«Conceptual Review and Integrity of the Photographic Medium: the Case of Two Latin American Photographers» by Mathieu Corp. Professor of the Sorbonne Nouvelle


For a long time, the issue of registering reality on the image in photography has hidden behind its nature of evidence, based on the aesthetics of the photographic transparency. Thus, reality was interrogated on the basis of the indicative nature of the photographed objects, without a real conceptualization of the discursive possibilities of the photographic image.

The concern for the world as global concern for the state of the world seems to have become a general concern; the media headings show it unceasingly as well as the interest, and at times the alarm, of scientists. Rather than establishing the forms to conserve and care for the world, and beyond the pressing political attempts that aim at ensuring a quality of life in the world, artistic practices focus on discerning, on bringing out to light, the objects that make up the world and the interactions that inhabit it. The incarnation of those interactions in a distinctive way makes it possible to evidence tensions and understand the structure or framework of reality, proposing interrogations and at times underlying alternatives.

For a long time photography appeared as a privileged medium to observe and describe our daily environment. Therefore, the photographic images that show concern for the world seem to have exhausted their mobilization resources in the hieratic empathy they provoke. In the 1990’s the so-called humanitarian photography has not succeeded in creating a permanent mobilization, but has contributed to impose an iconography of paradoxical effect.

While this photography intended to foster reactions of rage, the formal registration of grief that has been created – particularly through the updating of a Christian religious iconography – has often diminished “the historical and political circumstances to some emblematic and ‘de-humanized’ figures”, when each human drama is a distinctive story”, as Michel Poivert recalls in his work entitled Contemporary Photography.[1] Today, those images show their incapability to reflect the tensions, contradictions and complexity of the mutations the world is submitted to.

            Photography’s vocation to show then seems incapable of revealing the complexity of reality and the tensions it contains. The use of the photographic means need to be reconceived

in order to produce semantically richer images beyond their immanent nature or plain indicative role. The expression of a concern for the world is conditioned to a concern for the photographic means in photographic practices. This consideration of the properties of the means is part of the photographer’s responsibility, because, as recalled by Hans Belting in his work entitled The Anthropology of Images: “The experience of the world is achieved through the experience of the images. But the experience of the images, in turn, is given by the experience of its media”. It is when the images in turn become world, i.e., when they achieve autonomy with regard to reality, that they can pretend to be the expression of a concern for the world.

            Since then, for a photographer, and beyond the division between documentary photography and conceptual (or plastic) photography, the concern for representation undoubtedly experiences a deconstruction of the traditional attributes of the photographic image. In this way, many contemporary photographers use deviated media to question photographic transparence and the discourses accompanying them. They work from the borders of the traditional photographic aesthetics based on mountings and collages that transgress, parody and transvestite reality to make their framework more evident with the purpose of deconstructing its ideological structure. To carry out this overthrow, those photographers have added to their references the imagery of mass media, advertising and the cinema, and deviate it for their benefit to show their limits and foster interrogations with less vernacular elements.

            Having analyzed two photographic works from the Latin American context, we will identify and analyze certain photographic operations as well as their possible rhetoric effects. We will try to demonstrate the critical and analytical virtues of such operations.

Adrián Fernández Milanés

The photographs presented by Cuban Adrián Fernández Milanés belong to a series entitled To be or to pretend and were made of objects taken from different interiors of houses in the neighborhood of Nuevo Vedado, in Havana. This was a rich neighborhood built prior to the Cuban revolution. In these images, the fragment – here the object, the trifle, the tapestry, the tablecloth – has been taken out of its context and recomposed in the studio where the photographer is doing the mounting. An aesthetic mounting of forms and colors, showing a different construction, this time ideological, of a faded imagery that nevertheless has live and artificial colors. The accumulation of forms, colors and textures is condensed to offer an aesthetic experience on the excess mode.

