Joan Fontcuberta: The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography

Article main image
Joan Fontcuberta

Joan Fontcuberta is one of the most highly acclaimed international wildlife photographer” it says somewhere in The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography, so it’s got to be true. Just like the story about the fossils of mermaids at the end of which this sentence leads off the author’s bio. You might now be tempted to inject that mermaids don’t exist and never did. But Fontcuberta has pictures, and the article, convincingly written, makes a strong case in point. There are quite a few other things you didn’t know about in the book. There’s a early-evolution centaur, where you have a monkey instead of a human torso attached to a horse (any biologists reading this will please forgive my somewhat sloppy description). Or there’s Soviet cosmonaut Ivan Istochnikov, lost in space (along with his companion, a dog named Kloka).

Of course, pictures lie (or can be made to tell a tall tale). We all know that. If all Fontcuberta had ever done was to produce cleverly Photoshopped images of the aforementioned centaur, say, that would not be very interesting. That said, those people trying to sell us something with pictures (remember this or that?) might want to look at Fontcuberta’s work. What has struck me about all those cases that have recently made the news is how amateurish the fakery has been. In much the same way, I’m actually amazed that a photojournalist producing work like this isn’t laughed out of the room by his peers and/or news organizations. This picture isn’t really a fake. But when a news photograph looks like a still from a Hollywood movie, I’m tempted to think there’s a problem.

The reason why all those people should look at Fontcuberta’s work is because he’s testing the boundaries of photographic believability. It starts with the pictures, but it doesn’t end there. For a start, the images are all very well done, they’re very convincing. They follow the conventions of whatever context Fontcuberta wants to play with very closely. While we all now believe that pictures lie (I wrote it earlier) they actually don’t. The idea that photography lies is based on a complete misunderstanding of what photography actually is or does.  Photographs, by themselves, don’t do anything. They’re just photographs. But they can be made to tell a story or tall tale or outright lie when they are being placed in context, when they’re used to tell a story that might or might not be true.

And even if you believe that photographs do something, the idea that they lie is completely detached from how we look at them. The issue of the veracity of photographs depends very strongly on the context they’re used in – different contexts come with very different expectations. To pretend that the same rules apply for each and every context just doesn’t make any sense.

In his work, Fontcuberta has been exploring the mechanisms operating in different contexts in many different ways. The story about the mermaids is more than a set of pictures, for example. The pictures are made to look like the kinds of pictures you would see in an article in a very specific kind of magazine. In other words, Fontcuberta is very aware of context, of its rules, and, in particular, of the viewer’s expectations that come with that particular context. To come back to the heavily Photoshopped example of photojournalism I mentioned earlier: The main problem with this picture is not that it’s Photoshopped. The main problem is that its makers are unaware of (or not interested in) context – they don’t see a problem with a news photograph looking like a movie still.

In 2013, Fontcuberta was awarded the Hasselblad Award for his work. At the occasion of the award, The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography was produced, a selection of some of his work. It’s one of those book anyone interested in photography should have a look at. Writing about photography, photographic storytelling, context etc. can only do so much. In contrast, seeing all of that thinking applied is illuminating – and highly entertaining at the same time. Of course, it’s easy to say that one doesn’t believe in mermaids. But it’s quite another thing not starting to wonder whether there might not be something to the story after all… Used smartly, photography can be quite convincing.

Those who’ve just had it with books can get an electronic version.  I tried it on my iPad mini, and that didn’t seem to be the right device for it. I bought the iPad mini in part because I don’t like the clunkiness of the regular iPad. Its main drawback is that as far as I can tell everything is developed for the larger tablet, and things then simply scale down. I did enjoy the way the ebook was put together – comparing it with the actual book showed that a lot of thinking had gone into its making. But once I had the printed copy I never went back to it. Needless to say, that reflects my own preferences to a fairly large extent. On the other hand, the book itself is hard to compete with – it’s a very nice production, a single page of which is quite a bit larger than my iPad.

Whichever version you want might prefer, The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography is a book you definitely want to look at. Highly recommended.

The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography; photographs and text by Joan Fontcuberta; additional essays by Geoffrey Batchen and Jorge Wagensberg; 224 pages; MACK; 2013

Rating: Photography 4, Book Concept 3.5, Edit 3.5, Production 5 – Overall 4.1

Ratings explained here.