Fishing the Photo Stream: Penelope Umbrico's (photographs)

By Conor Risch

© Penelope Umbrico

In the years since the introduction of digital photography the number of images we produce and see has reached seemingly gargantuan levels, only to multiply again and again. Many, from artists to sociologists to cultural critics, have attempted to weigh the effect of this visual data and provide perspective on its significance for and about us as a society of makers and consumers of images.

Few people have parsed our visual culture with the esthetic and conceptual chops of Penelope Umbrico, who was recently awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship and whose monograph, (photographs), was published recently by Aperture.

In her work Umbrico often appropriates or rephotographs existing images and, by gathering and presenting them with titles that draw attention to the “contingent relationships between the photographs,” suggests ideas and, indeed, narratives about the photographs and photography that are far different from those intended by the photographer or the original publisher of the image.

For instance, in her most recognizable work to date, “Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr,” which she has exhibited more than 20 times, she takes images of sunsets posted by Flickr users, then crops, prints and presents them as a grid of hundreds of photographs. Each time Umbrico exhibits the work, which is ongoing, she adds to the title the current number of sunset photographs on Flickr, which is constantly increasing as new images are added and new users join the community.

“It’s a really collective practice,” Umbrico says of sunset photography. She notes that photographing a sunset is an act of optimism, which, she says, is also undermined by the lack of authorship: There is nothing original about the experience of photographing a sunset, or sharing that photograph on a social networking site.

Umbrico has also looked at the way books are used in interior design catalogue and marketing images, where they “function solely as props and retain only a vestige of their former lives as meaningful objects.” For “All the Embarrassing Books, 2007–10,” Umbrico re-photographed catalogue images in which books on bookcases were shown with their bindings away from the camera. “I was initially drawn to the backward-facing books for their emptiness of content and for their subservience to the decorative,” Umbrico writes in her book. “But I also like the implication that the books are embarrassing to their ‘owner.’”

In another series, “Image Collection: Beautiful Armoire—Perfect Condition, 2008–09,” Umbrico begins with an image of an armoire for sale in a catalogue. A series of photographs of similar armoires posted for sale on Craigslist follow. As the viewer looks through the series, the armoire photographs become more messy and cluttered, with the final images full of disorganized laundry or stacks of papers. “If the [catalogue] armoire allows you to feel like you might get your mess together. . .by the time you get to the end [of the series] you’re wondering what your armoire will do for you and also why people are putting their armoires up for sale like that because they’re so messy and revealing,” she says.

Another of the ideas present in the armoire series, and in other of Umbrico’s projects, is people’s “underlying need to communicate.” Umbrico draws much of her work from the context of the internet, where there is no one-on-one communication and a person’s identity is digital, not physical. “With the armoires, you’re saying you want to sell the armoire," she explains, "but you’re also putting [a photo of it] up with all this mess because you want to say something else without knowing it; you actually really have this deep need to show the tactile mess, to reveal yourself on a certain level that, in a way, is hard to do now.”

During Umbrico’s high school years, there was a brief public craze about “subliminal seduction,” she recalls. As a result, she and her friends “would pore over advertising images. . . . Since then I’ve always had this fascination with hidden messages.” While pursuing her MFA, Umbrico began making photographs.

Like other artists who have appropriated or re-photographed images as part of their practice, Umbrico has drawn criticism. (In her book’s appendix, she includes a conversation between Flickr users who were upset about her appropriation of their sunset images.) One critic called an early series of photographs that she purposefully threw out of focus “dumb photographs,” she recalls.

She armed herself with tools to address any insecurity she felt about other people’s criticisms. She titles work in a way that explains the work’s concept, and her ideas are rooted in photographic history and critical theory. She has also maintained a certain level of naïveté that she feels is common among artists. “I really needed to make this stuff,” she says. “It comes from a more organic, intuitive level of, ‘This is really interesting to me, I can’t help it, so I’m just going to do it.’”

Since her first solo show at ICP in 1992, Umbrico’s work has been widely exhibited, and she has also taught photography for the past 10 years at SVA, Bard—where she was chair of the photo MFA program for six years—and Harvard. “Teaching is a really big part of my life and part of my work,” she says. “Having to deconstruct other people’s work all the time really feeds my own sense of how I think about my own work.”

Umbrico started making photographs and using photography 22 years ago, she recalls, because it was “the easiest way to say the thing I want to say.” Now, she says, “I have this absolute reverence and love and fascination and respect and disrespect and critical relationship, and also just completely seductive relationship with all things photography.”

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