Not your ordinary photography show, Ordinary Pictures surveys the work of more than 40 artists—from Steve McQueen and Sturtevant to Amanda Ross-Ho and Elad Lassry—who respond to, question, critique, and exploit the materials and methods of modern image making. Stock photography and other forms of commercial image production make up a huge part of contemporary visual culture but receive little of the credit. A range of conceptual practices over the past 50 years complicate and critique the ever-expanding global image economy and the role of art within it, from appropriation to collage to experimental filmmaking.
Some exhibition artists, like Liz Deschenes and Ed Ruscha, have been featured in previous Walker exhibitions, while others are especially engaged with new technologies of image production. While some are fascinated by obsolescent techniques, a few have made vinyl records or massive sculptures that tie back to photography. Many have experience in a commercial setting that informs their practice. Collectively they shed new light on the importance and relevance of stock photography in an image-saturated culture. Here, a look at 14 thought-provoking works from the exhibition.
Once Upon a Time is visual artist and filmmaker Steve McQueen’s reimagined presentation of images sent into space by NASA in 1977. Carefully chosen by a committee led by Carl Sagan to represent life on Earth as we know it, the pictures were delivered on the Golden Record, a gold-plated phonograph record launched into orbit with the Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 space probes. The disk held “sounds and images selected to portray the diversity of life and culture on Earth.” The 116 images ranged from landscapes in all climes and wild animals around the globe to religious artifacts, grocery stores, and rush hour traffic.1 The photographs are necessarily generic stand-ins for abstract ideas like civilization, nature, and culture more than they are documentation of a particular set of subjects.
McQueen provides a new way to look at these images by putting the earthbound viewer in the place of the hypothetical extraterrestrial who might happen upon the disk, and adding a soundtrack of glossolalia—the indecipherable vocalization of syllables and phrases often associated with religious fervor or divine communication. These utterances of disparate elements from humankind’s verbal repertoire have a familiar ring, but without context or codes for understanding they fail to convey meaning. Similarly, the selection of photographs—familiar, yet nonspecific and without context—“scrambles what is known and familiar to us and calls into question our reliance on generic codes of photographic expression,” as exhibition curator Eric Crosby writes in the Ordinary Pictures catalogue.2
While stock photography is not its main source material or explicit inspiration, OMEGA pertains to the same themes of replication and depersonalization that are central to modern image culture. With the aid of professional Hollywood prop makers, Amanda Ross-Ho translates personal artifacts into large-scale sculptures so meticulously detailed it seems as if the object were simply duplicated. Inspired by a snapshot of the artist and her mother in the family’s darkroom, OMEGA is an enlarged enlarger that harkens to the intimate process of creating prints by hand.3 However, the intimacy is subverted by the looming presence of the sculpture and its existence as a work of art to be viewed in a gallery.
Like many of the artists featured in Ordinary Pictures, William E. Jones draws upon his background in a commercial image-making industry for inspiration and material. He has worked in the adult video industry and often uses archival footage from 1970s and 1980s gay porn in his films.4The “VHS” series investigates what was once the principal medium of the genre itself: video cassette tapes.
An urban legend supposes that in the video cassette recorder wars of the late 1970s, the VHS (Video Home System) format was able to pull ahead of the Sony Betamax format due to the pornography industry’s preference for the former. While the role of adult videos in the proliferation of VCRs is probably overestimated, the reverse is inarguable.5 With its recording and playback capabilities, affordability, and privacy, VCR technology created and shaped the video rental industry by changing the way films could be produced and consumed. 6
Jones’ VHS series captures the “colorful, hallucinatory patterns” produced by a glitch unique to magnetic tape called “dropout,” caused when defects in the magnetic oxide of a tape interrupt the signal to the screen.7By exploring the aesthetic potential of a technical hiccup, Jones foregrounds the medium: obsolete but not yet exhausted.
In Riffs on Real Time, Leslie Hewitt creates compositions from the visual artifacts of American culture to work “against the affect of anonymity that pervades the industrial image.”8 Each image has three layers. On top, an amateur snapshot, suggesting a personal memory. Beneath that, a piece of everyday ephemera: a magazine, a book, or, particularly, 1960s civil rights memorabilia that reference the artist’s parents’ involvement with the movement during her childhood.9 The monochromatic backdrops consist of domestic surfaces: gouged hardwood floors and dated carpet that show the passage of time. Every layer is a testament to the potential of a simple picture to conjure nostalgia and encapsulate a moment. All together, the carefully curated assemblage reflects how personal and political narratives inform one another. Hewitt’s practice of appropriation and rephotography speaks to the image-making process as well as to the role that images—even the mundane ones—have in the formation of individual and collective memory.
