Joan Fontcuberta fuses fact and fiction, pushing viewers to doubt their own perceptions in a bid to dispel the myth that ‘the eyes do not deceive’, finds Colin Pantall ahead of his Bradford show
In November 2001, the US-led military action against the Taliban in Afghanistan appeared to be a success. The Coalition Forces were closing in on insurgents, Kabul had fallen, Kandahar was next, and the hunt was on for Osama Bin Laden, the mastermind behind the 9/11 attacks. At the end of November the international press, including The Independent, The Sunday Times and The New York Times, ran a series of news stories, complete with detailed illustrations, about Bin Laden’s secret hideaway. Bin Laden, it was reported, was hiding in a network of tunnels buried deep within the Tora Bora mountains. The network had its own ventilation system, a hydroelectric power-generating system and enough space for up to 1000 elite fighters. News of this secret lair spread and ‘the factsʼ surrounding his hideaway became incorporated into military, political and news broadcasts around the world.
Bin Laden’s lair was a fictional entity, but it was presented as real, and at the time was virtually unquestioned by mainstream media. It is precisely this unquestioning attitude that Catalan photographer Joan Fontcuberta (who in 2007 created Deconstructing Osama, a work of parody presenting Bin Laden as a fictional character) challenges with work that examines how images are made, exhibited and seen, and how the institutions that use photography exploit their ‘truth valueʼ.
“I started in the 1970s, when I was working in communications and advertising,” says Fontcuberta, “so I am well acquainted with using photographic techniques to persuade. In the first half of the 1970s, Spain was ruled by [General] Franco, so you had a political climate where propaganda, censorship and a lack of political rights helped [create a culture of ] manipulation of information.”
The fictional nature of advertising – the mistruths and the way in which photography can be used for propaganda – is immediately apparent in old promotional campaigns such as cigarette adverts of the 1950s assuring smokers that Lucky Strike tobacco protects your throat against irritation and coughing because “It’s Toasted”. What Fontcuberta wants us to do is question what we see, to make that insight more contemporary. He believes we should treat everything we see with scepticism, and consider more closely who is behind it and why it is being shown. His basic premise is: ‘Who is lying to us? What lies are they telling, and what are the vehicles used to make us believe?ʼ
“My work is rooted in this idea,” he says. “I use photography as an authoritarian tool. When we see a picture, we believe it to be a picture of fact, but this is just a convention. If you study the history of photography, you can see this.”
These conventions have always existed and one need only examine 19th-century photography for evidence – the manipulation of portrayals of war (Timothy Gardner), the taboo of representing death (Roger Fenton), the use of photography to exoticise alien cultures (Edward Curtis) and performance masquerading as fact (Charcot) are all historical examples of these ‘authoritarian’ traits. What Fontcuberta does is play with these conventions. “I transfer this kind of information to other situations so it acts as a critique of the discourse of science, of the church, of the museum, of academia. That’s why I’m pleased to be exhibiting in the Science Museum [as he did earlier this year, in a show, Stranger Than Fiction, that opens at the National Media Museum in Bradford on 20 November]; I’m establishing a critical dialogue.”
His earliest work on show is Herbarium, featuring austere black-and-white still lifes of fictional plants – photographs of sculptures that combine plant matter with domestic and animal detritus. Lavandula Angustifolia, for example, is a picture of what looks like a chicken head perched convincingly on a swirl of cabbage leaves, while Braohypoda Frustrata features a stem spiked with what appear to be inverted rose thorns. It’s all terribly convincing, right down to the Latin names used and the references to Karl Blossfeldt, the master of botanical photography.
“Herbarium is like a botanical atlas of nonexistent plants. It’s a cabinet of curiosities,” says Fontcuberta. “In my work there is always a reference to art history and Blossfeldt is an impressive reference because he was the aesthetic model for new objectivity. ‘is was the movement that generated the language of photography as truth. It has the documentary approach with a clear background and strong graphic elements.”