20th Century and Contemporary, Museums/Exhibits, Photography

Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage

You never see just one image when you study a work of art. With a portrait, you see the physical form of a human being; you can also guess at that person’s inner life by examining her expression or posture. You are also seeing a representation of the era in which the person lived and in which the piece was created. In Utopia/Dystopia: Construction and Destruction in Photography and Collage, one way in which Yasufumi Nakamori asks us to conceptualize the act of viewing art is by understanding that one image can transmit multiple ideas in a single moment—an “instantaneous flash.” He pulls this idea from Walter Benjamin, a cultural critic, who described a specific type of this experience as emerging from a “dialectical image.” The dialectical image occurs when “tensions between dialectical oppositions is greatest.” In this collection of photography and collages, more than one truth, and all contrasting, can be discovered in each work.

The artist has the ability to re-make images into something that they are not without detracting from their original sources. For example, the late 1960s and early 1970s, Martha Rosler created a series of photomontages, including Bringing the War Home: House Beautiful in which magazine pictures of women impeccably dressed while performing household chores are arranged over a Vietnamese runway. The women still retain elements from Life and Newsweek, the runway is still part of a warzone. It is odd to think of these women performing chores at the same time this runway might have been used to launch wartime aircrafts—and it is jarring to see them visually juxtaposed. Rosler uses a “dialectical framework” to highlight the differences between the two worlds from which the images originate, while at the same time allowing us to see something deeper: how isolated Americans were from the events so far away.

The idea that literally destroying one image to make another might in fact enhance it makes non-artistic photographic manipulation so much the stranger. The changes that Soviet authorities made to pictures went against certain principles of photography that were being developed in the twentieth century. Retouching was the “greatest innovation of Soviet photography” during the 1940s and 1950s. It was often used to erase undesirable people from photographs, and, as Graham Bader notes, its use would have sometimes reflected reality, with the erased figures already having been executed. The meaning of such a picture has been controlled in a way that limits interpretations and is only a representation of dystopia.

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