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Form in the contemporary photograph

By Mike Brennan

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Photography now: Image © Abigail Reynolds (detail)

Abstraction and self-analytical interrogation: themes which define much recent art are equally evident in today's photography.

A further concern, however, is increasingly making its presence felt.

A focus on the sculptural potential of the photograph provides current practice with an intriguing twist, often quite literally.

Assimilating an area of aesthetics with which it has never before been associated, contemporary photography takes on new and exciting dimensions.


Sara Vanderbeek

Sara Vanderbeek

(b. 1976) Sara Vanderbeek creates sculptural arrangements specifically in order to photograph them. Once snapped, the construction is dismantled so that it exists purely as a documented fact.

Although many of Vanderbeek's earlier compositions echo the semi-abstract, modernist assemblages that initially inspired her work, the photograph itself has steadily become more central to her temporary installations.

Works such as The Principle of Superimposition 2 (2008, above left), for example, record complex constructions of images alone.

The Field Glass (2006, below) consists of various photographic prints associatively hung, then framed within Vanderbeek's own image.

sculptural form in contemporary photography
Images © Sara Vanderbeek


Thomas Demand

Thomas Demand: contemporary photography and sculptural form

(b. 1964) German artist Thomas Demand's well-known use of sets and props crafted in paper and card assaults the notion of photographic veracity.

Based largely on images gleaned from media sources, his two-dimensional referents are stripped of human presence, then reconstructed as three-dimensional models before being photographed. The entire tableau is finally destroyed.

The insubstantial nature of Demand's apparently authentic documents is echoed in his choice of modelling materials - which equally reflect the final incarnation of his work as a processed sheet of photographic paper.

 Contemporary photography now
Images © Thomas Demand

Elad Lassry

Elad Lassry, form in contemporary photography

Elad Lassry's unfamiliar use of the familiar challenges expectation as to how a photograph should look.

Several of his more recent works investigate illusory potential through images which, in his own words, provoke a viewer's "need to renegotiate the space, to understand if it's a flat space or a 3 dimensional space and where the objects are really lying."

Compositions such as Radishes (2010, above left), utilise multiple instances of reflection and shadow in order to provoke a conflation of foreground and background.

contemporary photography and sculptural form: Elad Lassry
Images © Elad Lassry

And in the portrait Dustin Christenson (2010, left) the subject is seated between sections of painted wood to create the sense of "a hole in the photographic space".

In each of these cases, Lassry's addition of a customised frame to match his images' background colour furthers the spatial uncertainty, hinting at a box-like, sculptural construction.


Form and the fold

contemporary photography and the fold
Simon Dobbroe Møller, 'Unfold your Dreams', 2004

In recent years, the motif of the fold has become a predominant cipher in contemporary photographic practice.

Pointing unmistakeably to the material nature of photographic paper, it simultaneously converts surface into multiple facets and newly acquired volume.

The fold is philosophically complex: a highly charged, liminal juncture between contradictory states. Although singular, for example, it always creates a plurality; while enabling new form, it retains its former potential, reverted to simply by unfolding.

And in deconstruction, the system of literary critique initiated by French philosopher Jacques Derrida, the metaphorical fold occupies a prominent position, symbolic of embedded dualities of textual meaning.

Apply the fold to the photograph, and a potent combination of conceptual and plastic possibility emerges.


Anne Collier

Anne Collier: form and the fold in contemporary photography

LA-based artist Anne Collier often photographs objects which themselves bear a photographic image, thus making photography itself the subject of her practice.

Although Folded Jack Nicholson Poster (One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest) (left) and Folded Madonna Poster (Steven Meisel) (below; both 2007) could be mistaken for appropriated celebrity portraits, their titles make clear that they are to be read specifically as photographs of posters.

The obvious presence of creases and folds reinforces this interpretation.


contemporary art photography
Images © Anne Collier

Collier's insistence on acknowledging the origin of her subjects - a position unlike that of artists such as Richard Prince, whose appropriation of popular imagery is largely stripped of original context - implicitly questions the value systems and hierarchies underlying the recycling of imagery within art production.

