Monday, August 4, 2008

Sze Tsung Leong's A Picture You Already Know

If you haven't been over to Words Without Pictures lately, I'd highly recommend doing so. They are currently featuring Sze Tsung Leong's wonderful essay A Picture You Already Know, a exploration into the history of repetition in photography. In the excerpt below, Leong addresses the various demonstrations and methods of repetitious photographic practice.

"Repetition in photography comprises a wide range of manifestations that have formed a significant part of photographic practice from the early development of the medium. Repetition figured in the use of photographs in racial and criminal studies (in which the repetitive use of portraits was used to identify what were thought to be the physiological foundations of traits and behaviors); in the cumulative documentation of the photographer’s urban or social context, such as in the work of Eugène Atget and August Sander; and in the mimicry of the pictorial conventions of painting genres such as still lifes, portraiture, and landscapes. In the context of contemporary photography, repetition appears in a profusion of varieties. These include the repetition of forms, spaces, or people (such as Bernd and Hilla Becher’s typologies, Candida Höfer’s institutional spaces, Wang Jinsong’s one-child “standard families” in China, and Hans Eijkelboom’s people in public settings); repetition over time (Nicholas Nixon’s periodic portraits of a group of sisters over the decades); repetition of motifs and compositions from art history (Jeff Wall’s rejiggerings of iconic paintings, Rineke Dijkstra’s classically posed portraits); collections of repetitions in imagery from the popular media (Peter Piller’s reordering of existing imagery into distinct categories); repetitions of the self (such as those by Cindy Sherman, Yasumasa Morimura, Tomoko Sawada, and Tseng Kwong-Chi); overlapping of repeated images (Idris Khan’s layerings of multiples); the reuse of existing imagery as seen in Sherrie Levine’s and Thomas Ruff’s appropriations; and representations of representations (Hiroshi Sugimoto’s wax figures, and Thomas Struth’s museum photographs).

The layers that form the practice of photography are themselves permeated by layers of repetition and multiplication. A chain of duplications begins with the process of taking a photograph, which is, in most cases, the duplication of something existing in “reality.” From this “copy,” which takes the form of a single negative, slide, or digital file, multiple prints can be made. The image represented in these prints, when considered within the scope of a photographer’s body of work, often functions as one of a series, or as one within multiple iterations of an artist’s themes and concerns. The image also contains within it the past history of images that have influenced its conception, and the future lines of influence yet to be formed. These threads of influence—the dialogue between artists and artistic concerns both within and outside of a particular era—weave through historical contexts and future possibilities, and imprint their influence, through variations, similarities, and resonances, on visual culture."