Hoboken © Mishka Henner.
For his latest project exploring digital appropriation, Mishka Henner turned to “the Bible” of photobooks, Robert Frank’s 1958 classic, Les Américains. Colin Pantall finds it a thrilling example of a new trend in photography towards using techniques such as subtraction to make new images from old.
Author: Colin Pantal
16 May 2012 Tags: Books
Take the 83 images from Robert Frank’s 1958 classic, Les Américains. Use Photoshop to erase half the content. Leave some hats and chairs and jukeboxes. Add an “s” to the title and you have Less Américains, Mishka Henner’s latest book project, and the most striking example of his ongoing use of new technologies to illuminate the past and invigorate the present.
Despite Henner’s work with new media and appropriated images, he has his roots in more traditional documentary photography. “What drew me into photography was discovering the Dusseldorf School,” he says. “They were producing these pictures of urban places, and I thought if you can photograph an industrial estate and come up with something profound, I want to be part of that.
“I found that I could discover something new by pointing a camera, but the more proficient I became with the language of photography, the more frustrated I was with it. I wanted to find new ways of communicating, but the Photography world with a capital P can be quite conservative. I needed to go beyond it; I needed to get my work seen by people outside photography. One of the things that frustrates me is how photography is often taught according to a set agenda of what is good; and looking at photography in this way can be so restrained and narrow. We’re surrounded by cameras, and from a basic point of view, that changes the way we function. We don’t need to carry a camera around with us all the time any more because everything is being photographed in any case.”
Old into new
Henner has shown an ability to move beyond the photographic audience in his prolific output, which combines the simple and the inspired. Last October he published Astronomical, a 5000-page, 10-volume scale-reproduction of the solar system, a planetary parallel of Ed Rushka’s Every Building on the Sunset Strip. Earlier in the year he published No-Man’s Land, a book that combined the surveillance element of Google Street View with an online social network for Italian men to share locations for street prostitutes.
Canal Street © Mishka Henner.
No-Man’s Land was exhibited at the Les Rencontres d’Arles festival last year, as part of the From Here On exhibition (curated by Clément Chéroux of the Pompidou Centre, along with artist/photographers Martin Parr, Eric Kessels, Joachim Schmid and Joan Fontcuberta), which focused on digital appropriation. The show’s manifesto remains apt to Misher’s approach, pronouncing that the endless possibilities of making “...work that turns old into new, elevates the banal. Work that has a past but feels absolutely present. We want to give this work a new status. Things will be different from here on.”
It’s a manifesto opposed to the idea of the purity of photography, opposed to the idea that there is one right way of doing things. “An example of this, is a student who told me she hadn’t taken any pictures all week and had nothing to show me,” says Henner, who is a visiting lecturer at Stockport College and the University of Central Lancashire. “I asked her if she had uploaded anything to Facebook and she said yes, loads of pictures. But she couldn’t see that the Facebook pictures were just as valid and maybe even more interesting than what she saw as the ‘Proper Photographs’.”
It was with this perspective that Henner began working on an idea around Frank’s classic. “I had been making quite a lot of work that is about photography, and I love the photobook. My background is in documentary, so I thought if I’m going to remake a photobook, I should start with the Bible – Les Américains.
“There’s a fetishisation of vintage work where the images are seen as untouchable; but we are living in a digital age where data can be wiped out immediately and our relationship to images has changed how we see and process photographs. Images circulate incredibly freely and rapidly and then, just as quickly, they disappear and the memory is lost. With Less Américains, I want to ask what happens when you do that to older work, where on the one hand the images are recognisable, but on the other they are also new images.
Arriere Cour © Mishka Henner.
“Initially I wasn’t sure about what I wanted to do apart from erase [aspects of the images]. I was inspired by Robert Rauschenberg who did erasure when abstract expressionists like William de Kooning were dominating the art world in the 1950s. He wrote to William de Kooning and asked for a picture to erase. De Kooning liked the idea and gave him a picture that Rauschenberg erased and exhibited – which de Kooning didn’t like. So Rauschenberg’s response to this dominant art form was to erase one of the biggest abstract expressionists of the time.