In these images we find the aesthetic attributes revealed by another Cuban, former actor and defender of the revolution, writer Alejo Carpentier, who wanted to see in the baroque nature of the Latin American environment the sign of a cultural affirmation based on an aesthetic mode. The utopia tumbles as soon as the veil lifts, and our glance reveals the plastic material of fruits and flowers of those compositions. The staging of those symbolical models of social status becomes almost pathetic and does not lead us to the real marvelous, as described by Carpentier, but to the disastrous situation of the Cuban economy. There is an attempt to maintain a certain fixed image of this old, elegant neighborhood of Havana with the artifices of a bourgeois class that is not even really bourgeois. In Cuba, property does not exist.[2] However, one must pay the State a rent for the assigned lodging. If the title of this series, To be or to pretend refers us directly to the idiosyncrasy of this social class whose staging is notorious, it also takes us back to the photographer’s concern for the medium and its attributes as well as to his reinterpretation of the notion of photographic transparency. In those images the discursive role is not fulfilled by photography, as customary, but by the wisely juxtaposed artifacts that recall their owners because of the implied relation, to create those compositions called portraits by the photographer.5

The staging of figurative elements makes it possible to compare references produced by the mounting that not only take us back to a particular context but also to the integrity of that context. The concern for the world is presented here as a concern for the return of the tensions and contradictions of that reality, that of a failed Cuban dream.

       Sometimes presented as conceptual or “plastic”[3], sometimes as documentaries, according to the approach of the discourse commenting on them, those photographs implicitly call the attention to a social, economic and political reality created by a metaphorically true fiction, using Nelson Goodman’s expression. Those images evidence that the notion of representation in photography is not restricted to a recording, to a take of reality based on the immanent nature of the photographic image. Making use of the formal possibilities of the photographic means, an image of this Cuban neighborhood is reincarnated in a distinctive photographic form with its own ethical and aesthetic coherence. It is true that in this series of photographs by Adrián Fernández Milanés we find the baroque nature as aesthetic symptom, highlighted by the accumulation of forms, colors and textures as examples, thus corresponding to a pre-established aesthetic category. However, this category has been destroyed by a mounting of symbolical references that disguises the stereotype of still life and of a distinctive bourgeois home. It is the density of the references that allows the ideological deconstruction, based on a maladjustment that becomes evident from their semantic poverty.

Luis Carlos Tovar

The work of Colombian Luis Carlos Tovar has been articulated around the relations established among human beings, objects and the landscape or environment. The articulation of those three elements in movement is supposed to structure the historical and physical memory of a place, and this memory would be shared by those three elements simultaneously. In the work presented here, an object is the pretext to start those relations: the Rimax chair, an ordinary element in the Colombian environment. Tovar toured the coasts of Colombia and voluntarily created traces of the chair on the sand and later photographed them. The metaphor of the photographic process evidenced by the trace is there to call our attention to the fact that they are constructed images, but most of all to the fact that the artifacts, both chair and photograph, inhabit and modify our interactions with our immediate surroundings. It is the intermediating levels that bring us back to our forms of appropriating the world.

Thus, the act of enunciating questions us about the responsibility of objects in the relations that human beings interweave with the world. Since the Rimax chair is no longer protected by a patent, Colombia has become one of the main world manufacturers of this object. The emergence and popularization of this chair relegated the work of artisans, cabinetmakers and chair makers. If the obsolescence of objects or languages – of pictograms, for example – is a means to interrogate the past, the memory of places and of those who inhabit them, it also makes it possible to interrogate the value of modernity in terms of rupture or continuity, of aesthetic and cultural identity. In the present case of the Colombian context, the heterogeneity of the objects and of their forms of use has been replaced by the homogeneity of the support in seated position. Indeed, this chair is already found everywhere: at the beach, in the churches, in private interiors, even in ministers’ meetings.

The concern for the world, its evolution and integrity once more is conditional here to a concern for the construction of the image preceded by a reflection on the photographic medium and the conditions of the enunciation, to prevent a candid assimilation of the image of reality. It is not its metonymy, either. The image creates a fiction thanks to a game of complex references articulated on several levels.

