Review: Pandora’s Camera by Joan Fontcuberta

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Joan Fontcuberta is a bit of an unusual photographic artist. His approach is rooted in conceptualism. But unlike most conceptual photographic artists who all-too-often produce work that mostly speaks to their own circles (plus to museum curators), Fontcuberta applies his thinking to what we see around us, the photography that we might engage with on a daily basis. Often, there is a fair amount of humour mixed in, humour not intended to mock, but to make us enjoy having been taken for the fools we are believing in photography. A recent publication by MACK entitled The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography provides a wonderful overview of the Fontcuberta universe (find my review of the book here; note that there also is an electronic version of the book).

The frequent noises by many theorists notwithstanding, not only do we firmly believe in photography, we also cling to a lot of strange thoughts about the medium. This is a fertile breeding ground for articles about the medium’s crisis and/or shortcomings. It’s also where Fontcuberta walks around, picking up little things to turn into visual wonders. And it works. I have shown students examples of his work – let’s say the fossilized mermaids, with the immediate result usually being an incredulous “is this for real?” before the realization sets in that, oh yes, we’re in class, so it can’t be (or can it?).

With Pandora’s Camera Fontcuberta now reveals the thinking behind his work. A collection of essays about photography, the book is a most welcome addition to the growing canon of writing about the medium in English (the original Spanish language version was published in 2010). You wouldn’t necessarily know it from the titles of the individual essays, but the book addresses many of the topics that have frequently been discussed over the past few years.

The Mystery of the Missing Nipple, for example, talks both about the Photoshopping of celebrities and digital manipulations in photojournalism. And Fontcuberta is not afraid to pull any punches. Addressing the use of manipulated pictures in a news context (this includes strategically cropped), he writes “The hypocrisy in all this is that editors rend their garments and wave codes of ethics in the air when these things are done by photographers, but are perfectly happy to permit and justify them when they coincide with the institutional or corporate interests of their papers.” (p. 140)

Most people are probably familiar with a lot of the various hot topics and/or scandals we have been dealing with in photography over the past few years. Fontcuberta’s contributions to these are refreshing in that they work with the medium we have, not the one we think we have or want. But Pandora’s Camera contains a lot more. Various essays deal with topics I have not seen discussed much before. Just to give one example, Eugenics Without Borders chronicles how historically, photography was used to categorize people, with attempts to infer their characters (incl. their possible criminal intent) from their features, and it connects these historical examples with contemporary work around identity and the role of the portrait.

As a writer, Fontcuberta is quite the raconteur, adding considerable charm and lightness to his essays without ever losing sight of the points that he needs to make. I Knew the Spice Girls does indeed mention the singers (talking about his daughter, Fontcuberta notes “just think: she survived her premature birth only to turn into a fan of the Spice Girls!” [p. 57f.]), but it uses a digital template of theirs, found in a London photobooth, to discuss the possible changes in photography brought about by the change from analog technology to the digital one, arriving at “There are photographers who enthuse about digital technology because it means their work no longer depends on luck, but we can turn this argument around: the unconscious that the Surrealists valued in the gaze of the camera is neutralised by too much control and rationality. […] only time and experience will reveal the collateral damage and let us see what we have lost.” (p. 63)

There appear to be two major strands of thinking around photography. One has completely bought into the talking points coming out of Silicon Valley, hyping the (supposed) promises of digital technologies and “social media.” The other, opposing one laments all that is already lost and attempts to cling to whatever is still with us that might get lost soon enough. Thankfully, Fontcuberta is open to listening to both sides, taking what appears to be valuable and putting it to the test. Pandora’s Camera does not uncritically embrace all that is new, yet at the same time it acknowledges the expansion and enrichment the medium photography has experienced over the past few years.

This approach mirrors the artist’s work with photographs: take everything at face value, and then let’s see where this gets us. At the end of the day, photography tells us more about ourselves than we imagine. Thinking and/or writing about photography has less to do with the medium and its inherent properties and more with trying to understand our own reactions to it. For anyone seriously interested in photography, Pandora’s Camera is required reading.