Rauschenberg’s erasure of the picture did two things; it destroyed de Kooning’s work and it created a blank space – but with the proviso that blank spaces are never blank, they always have the trace of something unseen. In that sense, the act of erasure can be seen as both destructive and creative.
That creative/destructive element is addressed in a huge number of contemporary photographic works, and notably evident in Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin’s People in Trouble Laughing Pushed to the Ground. In this series, the duo removed stickers that had been placed on photographs in the Belfast Exposed Archive, then enlarged the previously hidden sections of the images. Here the blank space of the sticker really isn’t blank; it’s a kind of negative space that comes with an archaeology, and an excavation of the image (through peeling back the sticker) reveals what lies beneath – the detritus of everyday visual life in the politically charged archive environment of the Belfast archive.
However, instead of opening up negative spaces, Henner creates them with Less Américains, but at the same time preserves enough so that the book is also a visual reading guide to the work of Frank.
There are different ways of looking at Henner’s erased pictures; sometimes you look at what is left; the hats and haircuts for example. Here the blank space is more of a white space backdrop. But sometimes you look at what has been taken out; the silhouettes of bodies and faces that aren’t there, the graphics and the flags that have gone missing. These blank spaces are negative spaces, where what is missing lies at the heart of the blankness.
And then you end up flicking between the negative space and the positive idea and you wonder what you recognise and what you don’t. Next, you start seeing the links between pictures and building up alternative narratives in your head. And if you have a copy of Frank’s book to hand, then it’s not long before one is flicking back between the two versions to see what has gone, what remains and what has changed in the way you read each version.
Erasing the past
Henner is not the first person to erase pictures. Go back a century and Edward Curtis was using basic manipulation to erase signs of modernity in order to preserve a particular image of Native Americans as people untouched by Western civilisation. Move forward into Stalin’s Soviet Union and you’ll find people disappearing from official images as they fell out of favour with their dear leader.
More contemporary erasures include the work of artists such as Ken Gonzales Day, who erased the main subjects and the ropes from which they hung from his pictures of US lynchings. The effect is to divert the attention from the victims to the crowd viewing the spectacle.
Rodeo © Mishka Henner.
Gregor Graf erased the signs in his Hidden Town pictures of London, Linz and Warsaw. There are no cars or people in Graf’s pictures, and because there is no graphic “noise”, his cities become interchangeable, depersonalised non‑communities. They look more like film sets than real cities, a kind of Poundbury or Pyongyang, somewhere between utopia and dystopia.
Even more relevant to Henner’s work are Pavel Maria Smejkal’s Fatescapes, which takes iconic photographs and erases the main players. So, instead of a naked Vietnamese girl running down a road screaming, followed by US soldiers in the background (Nick Ut’s Children Fleeing an American Napalm Strike), we get an empty street with a road sign to one side and a dark black cloud in the background. In another, shot by Charlie Cole in 1989, we see just the road markings on Changan Avenue crossing Tiananmen Square, while in a different picture, captured by Yevgeny Khaldei in 1945, only statues look down from the Reichstag rooftop to the streets below in Berlin.
But even with the figures removed, one can still recognise the seemingly anonymous landscapes that background Kevin Carter’s Pullitzer Prize winning photograph from Sudan, or Robert Capa’s Falling Soldier shot in Andalucia. And when you look at the empty pictures, you look at them more intently, taking in every blade of grass, every crack in the tarmac, as though trying to project the iconic element that has been removed onto the banal landscape that remains.
