Pictures Worth at least a Thousand Words

Savannah Fetterolf, MA Candidate, Anthropology Dept. Columbia Univ.
Photographs speak for themselves, asking the viewer to pause for a moment and look at the immobilized subject. Instantaneously freezing a moment in time and documenting it as it is, photographs leave seemingly little room for the same type of temporal and physical alterations that occur during the processes of creating a painting or a sculpture, implying that a photograph is more realistic and true to the portrayal of an actual subject. However, photographs are not always documentary – photographers pose their subjects, manipulate the camera lens to zoom in and out, or edit the angle from which they shoot the picture. Despite these various ways of manipulating a subject, photographs can be altered to an even greater extent with modern tools such as digital imaging software which allows for the complete fabrication of images.
So, if photographs are not telling you exactly how life is or giving you all of the details about the scene they capture, what are they really saying? Few visitors to an art gallery would think to engage them in more than a brief “hello,” taking every word they utter as an absolute truth.
Only the third installation in the Joyce and Robert Menschel Hall for Modern Photography at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography” organized by Mia Fineman, Senior Research Associate in the Department of Photographs at the Met, consisted of 34 images and a few smaller works all of which were carefully selected from the museum’s permanent collection. Yet, without taking the time to really engage the photographs, the selection hung in the white-walled, high-ceilinged room did not appear to be significantly remarkable. Seemingly random and haphazard in their subject, the outstanding curation expanded the conversation with each image so that their intention was to invite visitors to participate in a dialogue about what was real and what was an illusion, not only about their aesthetic and compositional qualities.
Neither the open gallery space nor the narrative of the exhibit directed the viewer to move through the images in a particular order. The freedom to wander between soldiers trudging through a landscape and a house teetering on the edge of a mudslide was refreshing and indicated the overall cohesiveness of the exhibit and Fineman’s diligence in the project of opening up a dialogue. What was important in the exhibit, though, was to read the accompanying text beside each image since it detailed the ways in which the artist manipulated the subject of the photograph during the creation of the image. Through these panels, images became more than documentations of reality and reality became more than a given truth since it was subject to interpretation based on slippery, indefinable criteria. Ultimately, this collection of images encouraged people to talk about how each artist made conscious decisions in regards to every detail in their work, no matter how minute, when formulating the subject that they presented.
Robert Gober (American, b. 1954)
Untitled, 1999
Gelatin silver print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Purchase, The Horace W. Goldsmith Foundation Gift through Joyce and Robert Menschel, 2000 (2000.334.1)

The emerging reality from the dialogue between photograph and viewer was far more complex than initially met the eye. The black and white photograph “Untitled” by Robert Gober featured a mousetrap lying in a bed of ferns. Documenting this particular moment in the mousetrap’s existence is nothing extraordinary; however, something still appeared slightly odd about the photograph even though it was so apparently normal. The image might have been staged and not found naturally in this arrangement, but it was certainly real in the sense that all of the components exist in actuality. The longer one stared, the more uncomfortable one became with the image. Finally, it became obvious that the mousetrap was far too large when considered in terms of the scale of the surrounding ferns. What you actually had here, was a photograph of a human-sized trap amongst the ferns.
Implicit in the many conversations about the distinction between reality and illusion was a dialogue regarding the power that technology wields in manipulating our understanding of this increasingly unclear distinction.
Craig Kalpakjian (American, b. 1961)
Corridor, 1997
Silver dye bleach print
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, Gift of the artist, Sarah Wittenborn Miller, and Robert Miller, 1999 (1999.345)
Upon first glance, Craig Kalpakjian’s “Corridor” appeared to be an average, rather nondescript hallway in a modern office building. However, with the help of the text panel, visitors learned that this space never existed in three-dimensional reality, but was entirely manufactured using computer software and then turned into a digital image. Whereas Gober’s work featured real materials, Kalpakjian’s image was an illusion since it did not physically exist outside of this picture.
Although much newer than the majority of the pieces that call the two million square feet of the Met home, the inclusion of “Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography” fulfilled a historical role of art: it was engaging because it asked visitors to think and talk in addition to look.
“Reality Check: Truth and Illusion in Contemporary Photography” was at The Metropolitan Museum of Art, through March 22, 2009.