Backdrop

Vol. 3, no. 2

“Advertising images and marketing discourses constantly invoke desires that render the most banal objects desirable to us.”

— Janaki Somaiya

Editorial

Throughout its relatively short cultural history, photographer’s studio backdrop has, alongside different props, served as a creative and imaginary place of wish fulfilment, aspirations or nostalgic longing. It has created and followed pictorial conventions, and at the same time broken with them. Lastly, in the digital age it has evolved into the ever and instantly changing backscreen in which the frivolous creativity seems to be unleashed in its fullness. Regardless of its form – either as a part of a fancy 19th century attic studio, characterless shopping mall cubicle, a makeshift setup in student admission office or as the portable backdrop of a street peddler portraitist – photographer’s backdrop  is first and foremost a place of exchange of mastery of technique, desires, conventions and money. Guided by the wish it is a reproduction of prevailing social norms and conventions, or a temporary shelter from them. Even today there seems to be a certain charm in the sociability and ritualistic nature of old photographer’s studio backdrop practices. Not only that – backdrop always served as a background, a frame, an ideological grid – artistic and scientific – on which the object of interest, desire or investigation itself was superimposed, thus delineating, exposing, accentuating its features.

Articles

Reading time: 20 minutes
All the more shall this become a memory of the time you and your mother stood on a countryside road amid the agave fields and with the mountain range of Oaxaca in the background on one of countless journeys...

This essay traces the resurrection of the fotoescultura, a three-dimensional photographic portrait popular in rural Mexico in the early 20th century, as interpreted in recent works by Performing Pictures, a contemporary Swedish artist duo. The early fotoesculturas were an augmented form of portraiture, commissioned by family members who supplied photographs that artisans in Mexico City converted into framed sculptural portraits for display on family altars. We compare these »traditional« photographic objects with “new” digital forms of video animation on screen and in the public space that characterize Performing Pictures work, and explore how the fotoescultura inspired new incarnations of their series Men that Fall. At the intersection between the material aspects of a “traditional” vernacular art form and “new” media art, we identify a photographic aesthetic that shifts from seeing and perceiving to physical engagement, and discuss how the frame and its parergon augment the photographic gaze. The essay is accompanied by photos and video stills from Performing Pictures’ film poem Dreaming the Memories of Now (2018), depicting their work with the fotoesculturas.

Reading time: 16 minutes
Advertising images and marketing discourses constantly invoke desires that render the most banal objects desirable to us.

A commonly held assumption about social media is that because users create their own content such as images, videos and so on and thereby their own representations, social media are largely free from any ideological dispositions imposed from above. Creating images is a discursive practice, mediated by a myriad of social and cultural influences that we encounter in our everyday lives. Like in any other form of communication, certain image sharing practices become more dominant, where they intersect with a range of connotative meanings and their ideological dimensions. Within our current conjuncture of global consumerist capitalism, the dominant cultural order is that of maximizing enjoyment through consumption. This essay puts forth a semiotic reading of a cross-section of travel images shared by users on Instagram to explicate the relationship between travel photography, enjoyment as an ideology and capitalism. It is argued that to travel is not just an activity but it is a commodity that is consumed by us and sold to us by the tourism industry. Contradictions of life under global capitalism remain, with growing inequalities, precarious working conditions, casual job contracts and meagre pays. Material enjoyment remains illusory for many, while the ideological inducements to enjoy finds its outlet in the images we share. When shared on social media for the gaze and ‘likes’ of the viewers, our travel images are not just memoirs of a journey undertaken but also an affirmation of our enjoyment. For the viewers of these images, the enjoyment of others pertaining to consumption is to be envied or held up to an ideal against which the viewers may imagine their own enjoyment. Capitalism demands enjoyment in the form of consumption, and those who cannot enjoy, are ‘free’ to fantasize about such enjoyment in the future. While ‘free’ is the buzzword under neoliberal global capitalism, enjoyment is that kernel that underpins and sustains its ideology.

Interviews

Reading time: 12 minutes
Studios seem to be transformative places where people could act out new forms of identity in advance of society.

The conversation between the two researches revolves around the central question of backdrop, its meaning, position inside the studio practices. It delves into the performative aspect of backdrop photography putting it in proximity with theatre and cinema, question its nature as a prop in the process of staging an image. The question seem to be how can photography as a general practice can be understood and its theoretical notions enriched through research into rich backdrop practices (in case of Pinney and Fevero mostly in India and surrounding region) and how can we explain those practice via the established theoretical cannons. The conversation negotiates through main notions of authors such as Michael Fried, John Tagg, illuminates on usually neglected nuances of Barthes Camera Lucida to finally elaborate the profilmic nature of backdrop photography and its representative role of the society in which it functions. What kind of politics of space does it represent; is it transformative or representative? What is the meaning of the notion of the prophetic nature of photography?

Reading time: 11 minutes
The problem is that photography is very glamorous and people think it is a shortcut to produce work.