Collier's works, after all, are highly unlikely to be casually folded or carelessly handled, even though they simply reproduce the well-used posters themselves.

In the case of 'Folded Madonna', the concatenation of conflicting status becomes even more complex.

As Collier's full title states, the poster reproduces a work by celebrated fashion photographer Steven Meisel - a portrait which, in the form of an 'original' print, would be deemed far superior to the mass-produced version depicted.

Collier's own artwork assigns the portrait/poster yet another level of meaning and associated worth.

Emphasising the profound schism between mechanical reproduction and the subjective, shifting nature of context and intent, the folds in Collier's portraits of posters not only emphasise her subjects' lowly status, but symbolise the various contradictions she seeks to reveal.


Markus Amm

Markus Amm, photogram: contemporary art photography

The works shown here by London-based German artist Markus Amm reprise a cameraless photographic technique associated with early 20th century modernists such as Man Ray, Lazlo Maholo-Nagy and Emilio Amero.

Known as a photogram, the process involves placing objects on light-sensitive paper then exposing it to light.

Amm first began producing his photograms in the late 1990s, often using arrangements of cut-out paper to create striking black and white images (left).

Although most of his works are abstract, in several the photographic paper itself is folded and creased, revealing process as much as it determines form (below, left).

the folded form in contemporary photography
Images © Markus Amm

In recent years, the photogram and other unusual photographic formats have been widely adopted by other artists, many of whom also employ the motif of the fold.

Limited editions by Markus Amm >


Walead Beshty

Walead Beshty

UK-born, Los Angeles-based Walead Beshty explores both the conceptual and technical aspects of photography.

The works shown here (from 2004 and 2008 respectively) add a new twist to the photogram through use of large-scale prints and colour processing.

Interlocking planes of high-key, contrary colour echo the folds applied to photographic paper before exposing it to light. Although frequently cited as examples of abstract photography, Beshty's images refer explicitly to the act of their own making.

Walead Beshty: contemporary photography
Images © Walead Beshty

Eileen Quinlan

Eileen Quinlan: new photography

Although many of Eileen Quinlan's photographs bear a striking resemblance to the folded photograms created by Walead Beshty and other photographers, her images are always produced in the studio, highlighting photography's ability both to record fact and create illusion.

Her apparently abstract still-life shots utilise many of the pre-digital techniques employed by the commercial photo trade, such as gels, strobes, mirrors, dry ice and backdrops. Clues as to their fabrication are often included within the composition, yet Quinlan's principle interest is in "giving the viewer a destabilizing visual experience."

Eileen Quinlan

Quinlan has also questioned the nature of the photographic edition by including six identical prints in a single work (below), thus foregrounding the serial nature of the photograph as a unique aspect of the medium.

Eileen Quinlan contemporary photography
Images © Eileen Quinlan

Limited editions by Eileen Quinlan >


Wolfgang Tillmans

Wolfgang Tillmans

UK-based, German photographer Wolfgang Tillmans' Paper Drop series (left and below, 2001-8) explores the material properties of the photograph by gently folding or curling colour images into sensuous forms before re-photographing.

Although these works evidence similar concerns to Markus Amm and Walead Beshty (above), Tillmans' approach to picturing the fold is highly individual, eschewing sharp lines for voluminous curves and obscuring paper edges to emphasise inner form.

The resulting images are replete with ambivalence, specifically engaging with the innate plurality intrinsic to the fold.

Simultaneously revealing the two surfaces of a photograph while confounding distinction between front and back, these enigmatic compositions likewise exhibit the simplicity of their facture.

Wolfgang Tillmans: sculptural form in contemporary photography
Images © Wolfgang Tillmans

Limited editions by Wolfgang Tillmans >


Furthering the fold: three-dimensionality and the photographic sculpture >

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