Many of the works in Ordinary Pictures are less about their content than the way that the content was obtained and altered. For A Suite of Nine 7-inch Records, Jack Goldstein collected clips from Hollywood stock sound-effect libraries and pressed his own 45-rpm vinyl records, with titles such as “The Dying Wind,” “A Swim Against the Tide,” and “Two Wrestling Cats.”10 The records were featured in the landmark 1977 exhibition, Pictures, in which five artists explored their “interest in the psychological manifestations of identifiable and highly connotative, though non-specific, imagery” and initiated what would be known as The Pictures Generation.11 Though the records don’t contain imagery, per se, the sound bites are strongly suggestive and identifiable, while anonymous and unoriginal. The production of the art piece “mimic[s] the distributive practices of the visual content industry, revealing how such practices allow preexisting content to masquerade as original or, at the very least, as new and improved.”12
For her “Objects of Desire” series, Sarah Charlesworth isolated images from magazines and books against planes of color, creating a glossy iconography of the consumer gaze. Like her Pictures Generation contemporaries, Charlesworth employed appropriated imagery to examine the way that visual culture reflects societal norms and precipitates desire.13 In Blonde, a lush golden mane floats atop a flat black field. With context and depth essentially obliterated, exaggerated “strategies of seduction,” such as high gloss and graphic punch, distance the object from reality while luring the viewer towards the image.14 Though photography was a central part of Charlesworth’s practice, she insisted that her work was “an engagement with a problem rather than a medium.”15
Elad Lassry makes and appropriates images of a wide range of subject matter, but they are all the same size and have painted, color-coordinated frames that have been described as “not a supplement to the image but an extension of it.”16 The photos are slightly larger than a standard magazine, and show the techniques of a by-the-book studio shoot: sharp focus, well-distributed artificial light, meticulous composition, and somewhat mundane subject matter. As plain as it is strange, Squirrel exemplifies these traits. The sum of the parts of the photograph should amount to an ordinary stock picture, but the perfection seems too contrived, the photo so clearly staged that it is difficult to imagine a natural setting, logical purpose, or even possible use for the image. The matching frame seems to deny a connection between its content and its surroundings. How is a viewer supposed to look at and relate to photographs that lack context? Is it possible to have an image without it?
Elaine Sturtevant is known for her detailed reproductions of contemporary artists’ works. Throughout her career she imitated a wide range of known artists, from Andy Warhol and Jasper Johns in the 1960s to Felix Gonzales-Torres and Paul McCarthy in the 1980s, among others.17 Rather than simply appropriate, Sturtevant recreated: going through the same steps to arrive at a nearly identical product. Warhol gave her the original silkscreen used to make his Flowers in the 1960s, which she used to make a repetition of the series. Once, when being interrogated about his process and technique, Warhol said, “I don’t know. Ask Elaine.”18Warhol’s appropriation of the Flowers photograph from a Kodak ad questioned the notion of originality in images, while Sturtevant’s recreation challenges the notion of originality in works of art. Her process of duplication adds to the conversation around authorship and ownership in modern and especially digital image culture, as it is now possible for anyone to make copies of pictures that are indistinguishable from the originals.
Liz Deschenes’s practice is a self-reflexive consideration of the photographic process, likely influenced by her experience with photographing others’ artworks.19 In her 2014 Walker exhibition, as with other past work, she pushed the notion of photography by exposing light-sensitive materials over time. Green Screen #4 considers a common editing technique and references key moments in both film and art history. A green screen, blue screen, or “chroma key” is used for layering images: the color of the screen is rendered transparent in post-production so that a different background—weather map, exotic location, et cetera—can be put behind the subject. The bright green and blue hues are purposefully unnatural; anything closer to skin tones would produce glitchy results.
Deschenes’s large green inkjet print is hung like a screen, continuing onto the floor for several feet. It rhymes visually, and perhaps conceptually, with the monochrome paintings of Yves Klein, Alexander Rodchenko, and Robert Rauschenberg. Monochrome paintings approximate a kind of purity or truth in painting through the foregrounding of paint and canvas, and the print of the green screen is an equivalently straightforward presentation of the materials at hand. In both cases, the expected rendered image is glaringly absent.
It all started with a six-second computer-generated video clip of an ocean swell purchased from an online distributor of “multi-use video backgrounds.”20 As Eva Respini points out in her essay for the exhibition catalog, such videos are used for many purposes, including advertisements and TV news backdrops, and are an aspect of what Seth Price identifies as “distributed media”: the social information publicly available in books, magazines, and digital devices.21 Interested in the way that the products of commercial distribution and dispersion can be used and understood through artistic appropriation, Price manipulates and re-presents images from non-art settings, akin to the way Marcel Duchamp brought everyday objects into the gallery and called them sculpture.22For Untitled Film, Right, Price digitally altered the clip, repeated it 150 times, and transferred the result to 16mm film, effectively “bringing a digitally native commercial clip into the rarefied worlds of filmmaking and the art gallery.”23
Ed Ruscha is known for his photographic typologies of man-made elements in the Los Angeles area, as is showcased in his well-known photobooks, Twentysix Gasoline Stations (1962) and Every Building on the Sunset Strip (1966). For Parking Lots, he took a similar conceptual approach—capture multiple iterations of a certain feature from an “objective” viewpoint—but outsourced the actual task of taking pictures to commercial photographer Art Alanis to ensure consistent results.24 The distanced and regular viewpoint captured by Alanis is reminiscent of the bird’s-eye-view documentation of farm lands conducted by the USDA, and helps to convey the parking lots of Los Angeles as a quantifiable body of data rather than a romanticized landscape.
