When French inventors Nicephore Niepce and Louis Daguerre first developed the technology of photography in the 1820’s, they could not have known how profoundly their discovery would affect the art world. At first, this burgeoning craft was mainly utilized as a more accessible means of portrait making. Those who had not previously been able to afford to commission an artist to paint their likeness could now sit for a Daguerreotype, the first type of photography which was widely accessible for public consumption. Despite the long exposure time required to successfully create a Daguerreotype, which would sometimes be as long as 8 hours, they were widely popular because of their affordability and ability to faithfully render their subject. Soon artists such as Nadar were exploring the bountiful possibilities of this new medium, while others feared the new technology would replace the mediums of painting, printmaking and drawing altogether. Needless to say, photography’s position in the art world has always been nothing short of complex, and in many ways it was the catalyst which forced people to reevaluate the purpose and value of art and human perception. In London, the much beloved Tate Modern has taken on the enormous task of exploring photography and its role in performance art in its current show, “Performing for the Camera”, which is open from the 18th of February to the 12th of June.
The show is divided into 7 distinct categories, the first of which is entitled “Documenting Performance”. Here, performance pieces staged by artists such as Yayo Kusama and Yves Klein are relived through photographic stills. Despite this category’s title, I have trouble simply understanding these photographs as pure documentation of an event. After all, the photographer must choose which moments to capture, from where to capture these moments and what to include in the photograph, the decisions of the photographer are always present in the final shot; and therefore the photographer’s bias is an unavoidable aspect of every picture ever produced. It is this bias that lifts photography out of the constricting identity of a purely representational medium, but it also calls into question the relationship between photographer and subject, especially when that subject is an artist and their work. For example, who would be considered the artist of a photograph which shows Yves Klein dressed in black tie directing a completely nude woman covered in paint where on a canvas she should press her body? It is Klein who is considered the artist in this performance, the artist of this moment, but it is Henry Shunk, the man who captured this moment through his camera lens who is the artist of the photograph.
In the show’s preceding categories such as “Photographic Actions” and “Public Relations”, the plentiful examples of photography being used as a means of capturing staged or orchestrated situations specifically for the camera are explored in depth. But it is when the show’s focus shifts to orchestrated realities and identities in categories “Self/Portrait” and “Performing Real Life” that the true power of photography really comes to fore in the show. Our minds want to accept a photograph as reality, because the mind understands that a lens need only be pointed in the right direction to faithfully capture what is before it. But these categories demonstrate how even though a photograph captures perfect representations, it is up to the eye of the viewer to see beyond the photograph, and contemplate what went into the making of that photograph. Photographs by Cindy Sherman show her as the dramatic heroine in 50s era hollywood movies, staging an identity that is not her own in order to comment on the larger issue of womanhood and femininity in the modern age. To think about what choices were made to arrange this composition, such as which sets or props needed to be created or which expressions and poses to assume, is to question the reality of the photograph. This is a practice which can only be done with photography, and it makes photography a unique and challenging medium to contend with. As John Berger said in Ways of Seeing, “The invention of the camera changed the way men saw. The visible came to mean something different to them.” Photography teaches us to think critically of our surroundings, of how we perceive others and ourselves. It makes us realize how variable reality can be, how easy it is to change and how impactful a changed reality can be.