Experiments in Photographic Manipulation

Shoji Ueda: A Fresh Look at a Photographic Outsider

IMA, Vol. 14, Winter 2015

From the impressionistic effects employed by the pictorialists, through Alexander Rodchenko’s graphic collages or the photograms of modernists like Man Ray, to Daido Moriyama and Takuma Nakahira’s efforts to push photography to its very limits, experiments with manipulated photographs have consistently played a major role in pushing the medium in new directions. In fact, the very act of taking a photograph is arguably a manipulation in itself, whether in the position of the photographer in relation to the subject, the choice of which elements to include or exclude from the composition, or even the choice of photographic equipment.

And yet, photography has never been fully comfortable in its association with manipulation. In the second half of the twentieth century, as the medium became primarily defined as a tool of documentation, it gained a neutral, objective, even scientific aura. This conception makes little room for manipulation: instead it became perceived as a perversion of photography in its so-called “pure” form. 

Photography’s massive shift away from film-based techniques towards digital technologies brought the question of manipulation back to the fore. With the arrival of Photoshop a seemingly infinite number of possible manipulations were placed at every photographer’s fingertips. Despite the program’s massive success, the unease grew stronger than ever. For many, Photoshop became a dirty word, a suggestion that the photographer was cheating or somehow misleading the viewer. Practices of manipulation continued, but they were conducted as a subterfuge—hidden from the viewer in order to present a final, seemingly “untouched” image.

For a time it seemed that the photography world was divided into two camps, those purists who swore by analogue techniques, rejecting digital photography and its perceived trickery and those who saw these new technologies as opening doors that traditional photographic approaches were unable to reach. Much of the debate on the future of photography seemed to centre on this opposition.

For an emerging generation of artists this world of photographic dichotomies—the separation between analog and digital photography or between “pure” and manipulated images—has grown tiresome. Instead of choosing a camp, these artists are comfortable navigating between these two worlds and often placing manipulation back at the heart of their process.

Eileen Quinlan,  Chore Boy , 2011-2013

Eileen Quinlan, Chore Boy, 2011-2013

Artists like Eileen Quinlan and Antony Cairns, both trained in darkroom techniques, continue to work in this realm, using chemical rather than digital manipulations. For her series Curtains, Quinlan combined corrosion (degrading her negatives through chemical) and abrasion (using steel wool to scratch the film’s surface). By stripping her images of their original subject, Quinlan’s studio-based images can be seen as documentations of the photographic process itself, revealing its many layers and inviting us to question how images are constructed.

Cairns focuses on the city of London by night, creating his images through solarisation, multiple rounds of development, or by printing on metallic surfaces. Rather than deconstructing the photographic process, Cairns’ interventions are designed to reflect the character of his chosen subject in the final image—cold, dark, empty, even brutal.

Los Angeles-based Matthew Brandt works with early photographic processes, developing techniques that have allowed him to inject physical elements of his subjects into his photographs. For the series Dust, Brandt reproduced archival images of demolitions in New York by collecting dust at the modern-day sites and using it as the pigment for gum bichromate prints—an invitation to reflect on the relationship between a photograph and the “reality” it depicts. 

Matthew Brandt, Gum Bichromate print with dust swept from AT&T Building courtyard

Matthew Brandt, Gum Bichromate print with dust swept from AT&T Building courtyard

Daisuke Yokota’s work is an interesting example of the shift in thinking that is embodied by this new generation. Yokota first came to attention with images involving a multi-layered process of rephotography that combined both film and digital photography in a process that transforms the image by stripping information from it. Yokota’s work seems driven by a desire to move away from the incorporeal quality of the image on screen into the realm of materiality. He has been particular active in this area, experimenting both with installations and handmade books to create new forms of photographic objects.

That sense of materiality is also present in Danish photographer Asger Carlsen’s grotesque Photoshop sculptures. Carlsen’s uncanny images distort the human form beyond recognition while also using the language of seemingly casual black-and-white photography to make us question whether they might just be real.

While these artists use manipulation in radically different ways, their work seems driven by a shared intention to definitively put the illusion of photography as a neutral documentary device to the sword and thereby broaden our notion of what a photograph can be. 