Chris Williams’s immaculate images “speak in the slick language of product photography” while smartly commenting on photographic representation and the economy of production.25 A professional photographer under Williams’s direction takes all of the photos, which prominently feature obsolescent darkroom tools and camera equipment—in the case of Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, © 1968 Eastman Kodak Company, 1968 (Corn), the kind of color chart used by analog photographers to assess white balance and color tonality.26 The title hints at the tutorial inspiration behind the image: it is not an imitation commercial photograph, but a recreation of a commercial shoot. Kodak’s Three Point Reflection Guide was created to help eager amateur photographers attain the “perfection” of commercial photography, presenting as fact that this aesthetic was the most desirable one to achieve.27
Aleksandra Domanović is a feminist new media artist working with technology and appropriated images, sounds, and video to interrogate “the circulation and reception of images and information, particularly as they shift meaning and change register, traversing different contexts and historical circumstances.”28 In her sculptural stacks of A4 paper, Domanović plays with the new realities and possibilities created by computers: copious amounts of printer paper, the fragmentation and proliferation of images, and amateurish play with photo-editing software. Each piece is a unique monument to the unglamorous effects and affects of technology.
The triptych Untitled (Blatter, Platini and Wambach) references recent scandals in international football: former FIFA president Sepp Blatter and Michel Platini, the former head of the Union of European Football Associations (UEFA), both who were removed from their jobs and banned from the game following ethics investigations, and Abby Wambach, who with teammates from the United States Women’s World Cup sued FIFA over the use of synthetic Astroturf, which they say increases the risk of injury, for Cup games (Men’s World Cup games, by contrast, are played on grass). Here the artist isolates under-reported events as a way of spotlighting broader issues of inequality.
Guthrie Lonergan’s Artist Looking at Camera combines the “Creative Video” results for a Getty Image search of the title. Getty’s Creative Video collection is a large array of stock footage, from archival film to HD video, filled with atmospheric landscapes, time-lapses of skylines, and anonymous actors performing eclectic tasks. The minute-or-less clips are the stuff of television commercials and low-budget B-roll, waiting to be endowed with meaning by a disembodied voiceover or superimposed text.
In the video clips collected by Lonergan for this piece, actors holding or surrounded by art paraphernalia—easels, paintbrushes, studios, et cetera—break the figurative fourth wall and make eye contact with the camera. Without a contextualizing voiceover or any sound at all, this has an uncanny and awkward effect, and emphasizes the artificial nature of the stock footage.
- Interactive archive of the Golden Record, accessed February 11, 2016.
- Eric Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” Ordinary Pictures (Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2016), 9.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 16.Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 14.
- Anne Friedberg, “The end of cinema: multimedia and technological change,” PDF, 443-444.
- Friedberg, “The end of cinema: multimedia and technological change”, 443-444.
- William E. Jones’ website, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 16.
- Guggenheim Collections, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 13.
- Eklund, Douglas. “The Pictures Generation,” Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History (The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, 2000–), accessed February 19, 2016.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 13.
- Sarah Coleman, “’Sarah Charlesworth: Objects of Desire, 1983-1988’ at Maccarone,” ArtNews, July 30, 2014, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Courtney Fiske, “Sarah Charlesworth,” Art in America Magazine, September 3, 2014, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Sarah Coleman, “’Sarah Charlesworth: Objects of Desire, 1983-1988’ at Maccarone, ArtNews, July 30, 2014, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Artist profile on thewhitecube.com, accessed February 23, 2016.
- Searle, Adrian. “Elaine Sturtevant: queen of copycats,” The Guardian, accessed February 21, 2016.
- Bruce Hainley, “Erase and Rewind: The long and influential career of Sturtevant,” Frieze Magazine, June-August 2000, accessed February 21, 2016.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 14.
- Petzel Gallery Exhibition Announcement, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Eva Respini, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?,” Ordinary Pictures(Walker Art Center, Minneapolis, 2016), 50.
- Respini, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?”, 50.
- Respini, “Why Can’t Women Time Travel?”, 50.
- Susanna Newbury, “Thirtyfour Parking Lots in the Fragmented Metropolis,” Everything Loose Will Land: 1970s Art and Architecture in Los Angeles (Distributed Art Publishers, Inc., New York, 2013), 50-51.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 15.
- Crosby, “Ordinary Pictures,” 15.
- Joseph Gergel, “The Redundancy of Appropriation,” dis magazine, accessed February 20, 2016.
- Artist profile on Tanya Leighton website, accessed February 21, 2016.