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A Question of Value

Camouflage Click

Operation Camouflage Click

Everybody is taking pictures. Documenting the moment. It's dessert time at a dinner party in a restaurant. You arrive precisely at this moment, dessert time, as planned. You only know one person. All the others are taking pictures with their mobile phones. And then mobile phones are passed around, so the whole event is about posing for pictures, watching them, exchanging phone numbers, Facebook addresses, emails for the pictures to be forwarded. The event hardly exists except as a photo-shoot. Click, click, click, click, click. Communication about other matters is relegated to the future. What matters now is to photographically document the moment and while documenting the moment nobody thinks that the future is now, there is a delay in the experience of reality as virtuality takes over.

Dessert time might be the culmination of the dinner party, most people around the table are in London for a few days, this is a special occasion, extending the joy of the moment by taking a picture of it, you have only joined them at the end, but a nagging suspicion makes you wonder whether this is the shape reality is taking: a perpetual photo-shoot of every single moment, private moments lived for the camera broadcasted to the whole planet. You think about this strange loop, about the whole world being replicated in pictures, inch by inch. Almost every moment has to be replicated. Photography is the most democratic of art forms. With virtualization, the personal and the banal can be broadcasted to the whole planet and circulate to add to the prevailing jetsam that envelops the world.

Trivia and the banal might be the prevailing visual muzak that constitutes the world. Is there a hierarchy of the banal? What is the difference between the uninteresting banal and the suggestive banal? Is it a question of composition? Of framing? Of how light hits the banal at the moment of taking the picture? Of how tone and colour transform the everyday by sheer happenstance for better and for worse? If so, the uninteresting banal hasn't even been redeemed by chance and while you're thinking about this, the coffee arrives and someone says: 'Everybody is a photographer now'.

The following week you're teleported to a photography show to meet another friend. Your friend tells you, that, yes, whilst everybody might be a photographer, what it takes for a good photograph to happen is an image-maker. It's image-makers that you encounter here. You soon realise that the photography show has camouflaged itself as a mixed media show. Your nostrils start fluttering. Quite a few of the photographs here smell female. You sniff around and that's the smell you get. Many of the pictures linger on the domestic, the body, intimate life, family, realms that are usually associated with the female. Portraiture looms large. And many of the pictures deal with a camouflage of sorts.

You realize that these pictures have been rescued from an image saturated world. Their energy speaks of their uniqueness. They're pictures that can't be ignored. They resonate. They're there to remind you of photography's central role in contemporary art. Art is in the eye of the beholder. Art is in your eye. You collaborate with the photograph. Sometimes you turn it into a work of art, other times, there is confusion and you wonder what art is and what it isn't. Some of the pieces here go towards painting, sculpture, video, documentary and photography as a pure form. You are intrigued. You walk around this cutting-edge reservoir of personal history, social history, human zoology and, ... and longing. If conceptual art appropriated photography for practical ends, now photographers turn inside out the history of conceptual art and conceptual art becomes another tradition to play with within the history of photography.

Photography as a pure art form, photography as used in conceptual art, the slick photography used in advertising, photography as documentation, photojournalism, these are the threads and directions that have been re-absorbed by these photographers in order to posit the question: what is photography? You think about the classics, Edward Weston, Ansel Adams, Tina Modotti. You think about Gillian Wearing, Cindy Sherman, Jeff Wall. You think about photography and painting, not only about the way photographers have carried on thinking about composition both taking from and enriching figurative painting, but you also think about photography and abstract painting. You think about Rauschenberg, about Gerhard Richter, about John Baldessari.

You were in this photography show four months ago and you now try to trace back your steps. There is a chequered blue Vileda dish cloth which has been elevated to sculptural status by being placed on a plinth. It's slightly scrunched up, creased and chance has turned it into a small random mountain. This is a classic dish cloth. The prototype and archetype of all dish cloths. The equivalent of Campbell soup in the cleaning world. It's a banal sculpture that fully revels in its classic status while hiding its unsuspected reality. The cloth ain't cloth. The supposed cloth is instead photographic paper printed on both sides and thus it speaks about photography at its most basic and magical: its overwhelming power to mechanically reproduce an image. Simplicity, minimal and it's quirky, you think while looking at it ... and then you wonder: Does this photograph guarantee its survival by camouflaging itself as a sculpture in order to survive in an environment where photography is taken for granted? Photography goes towards sculpture, it also goes towards movement. Photography might become video where movement is almost imperceptible, not a frozen moment anymore, if photography is ever that, but a prolonged stillness that is both stasis and movement. From a monitor flows a stream of present of perfect quietude. A woman is meditating in a public space. And it seems the right place to meditate, in as far as the vast architectural space echoes meditation as a process where macrospace and microspace engage in harmony. Her meditating is somehow complemented by another performance video piece which stands at the other end of the spectrum in terms of subtlety. 80's disco music draws you to this small monitor. You chuckle. And then you chuckle again. This piece is a genuine tribute to buoyant spirits, a burst of comical freedom that manages to capture an intimate moment of juvenile élan vital. Private naff activities like playing the electric guitar naked to disco music with the thread of the tampon you're wearing, catapult you to the joy of sheer tomfoolery. You think about tampon advertising's long-standing joke where not only blue tends to be the colour related to menstrual blood, but wearing a tampon suddenly turns you into an aerodynamic woman, a wonder woman who can undertake any type of physical feats.

