Constructing Realities

The story of the staging and subsequent manipulation of the photograph Leap into the Void (1960) exposes a compelling interplay between truth and fiction, and photography’s rocky relationship with the “real”. Yves Klein appears to be jumping from a building into an empty street, with no apparent care for the impending damage this will almost certainly cause him.

A lone cyclist is passing by, oblivious to the leaping figure. The image appears to celebrate an act of great risk and mystery, a moment of pure abandon forever captured in black and white. In reality Klein was diving into a tarpaulin held by judo colleagues, which was then carefully erased from the picture, in painstaking pre-Photoshop fashion. The leap was real, there was skill and there was danger, but the fall was cleverly cushioned. In a move that undermined this secret history of the image, he subsequently published two versions of the photograph, one with the cyclist riding past and one without, all other details identical. By drawing attention to his manipulative control, he demystifies the image and the act, manifesting his trickery, his mastery over the medium. However, rather than simply exposing the tarpaulin in this second photograph, he adds another layer to the fake reality of the picture; more game playing, more tricks.

Photography is arguably the most accessible of all media. And yet it retains a sense of ambiguity and obliqueness that somehow denies that very accessibility. Whether “authentic” snapshot or highly constructed creation, photography remains a mysterious and alchemical process. It is an ever popular, ubiquitous medium, yet it has always seemed to me beguiling, elusive. The potential for trickery and manipulation has existed since its invention – despite its inherent relationship to the “real”, it has never been trustworthy.

At one end of the spectrum Anthony Goicolea flies in the face of realism and creates impossible scenarios, with multiple selves in fantasy landscapes. Edwin Zwakman plays equally sophisticated games, but in a quieter, more understated way. The effects are subtle, slow to manifest, yet the process is highly involved and labour-intensive. In a different way, Hannah Starkey carefully stages each mise-en-scène with polished precision, creating painterly compositions that merge the ordinary with the extraordinary.

At times preternatural processes seem to be at work in Thomas Ruff’s photographs – ghostly smoke surrounding perplexing machines, transformations from concrete imagery to abstract patterns of colour, naked flesh barely perceptible. Adam Fuss creates dreamlike visions: the shadow of a baby in the surface of a pool of water, the faint, fragile outline of a child’s dress. The characters in Martina Hoogland Ivanow’s images appear out of proportion, strangely clad, involved in mysterious nocturnal activities.

Roe Ethridge and Torbjørn Rødland resist easy categorisation. Ethridge plays with beauty and with menace – a bloodied face (not real), a self portrait with black eye (real); images of multiple moons that don’t quite look out of place. And what is really going on with those peachy bottoms and geeky girls in Rødland’s work? Why are those priests hanging around in the forest? Do we trust them?

David Spero and Dan Holdsworth at times exaggerate other-worldliness through the particularities of what they focus on, or the speed at which the world is presented (the turning of the earth depicted through stars appearing to move, the movements of cars as streaks of light). Massimo Vitali is suspended just a little too high above the action, the angle and distance just a touch out of the ordinary. Andreas Gursky’s grand spectacles appear somehow less “real”, more manipulated, than they really are. The artifice within reality, even, can be magnified through the mediating influence of viewpoint, scale, and the speed of the shot.

Candida Höfer and Markéta Othová produce understated series of interiors and exteriors, which take on significance through repetition and subtleties of difference; a kind of paring down to basics. Hiroshi Sugimoto’s attention to minutiae through his images of cinema interiors and seascapes work on a level of micro-perception. Jean-Luc Moulène’s series of plain objects describe no artifice, no artfulness – apparent truths are displayed, simply, yet there are hidden histories contained within these objects.

On the side of truth and of plainness of vision, Taryn Simon’s depictions of innocence stare back at us defiantly. Thomas Ruff’s stark portraits, Thomas Struth’s studies of “ordinary” families, Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s startling heads or Roe Ethridge’s disarming young female models. Clear eyes looking into our eyes. Nick Waplington and Mitch Epstein portray humanity in a way that creates a direct, emotional response. There is a level of straightforward engagement here, on a human scale.

Of course any number of pathways could be chosen through the works of these artists, raising different questions, in different ways – we can never access the whole picture. Even the knowledge of the stories behind the processes doesn’t always clarify things – photography is always subjective, mediated, multi-layered, ambiguous. For every potential truth revealed through the presentation of these 21 photographers, we also hope to produce new fictions.

Published in Contemporary magazine issue 67 (from the Contemporary 21 series)