Digital Mediations: Penelope Umbrico: Range: of Masters of Photography
Penelope Umbrico’s work is a complex study of digital technology’s effect on our relationship to and experience of photographs. The history of photography is punctuated with technological advancements that completely redefined the medium, none more so than the advent of smart phones and the internet. These technologies have made the once difficult task of creating and sharing nearly-flawless images easy and accessible at an unprecedented scale.
Interestingly, there are hundreds of smartphone apps designed to artificially emulate the very flaws they were designed to eliminate. In Range: of Masters of Photography, Penelope Umbrico uses these apps to reimagine images by 20th Century photographers, combining history and innovation to transform revered master works into malleable and infinitely reproducible source material. In an artistic canon that has long elevated the voices of men above women, I can appreciate the added irony of her choice in source material. Modernist photographers like Ansel Adams were famous for valuing technical perfection; they were also able to assert a sense of ownership by controlling the reproduction and dissemination of their photographs. In Range, Penelope Umbrico demonstrates those privileges no longer apply.
These appropriated images also share a singular subject: the mountain. A symbol of stability and site of orientation, this landmark becomes a metaphorical point of reference by which to measure the increasingly fluid and unpredictable nature of the photographic medium in the digital age. These master works are pristine images of pristine places. Penelope Umbrico’s work is neither. The uncharted territories in her technicolor photographs are both sites of liberation from the past and critical examinations of the future.
Range: of Masters of Photography
Range: of Masters of Photography considers an analog history of photography within the digital torrent that is its current technological manifestation. For this project I focus on iconic images of mountains in various online and print media such as Aperture’s Masters of Photography book series. I downloaded hundreds camera apps for my iPhone to re-photograph the masters’ mountains and process them through the multiple filters of the camera apps. Photo grain, dot-screen, pixel, and screen resolution collide performing undulating moirés. The hallucinogenic colors of the camera app filters blend with the disorienting effects of the iPhone’s gravity sensor to dislodge any perception of stability in the mountain, the master (most often gendered as male), or the photographic medium. In this work the mountain, the oldest landmark, site of orientation, and spiritual contemplation, becomes unstable, mobile, has no gravity, and changes with each iteration.
Central to this work is the overwhelming number of camera app filters that simulate the mistakes of analogue film photography. Light leaks and chemical burn filters are especially absurd in the context of both analog photography and smart-phone camera technology: ‘master’ photographers would never accept such mistakes in their work, and the impossibility of holes, gaps, spatial volume, or liquid chemical necessary to produce these effects, stands in complete opposition to the very apparatus simulating them. If light is the first and foremost element of all photography, the role of light in this context is inverted. These “leaks” are the result of an algorithm loaded into the vacuum of a chip, capable of producing nearly endless variations within the space of a few seconds.
Range: of Masters of Photography presents a dialogue between distance and proximity, limited and unlimited, the singular and the multiple, the fixed and the itinerant, the master and the copy. – Penelope Umbrico
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