QofR: The materiality of images

Updated: Apr 8, 2021

Just a brief blog to record an interesting lecture I watched by the photographer and academic Rachel Smith for the Open College of Arts on the materiality of images.

Smith begins by suggesting that the death of the analogue and rise of the digital has led to an increased interest in the materiality of photography that goes beyond a nostalgia for the once very involved process of photographic production. Smith suggests the recent trend in more sculptural, process-based and hybrid works of photography could indicate a wider revaluation of how we approach the image.

Smith recalls how so much of her early work involved attempting to avoid the marks of her presence, 'the accidental thumbprint of fixative that prevented the smooth and transparent surface of the image, the hair or dust in the enlarger that was blown up to enormous proportions in the final print, or the scrapped Iines of a microscopic piece of grit that was caught in the wiping blade when developing the negatives.' But, as an artist, it is these very markers that test the 'hierarchical process between process and product' and have sustained her intellectual and creative interest.

I was interested in Smith's lecture for a couple of reasons - firstly, it was the resonances with the narrative I had uncovered when researching materiality in visual art. The notion that photography, like traditional paintings and sculpture, requires the viewer to suppress their knowledge of what the object is (ie a photo), in order to see the imagistic illusion the object presents (ie a family playing in a garden). Photographers, like artists working in other media, had worked to disrupt this veneer of realism in order to show the marks of the creator and explore a visualisation of the photographic process.

Smith draws on several examples to show how photographers explore this tension. Gerhard Richter's over-painted series involves partially obscured non-professional images that have been smeared over with a veil of paint. The paint is like a curtain, reminding us of the voyeuristic nature of looking into this personal record, while the complimentary choice of colours recalls those burred, finger-print obscured images that are central to our sense of nostalgia and understanding of our individual pasts.

Wolfgang Tillman's 'Lighter series' steps away from the figurative in order to focus purely on the photographic process. Tillman uses neither camera nor lens, just a photographic colour processor through which the paper is passed, sometimes folded in various directions. Tillman's work reminded me strongly of the abstract expressionism of Mondrian and Louis that celebrates physical characteristics of the media.

The other concept I was drawn to in Smith's lecture was the idea that materiality could be used as a way to reveal production and process. It's not something I'd come across in my research within other fields of art. Perhaps because installation, sculpture and painting have a longer history of celebrating the maker and the hand-crafted, while photography veils the photographer as much as its own physicality. It's something that I want to bear in mind as I move forward with my research.

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