By Marc Feustel

For many years Shōji Ueda was one of the most well-loved Japanese photographers in Europe. He exhibited twice at the Rencontres d’Arles festival, at the Photokina fair in Cologne, and after his death a major retrospective of his work was organized by the Musée de l’Elysée in Lausanne, which toured to Spain and France. In recent years this visibility has waned somewhat, but a new book released by the small press Chose Commune will introduce Ueda to a new audience and provide a fresh perspective on his work. 

Born on 27 March 1913 in what has become Sakaiminato City in the prefecture of Tottori, Ueda remained profoundly attached to his remote native region, living and working throughout his life. Located along the coast of the Sea of Japan in the Chugoku region, Tottori is known for its sand dunes, a geographical feature which would become central in Ueda’s practice.

After studying at the Oriental School of Photography in Tokyo in 1932, Ueda returned to his hometown where he opened a photographic studio. It was alongside this professional photographic practice that Ueda began to create personal work.

At the time, Japanese photography was in transition, moving away from pictorialism towards new avant-garde modes of photographic expression. While Ueda’s first images seem influenced by pictorialism and its links with painting—he had dreamed of becoming a painter—after encountering the work of avant-garde European photographers including Man Ray and André Kertész in the Modern Photography special issue of the magazine The Studio, Ueda found himself inspired by the spirit of experimentation that characterized their work.

It was during this period that Ueda happened upon what would become one of the central elements throughout the rest of his career. He produced a series of photographs in the sand dunes of Tottori prefecture for the magazine Camera. The landscapes of these dunes went on to become one of Ueda’s favoured photographic playgrounds.

Although he owned a studio for his professional activities, Ueda’s personal work was almost always taken outdoors. In fact Ueda saw the sand dunes of Tottori as a form of studio for his personal work, claiming that “there is no better backdrop because the horizon stretches out infinitely. I would say that the dune is a landscape that is almost naturally photographic.” With the sand dunes as a neutral background, Ueda used those people around him (often friends and family members) and simple objects (an umbrella, a bowler hat) to create a series of minimalist but striking compositions that make great use of space and upend the viewer’s sense of perspective. He continued to use these dunes throughout his career and they have become his photographic trademark.

However, despite the striking nature of these images, a broader look at Ueda’s work reveals a far more diverse range of projects. This is made apparent in the new trilingual (English, French and Japanese) monograph of Ueda’s work published by Chose Commune, a new independent publishing house founded by the French duo Vasantha Yogananthan and Cécile Poimboeuf-Koizumi.

Rather than taking a traditional retrospective approach, Yogananthan and Poimboeuf-Koizumi were driven by the storytelling possibilities of Ueda’s work. This is brought to the fore through the edit, which mixes styles and periods, and also with the text commissioned from the Japanese writer Toshiyuki Horie, a short piece of fiction that responds directly to the photographic sequence in the book.

Chose Commune’s monograph, Shōji Ueda, makes the bold decision to cast aside Ueda’s sand dune imagery (with the exception of a single photograph) in order to highlight some of the lesser-known aspects of his work. While the book consists principally of black-and-white images taken throughout his career, unlike his sand dune photographs, these are mostly unposed: fragments of daily life collected over the course of several decades in a remote rural area of Japan that remained largely unchanged. It also weaves in his colour work from the 1980s and 1990s—a surprising turn for an artist whose black-and-white style (known as Ueda-cho) was so celebrated. A number of his multiple exposure colour still-lifes punctuate the book’s sequence, and the book ends entirely in colour with a series of soft tone landscapes known as Brilliant Scenes. Combining no less than six photographic formats, this monograph reveals Ueda to be a uniquely inventive artist who always remained open to experimentation.

This latest book of Ueda’s work is a welcome reminder of the breadth of Ueda’s talent. While the poetic, dream-like qualities that are so often mentioned in relation to Ueda remain evident, this project is a striking illustration of his inventiveness and fondness for experimentation, a lesser recognized aspect of his practice but one which stems back to his first encounter with the European avant-garde of the 1930s. Ueda’s ability to stand outside the powerful photographic trends of his time is remarkable. His decision to remain so loyal to his native region, far from the photography epicentre of Tokyo, may have enabled him to focus on his own ideas, but it never curtailed his ability to evolve. 

By Marc Feustel