. In his particular case, he had additional constraints of personal circumstances that tied him to home. He looks for stories and ‘decisive moment’ – linking with ideas and styles from American photographic traditions like early documentary and colour of Shore and Egglestone. He looks for compositions where ‘things line up’. He rephotographs the machine-made images as they appear on his computer screen, framing and freeing them from their technological origins.  He then experiments with geometry and distortions.

In ‘A New American Picture’ he presents deeply affecting evidence of the American Dream inverted – a startling photographic portrait of the socially disenfranchised. “I think that I chose pictures that partially represented those biases and media-affected notions of place, and yet I explored immensely these American places, a thousand hours or more, gaining an understanding of the conditions.” He manipulates the feeling of ‘drive-by’ and often high angle photography to heighten sense of isolation – people cordoned off in terms of lacking a voice, from power – even over whether or not they are photographed. It is also significant that high resolution images are not available for these areas – only for richer areas and tourist locations.

However although I appreciate very much the work of photographers working in this way, I personally find experiencing things myself directly with my camera a more fulfilling and enjoyable way of working than sitting for hours in front of my computer. In addition, many of the places I go and want to photograph eg in Africa are not covered. The only places I could find so far on Street View are a few central tourist areas of capital cities like Nairobi. In my practice I am also interested in a much more reflexive approach with people in my photographs and stimulating ideas and thinking about how we can make the world a better place, not primarily showing what is disturbing and shocking and out of our power. This requires more control and interaction in the process of image taking/image making.

Whether or not you feel appropriation is something you might work with at some point, the mapping resources available for free on the internet are an invaluable practical tool for planning landscape shoots of any kind. If you haven’t yet done so, read ahead to the brief for Assignment Two. Write down your preliminary thoughts and ideas for how you might approach this assignment. Use Google Maps and/or any other mapping system and print off, photocopy or save some maps of the journey you’re thinking about documenting for this assignment. Use the map(s) to help identify any details or aspects of the place or route that might (or might not) be of interest.

See Assignment 2

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