A black and white portrait of a man also speaks of camouflage, in as far as the portrayed isn't aware of being photographed, he's a perfect stranger, an anonymous person in an anonymous crowd. A perfect stranger whose face is subjected to a deep inner massage that comes to the foreground with manual manipulation in the dark room by using the developing chemicals as if they were paint and paint as if it were muscles or ligaments so as to create a perfectly unsettling viscose interiority that speaks of damage. It's as if the photographer had been rummaging through the contents of a face in the dark to come up with a painterly surface that discloses inner truth. It's deep psychology we're talking here. The anonymous face is a perfect match for troubled male subjectivity, seriously disturbed, dogged, obsessed, dark and yet seething with dignity. It's an exemplary fusion of photography, painting and portraiture that takes us to Francis Bacon, to Rembrandt.

And dark is the shadow that dominates a melancholic sculptural piece showing two male bodies, father and son, next to each other, back to back. You realize that what comes to the foreground is the space between their bodies. They're cropped figures and their shadows fall in the space between them. And you can see unease in that shadow and a circularity, but also a space where possibilities can emerge.

And then you enter a tiny projection room where a photodocumentary mourns a loss. It's an homage to a loss. And that is, ever since its inception, one of the objectives and purposes of photography, one of its accomplishments: to make the dead present as an image. You cover your eyes and you don't know why you do that. It's not to do with death, or with homage. Maybe it's to do with the fact that you're witnessing something immensely personal and traumatic, for your friend tells you the documentary mourns the death of a young relative, a brother, and you fall silent.

A boisterous child returns you to this side of the mirror, a family saga that takes place through portraits of a child sitting next to an invisible relative, invisible because the photographer has erased them from the final picture. The pictures are supposed to reveal the relationship between portrayed and relative via the child's body language. You look at the child's body language and changes in expression depending on who's sitting next to him, and you think about what the child feels, whether it's easier to read a child than to read an adult and to what extent the child is performing in as far as a camera calls for performance. You think about how we're modified and transformed by each other, about human connections and how the family portrayed here will in turn be changed by these series of photographs. The portraits are shot coldly in a neutral studio. It's an interesting idea. And then you think that the child is also interacting with the photographer, with the camera, with his own excitement and boredom as the snapshots happen, and that it isn't only about relationships revealed by body language according to whoever is sitting next to the child, for a human being can never be isolated from the context of the moment.

If we're transformed by each other, we're also transformed by the social conditions that are thrown at us. Social matters remind us that we're the subjects of history, we're made by history but we also make history, social history. To record the history you're part of, not as an external observer, but as a participant, is to know that you have some power to set the record straight. If the utopian impulse keeps resurfacing, it is because it is one of the most beautiful things about human beings. A cluster of photographs documents a utopia of sorts. Living in a self-contained and self-sufficient cooperative, the photographer documents her first hand experience of communal living. Sidestepping the power grid where possible, growing vegetables, sharing gardening chores, solar panels and burning stoves, the experience speaks of an implicit critique of the exacerbated individualism fostered by capitalism. In terms of composition, the most interesting picture shows a woman holding bow and arrow and rather than tension and challenge, it seems a perfectly natural thing to do, part of the logic of the landscape, and you leave these pictures thinking that togetherness and solidarity within a city based on a business orientated environment, require will power and vigilance ... and long live the utopian impulse, you think. Social inequity also looks back at you from an early twentieth century archive of pictures of black people which returns you in time to ethnology and early photography. The pictures are small and factual and you feel a chill. Are they slaves? They were probably slaves. You sigh and your friend tells you that it's a fictional archive taken by a black photographer, since at the time the documentation of different types of black people was exclusively carried out by white photographers. Your friend also tells you that the portrayed are the photographer's family and that she's trying to make sense of it all. A sadness overcomes you. And you think the archive is a double challenge to photography as an honest medium, not only because it's a necessary forgery, but also because it reveals the power relations behind the camera.

There are other pictures that you can't quite recall now, they're hazy in your memory, but the overall impression is one of synergy. The hybrid nature of reality can't be reduced to any one medium and most of these photographers conceive photography as something extra, something that goes beyond photography itself. If many of the faces of photography are conjured up here, the emphasis is on conceptual photography. You wonder whether by camouflaging itself as art, photography ensures its survival in a world wall-papered with photographic images, to what extent this impulse towards other media is also related to the advent of digital photography, to the fact that everybody is taking pictures, mimicking what pictures should like, uploading files in Flickr and social networks. Click, click, click, click, click.

In the middle of a recession, amidst the prevailing economic and political turmoil and the omnipresence of fast social photography, the photographs that you're seeing here, the free-standing exhibits, transmit an unqualified and lucid belief in the future of photography. If technology is forever reshaping the present, the photographic present here puts emphasis on what it is to be human. In most of these pictures something of the inner life of the subjects comes to life, leaving a meditative residue in the air. On the whole, there is no trace of irony. Instead, you sense closely observed truths, mindful moments, an emphasis on emotional knowledge.

You look at the scattered viewers here, all floating around in silence. The photographs you encounter here are objects whose size, emplacement and tangible presence matter. You walk around feeling the excitement of photography as an object. You're relieved to see the scattered viewers are not taking pictures with their mobile phones. Like you, they're documenting these moments with their minds, living the present as present. You leave the space with a refreshing aftertaste on your tongue. Energized to have gone through laughter, playfulness, quietude, melancholy, damage, history, happy at all these inquisitive gazes, all gathered in one point in space.

— Susana Medina is the author of Philosophical Toys, Red Tales and Souvenirs from the Accident.