Monday, August 27, 2007

A Question Of Access

Last month Justin James Reed made a post on his blog discussing the issue of how viewing predominately restricted spaces affects our interpretation of photographs. He went on to elaborate about the work of Edward Burtynsky and Andreas Gursky, when saying:

"To me ideas of photographic artistry are stripped away to reveal a more documentary aspect to this work. This is not to say that they are both mediocre photographers, because to the contrary I think they are two of my favorites, and are fantastic image makers. I raise this issue because I wonder if my fascination with their work lies more on the idea(s) of spectacle and revelation then on pure artistic voice."

In the last couple of years, more and more photographers have gained photographic access to highly classified areas and institutions in our global society. These projects attempt to illuminate aspects of life that we may intellectually understand, but have very little visual interaction with. Images of prisons, oil fields & refineries, interrogation rooms at Guantánamo and Cryopreservation Units litter the consciousness of contemporary photography. Practitioners such as Edward Burtynsky, Taryn Simon, Richard Ross, Mikhael Subotzky and Luigi Gariglio, to name a few, have been granted entry and artistic freedom to render these spaces in whatever way they see fit.

My principle concern with projects of this nature is their innate reliance on the sensational. Our global fascination with emotionally and psychologically hyperbolic imagery, whether in film or photography, lends itself to projects that center around the unveiling of secret spaces. Mind you, I am not critiquing the aesthetic or conceptual validity of the work itself, but rather questioning its dependence on overt visual force. It is easy to assert that issues of social and political importance need to be seen, however the context of their viewing can be extremely subversive. Ultimately, unveiling unseen aspects of culture can bring with it a tremendous amount of power and influence, necessitating all the more tact and sensitivity in the rendering of these issues.

-Ben Alper

From Top to Bottom:

Mikhael Subotzky, Image from the series Die Vier Hoeke
(Photographs of South African prisons)

Taryn Simon, Cryopreservation Unit, Cryonics Institute
Clinton Township, Michigan

Richard Ross, Angola State Penitentiary, Angola, Louisiana

Edward Burtynsky, Oil Fields No. 24
Oil Sands, Fort McMurray, Alberta 2001

All Images © the Artists