This interest in removing part of an image is more organic in the work of Stephen Gill, Seba Curtis and Dean Chapman. Gill’s Buried shows pictures that have been dug into the ground at varying depths – and the effect that burial has had on them. Both Curtis’ Drowned (BJP #7791) and Chapman’s Fading Memories show pictures from family albums that have been destroyed by flood waters, the latter work coming from the Japanese tsunami. Cracked, faded and infested with mould, the remnants of prints show eyes and faces devastated by the ravages of nature. It’s a showcase for the ephemeral surface nature of the photographic, the chemical and the elemental decay mirroring the devastation of the tsunami on the coastal communities most affected.
With Less Américains, Henner sought a similar combination in his mixing of old and new. “I asked myself, ‘Can I make new images from the old?’ It became apparent that I could. I was looking at the pictures with a magnifying glass; looking for elements to erase, and looking for things to leave in. And as I did so I discovered the patterns, the repeated shapes that hold the book together; there are so many circles, grids and diagonals. Then there are the hats and the hairstyles.
“So the first action was to appropriate the book, the second was to erase it, and the third action was to produce something with different layers. Making the book took several months because of the complexity of the different layers. Conceptually you start with the erasing, then you meditate on the implications of what it means. For me if this meditation happens when I’m working on something, I know that there is something interesting going on. With Less Américains there are layers relating to authorship, how the images embed themselves in our memory, the idea of memory loss, the fading idea of a certain type of photography, and the echo of the fact that Frank destroyed his own prints.”
Paravent © Mishka Henner.
By looking at a classic photobook, Henner is slowing down and questioning how we really see pictures, why we remember them, how they become iconic. These are questions that have never really had satisfactory answers, but ones that are being addressed more fully in both the scientific and art worlds. As we are overwhelmed with the images that we produce, consume and digest with barely a moment’s pause, so there is a corresponding deceleration and reflection on how we really see and remember pictures.
One example of this is the research being done by Aude Oliva of MIT. She is looking at what makes a memorable image (people and silhouettes of people rate highly), and is developing an app to determine the most memorable picture to help people with their editing. Also related to this is facial recognition work, which finds that the upper face is more memorable than the lower face, and that we remember heads better than faces (the face being the eyes, nose and mouth and the head being the outline of the face and head), is the finding that there is a cross-race effect where we remember our own ethnic groups better than others, and that pose affects memorability. This research finds an echo in work such as Ken Ohara’s One, a collection of portraits first published in 1970 where you see only the face (with the head cropped out); an unnerving effect that renders everybody alike, and so emphasises our sameness rather than our difference.
When Henner messes with Robert Frank’s Les Américains, he is also touching on these ideas of what we see, what we recognise, what we remember and why.
The fact that Less Américains is published as an on-demand Blurb book also ties in to Henner’s willingness to tread new ground. And though it’s a strategy that might appal book snobs, print-on-demand makes it possible for Henner to publish his work with virtually no up-front costs. This publishing strategy (and the pricing that goes with it – Less Américains costs £80) might not get his books sold in large numbers, but it does get his work distributed and seen by potentially huge numbers.
No-Man’s Land and Astronomical reached wide audiences outside photography, but I’m not sure that Less Américains will have the same success. But perhaps that doesn’t matter. With Less Américains, Henner is slowing us down, he is making us look more carefully at the photograph and the book, making us think about what matters and what doesn’t. More than a proclamation of a new kind of photography, it is a Slow Photography that reinvigorates the form, one that uses whatever tools it can to peel back the layers of meaning in photography in quite a concrete interrogation to understand what is really happening. It’s forensic, in other words, and if it is a proclamation, it is a Churchillian proclamation that far from being over, photography has barely begun. The only thing that is ending is the beginning of photography. A new dawn beckons.
Less Américains, Mishka Henner's remake of Robert Frank's classic photobook, takes the first French edition, published by Robert Delpire in 1958, as the inspiration for the covers and title page, while the sequencing of the inside pages is faithful to Steidl's 50th anniversary edition, edited by Frank himself. It is available as a Blurb book, priced £80 plus shipping, direct from the artist. Visit mishka.lockandhenner.com.
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