Martin Parr (1952) is considered to be one of the most iconic and influential photographers of his generation. Parr, whom obtained a photography degree at Manchester Polytechnic (1970–1973), joined the classics of British documentary photography with a series of black and white photographs of the disappearing folk customs of Northern England. In the 80s he managed to make his breakthrough to the global photography scene (and market). At that time, impressed by American colour photography, he took on photographing on colour film himself. He made The Last Resort (1983–1985), a series of British working class while spending holidays in a coastal resort in New Brighton, which remains one of his most recognizable work to this day. After its first presentation in the Serpentine Gallery in London in 1986, the project triggered turbulence and division of opinions of both professionals and general public. Polarization of opinions became a constant in Parr’s photography career. The polemics he caused by first becoming a member (1994) and then the president of Magnum Photos (2013–2017) are well known. The critics castigated Parr for being cruel and voyeuristic, and that he claimed to only be photographing what he sees, while he benefited from making a mockery of others. His unconventional use of the medium, smooth traversing through different contexts of photography and flirting with obvious commercial interests was deemed controversial and questionable by many (until today).

Reviews

Reading time: 4 minutes
The focus of the viewer shifts from the nakedness of the documentation to his or her own relationship with the space.

Urška Savič (1992) is a critic and journalist active in the fields of visual arts and cultural politics, working also as a photographer and radio artist. She finished her BA in photography at FAMU (Prague, 2014) on the topic of collage and photo-montage and is in the process finalizing her master thesis at the Department of Sculpture at ALUO (Ljubljana), focusing on archiving practices in contemporary art. She was a residency artist at the Centre for Digital Arts in Holon, Israel (2015), and did an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy (2015). Since 2017, she is an active participant of the cultural redaction at Radio Študent, one of Europe’s oldest and strongest non-commercial, alternative radio stations. There, she has been a curator of an open radio (art-theory) research platform R A D A R since 2019.

Reading time: 4 minutes
Lee addresses the archiving of history in museums as a practice that establishes itself as more important than the actual preservation of certain areas, people and ways of life in the present moment.

Urška Savič (1992) is a critic and journalist active in the fields of visual arts and cultural politics, working also as a photographer and radio artist. She finished her BA in photography at FAMU (Prague, 2014) on the topic of collage and photo-montage and is in the process finalizing her master thesis at the Department of Sculpture at ALUO (Ljubljana), focusing on archiving practices in contemporary art. She was a residency artist at the Centre for Digital Arts in Holon, Israel (2015), and did an internship at the Peggy Guggenheim Museum in Venice, Italy (2015). Since 2017, she is an active participant of the cultural redaction at Radio Študent, one of Europe’s oldest and strongest non-commercial, alternative radio stations. There, she has been a curator of an open radio (art-theory) research platform R A D A R since 2019.

Projects

In this project, BIND collaborates with photo.circle to explore the relationship between memories of the locals and the city of Kathmandu.
Photo Studio is as much a story about photography in the age of selfies as it is about contemporary life and attachments.

Featured

Impressum

MEMBRANA 5 / 2018 • ISSN 2463-8501

publisher: Membrana, Maurerjeva 8, 1000 Ljubljana • tel.: +386 (0) 31 777 959 • email: info@membrana.org
editors: Jan Babnik (editor-in-chief), Ilija T. Tomanić
editorial board: Mark Curran (Dublin Institute of Technology, Ireland; Freie Universität Berlin, Germany), Ana Peraica (independent researcher, educator, Croatia), Witold Kanicki (UAP Poznań, Poland), Miha Colner (International Centre for Graphic Arts, MGLC, Ljubljana, Slovenia), Lenart Kučić (independent journalist, Pod črto, Slovenia), Emina Djukić (University of Ljubljana, Slovenia), Jasna Jernejšek (independent researcher, curator, Slovenia), Asko Lehmuskallio (University of Tampere, Finland), Devon Schiller (independent researcher, USA), Robert Hariman (Northwestern University, USA) • advisory board: Alisha Sett, Andreia Alves de Oliveira, Iza Pevec, Matej Sitar
article contributors: Karin Becker, Geska Helena Brečević, Jasna Jernejšek, Martin Parr, Ana Peraica, Emina Djukić, Christopher Pinney, Paolo SH Favéro, Lukas Birk, Iza Pevec, Caroline Molloy, Janaki Somaiya, Helena Vogelsang, Urška Savič
translations: Tom Smith • proofreading: Tom Smith, Anja Kos
image & projects contributors: BIND Collective, Hrair Sarkissian, Martin Parr, Lukas Birk, Christopher Pinney, Naresh Bhatia, Ketaki Sheth, Caroline Molloy, Samsul Alam Helal, Janaki Somaiya, Daesung Lee, Noémie Goudal, Olja Triaška Stefanovič, Borut Peterlin, Dragan Arrigler, Josip Pelikan
design: Primož Pislak
printing: Cicero • print-run: 400

all images and texts © Membrana, except when noted otherwise • editorial photograph: Samsul Alam, from the series Love Studio, 2010–2015 • last page photo from: part of a backdrop, Icon Studio, Numawongo Market II, Bukasa Parish, Kampala, Uganda (photographers Tim Prince in Eddy Tumwine), 2014. Photograph by: Jan Babnik.

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