The first one becomes evident by the resemblance of those traces with pictograms. The geometrical lines and the curves that appear as engraved on the mineral reveal the archaeological and anthropological dimension of this work. The assimilation of those traces as pictograms takes us back to our forms of knowledge and way of appropriating the past through the sign language established by certain individuals to mold and conceptualize their relations to the world. Having identified the revealed artifice and the contemporary object with the origin of those traces, the construction of the revealed image evidences the act of enunciation as well as its temporality. It is thus that a second level of references may be discovered thanks to the banality and contemporariness of the object we are led to by the indicative role of the trace.

         Based on the evocation of our historical methods of knowledge, the photographer invites us to interrogate the status of this chair in the contemporary environment and its place in terms of evolution and innovation. Far from prescribing a judgment on the legitimacy or not of this object in the Colombian environment, the photographer asks the viewer about the role of objects in our appropriation process of the environment. Highlighting an interrogation based on a common object, the purpose is to expose the responsibility of artifacts in the processes of cultural transformations and in the creation of the ethical and aesthetic identity of a landscape, whether local or global. Since, as recalled by the great U.S. American artist Joseph Kosuth, quoted by Luis Carlos Tovar with regard to his installation from 1965 entitled One and Three Chairs: “The chair is not an essential idea or a crystallized concept; it is a starting point of negotiation for the senses”.



The group of selected photographs shows that contemporary photography has renounced to a realism based on photographic transparence without renouncing to a work on reality. The indicative nature of the photographic image is reconsidered on the basis of its initial acceptance. The descriptive act, allegedly registered in the nature of photography, is conceptually overflowed and reinterpreted on the basis of the rhetoric nature of the series and staging of symbolical references. From that moment on, the descriptive act is not restricted to show what it is, but works to bring out to light processes and futures, and, as declared by Michel Foucalt, “it is in this regard that the description should be made according to this kind of virtual fracture, which opens a space of freedom, understood as concrete space of freedom, i.e., of possible transformations”.[4] Fruit of the assimilation of group imagery and of a formal search, the photographers presented here have succeeded in ceasing to personify the exterior images inhabiting their immediate surroundings and give them a new form based on a photographic process whose form and aesthetics have been conceptually elaborated.

This type of image rejects the established fact of an equivalence between recording and giving testimony, and in opposition, is part of an artistic practice that wants to bring to light original chains of references with the purpose of promoting a new type of relation between the image and its real references. The concern for the world and the possibility of its being a motor for artistic activity reaches in that type of work a reconfiguration of the world through artistic practice. This reconfiguration is supported by a mechanism of incorporation and later of revelation of the invisible framework of reality; it does not have the value of a model or alternative, but promotes further questioning on the integrity of our forms of occupation and appropriation of the world.

[1] Michel Poivert, La photographie contemporaine, Paris, 2002, Flammarion, p. 53, our translation; original text: « les circonstances historiques et politiques à des figures emblématiques et «déshumanisées», quand chaque drame humain est une histoire singulière ».

[2] Apparently in November 2011 the situation might change, since Raúl Castro may open the way for the creation of a status allowing access to property.

[3] The expression “plastic photography” was created by French art critic Dominique Baqué in 1998 to describe those contemporary artistic productions that use photography. This expression has often been opposed to the so-called documentary photography. In the light of the works presented here, and according to this analysis, this opposition, as well as the fixed form of distinction is not very operative for the purpose of commenting on the object and scope of these works.

[4] Michel Foucault, «Structuralisme et poststructuralisme» ; entretien avec G. Raulet, Telos, vol. XVI, no 55, printemps 1983, pp. 195-211, dans Dits et Ecrits IV, 1994, Gallimard, Paris texte 330, our translation, original text: « c’est en ce sens que la description doit toujours être faite selon cette espèce de fracture virtuelle, qui ouvre un espace de liberté, entendue comme espace de liberté concrète, c’est-à-dire de transformations possibles ».


About the author:

Mathieu Corp. Paris 3 University, Sorbonne Nouvelle. Doctoral School 267, Arts & Media