The Nature of Photography / The Photography of Nature by Joan Fontcuberta, reviewed by Rory Duckhouse

Joan Fontcuberta is a Russian Cosmonaut, the founder of an archive containing many new species and an acclaimed international wildlife photographer. But above all he is an artist and elaborate hoaxer, his images reveal a false truth, the dichotomy of photography. Using photography as a symbol of power, he challenges disciplines that claim authority to the real – botany, topology and other scientific discourses. We rely on historical documents for authenticity, which is embedded within the museum function, so much so that if we witnessed these creatures in a museum setting, we might believe them to have existed. Each series challenges our belief in images and their role as a representational medium.

The book mimics a scientific journal or nature guide in appearance, both on the cover and in its contents. The book can be flipped and read both ways, in one direction we see The Photography of Nature, while from the other we read The Nature of Photography.

Presented in The Photography of Nature section are some of Fontcuberta’s most iconic works including Herbarium (1984), Fauna (1987), Constellations (1993), Sputnik (1997), Sirens (2000) & Orogenesis (2002). The pseudo-scientific display of the work allows us to suspend our disbelief in the photographs, enhanced by their display in the book, as if presented in a scientific magazine or journal. The texts enhance the fallacy, presented as informational fact about creatures unknown to science, accompanied with believable Latin names.

In the images we encounter a snake with legs, a monkey with wings and fantastical landscapes. At first glance we have no reason to doubt their believability, until the truth reveals itself through minor inaccuracies – such as the reappearance of Fontcuberta himself, in different guises. Through these tricks, the language of Fontcuberta’s photography is revealed. The landscapes are constructed through computer technology and images of previously undiscovered stars are just dust on a car windscreen. The works deal with photography and its assumed truth, examining our trust in the medium. Photographs can be made to tell a tale, to induce a trust in the eye of its viewer, we may not believe Mermaids ever existed but through their careful construction and put in a believable context of The National Geologic, a scientific magazine, our belief is tested. Used correctly, photographic truth can be manipulated.

It is only when the book is flipped over to reveal The Nature of Photography that the true nature of the artists works and the hoax is revealed. The pages are printed with a blue hue, revealing the blueprint of Fontcuberta’s language and working methods. Essays by Geoffrey Batchen and Jorge Wagensberg unpick the themes in the work, which are presented with displays of the work to weave together the artist’s oeuvre. The images of exhibitions reveal the full extent of the work in the context of museological display, something that isn’t always present in the images.

Joan Fontcuberta was the 33rd recipient of the Hasselblad Foundation International Award in Photography, and this book was created to mark the occasion. Therefore the audience may be aware of Fontcuberta’s work and its slippery nature, but this doesn’t diminish its message. Some of the works are 20+ years old, and through time the nature of photography may have changed but the message still rings true today. Our world is increasing saturated with images and their hold on us has not diminished, Fontcuberta’s work still represents the power of modern imagery.

A selection of Joan Fontcuberta’s books can be purchased here.

Rory Duckhouse is an artist and writer based in South Wales. Using found images, his work looks at how the photographic image shifts and mutates when dislocated from its original context. Rory graduated with an MA in Photography: Contemporary Dialogues from Swansea Metropolitan University, and now works as the exhibitions assistant for the Glynn Vivian Art Gallery, Swansea.


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