Contemporary Photography at the Haggerty through May 22nd: “The Truth is Not in the Mirror”

Valerie Berlin, Untitled # 06070305, 2006

I asked Hans Gindlesberger, Adjunct Assistant Professor of Photography at University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee to visit The Truth is Not a Mirror: Photography and a Constructed Identity at the Haggerty Museum at Marquette University with me because I wanted to see the show through the eyes of a photographer. Don’t let the heady title of this show put you off. It’s a stunning show, full of gorgeous contemporary photography.

The message of the show is that you can’t believe what you see in a mirror (a mirror being like a photograph) and that identity is as much performed in life as it is in art. This idea comes through in works by Graham Miller (above), an artist who stages scenes that read like reality. It isn’t always this easy though to see how the “truth is not in the mirror” or how “identity is a construction” in other works in the show, and that is one of the reasons it is so interesting. How is a photograph like a mirror and how does the way one looks reflect their identity? 

Alec Soth, Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana, 2000

Gindlesberger and I pushed this question around as we looked at photographs from Alex Soth’s  Sleeping by the Mississippi series. Looking at Adelyn, Ash Wednesday, New Orleans, Louisiana (2000), a melancholy image showing a woman with florescent red hair gazing toward the sky, a cross of ashes smeared across her forehead, I wonder how a work like this reflects the idea of constructed or fluctuating identity. To me it looks like it is trying to portray the “real” Adelyn,” the authentic person.

Below are portions of our conversation.

Patricia Briggs: Soth’s photographs seems to be straight-forward documentary. Doesn’t his work suggest that truth is in the mirror? 

Hans Gindlesberger: When Soth talks about his work he stresses that his photographs present only a portion of the scene that he sees through the frame of the viewfinder of his large format camera. We don’t see the peripheral environment which shapes the attitude of the person being photographed, which is also, of course, informed by the relationship he has to his subject at the moment the picture is taken.

PB: This still seems like truth, right? 

HG: Yes, well it’s about the person in this particular context at this moment in time, which is not stable and is always changing. Soth showed another image of this woman when he presented his talk at the Haggerty. He went back and found this woman and photographed her again.  That follow-up photograph conjured nothing of what we see here. It doesn’t physically resemble the woman shown in this photo. Her demeanor and physical appearance in the second picture is totally different. I would not have recognized her as the same person. It is true that these people looked the way they looked at the moment Soth shot their pictures, but these images don’t tell the truth about these people–they are only excerpts of that larger moment or experience.

Alec Soth, Patrick, Palm Sunday, Baton Rouge, Louisiana, 2002

Thomas Ruff, Untitled (Anna Giese), 1989

PB: Unlike Soth who often shows people holding things or situated in the context of their lives, Thomas Ruff removes everything except the person’s face. Doesn’t the “objective” style we see in Untitled (Anna Giese) 1989 suggest that the truth is in the mirror/photograph?

HG: It’s more complicated than that. When I was a student I learned about contemporary photography in slide lectures where everything the teacher showed was the same size. Large prints were smaller than they really are in life and small prints were larger. When I saw Ruff’s work exhibited for the first time I was amazed by how much I could see. Because the prints in this series are so large, 80 x 62 inches, the degree of detail allows us to see things that we usually miss; here we can see the contact lenses Ruff’s subject is wearing.

PB: Yes, I see the little freckles and pours on her face and a little blot of makeup covering a blemish on her chin. Yuck.

HG:  Ruff is playing on the core thing that cameras do–they present an index of the object. These are pretty direct confrontations between the photographer and the subject unlike the manipulated images we see in other works in the show (like Valerie Berlin or Kelli Connell’s work which use Photoshop and other software in obvious ways to manipulate the image). Ruff uses the same template again and again, shooting portrait after portrait in the same way, and in a way he presents the same thing over and over again.

Yet, even though the photographs look bureaucratic, like a picture on a driver’s license, they amplify all the strange flaws and individuality of the person depicted. They show us how these people put themselves together, how they image themselves for others.

PB: So, instead of offering a photograph as a mirror of the truth, Ruff’s photo Untitled (Anna Giese) tracks choices the subject made in her self-presentation, her contact lenses, her attempts to cover a blemish, etc. Interesting.

Rineke Dijkstra, Tiergarten, Berlin, August 10, 2000 (Kora) 2000

Rineke Dijkstra, Tiergarten Berlin, August 10, 2003 (Kora) 2003

PB: I was thrilled to see photographs by Rineke Dijkstra in this show. She is so difficult to get because she shoots such straight-on, seemingly documentary shots, but her work is always so dreamy and poetic. I honestly don’t understand how she does this.

HG: I agree, I think that if you were to read a proposal about this they would seem flat and boring but they aren’t that way at all. I’m transfixed by Dijkstra’s work, especially images like these where she revisits the same subject over time.

PB: I didn’t realize that these two photographs depict the same person: Tiergarten, Berlin, August 10, 2000 (Kora) 2000 and Tiergarten Berlin, August 10, 2003 (Kora) 2003. That gives me goose bumps.

HG: She sets up a dialogue between the two images because we can’t help but think about everything that happened in the interval between. In the photograph shot in 2000, where the girl is about eleven years old, it seems like every day is a new threshold to cross and it’s like we can see that in the photograph.

PB: Do you think that she is coaching her subjects in some way, styling them? I feel so convinced of humanity’s fragile nature when I look at her portraits that I think Dijkstra must be consciously constructing this story in the image. Is she really presenting a snippet of reality or I am projecting all these meanings about childhood and adolescence and transformation and humanity onto them?

HG. Well…I think it is definitely not the truth [laughter], but it is a possible. The “reality” of photography changes for every generation. I wonder if the sense of reality we read in Dijkstra’s work will still be there for those coming up behind us. My students are very aware of how any photograph is constructed. Using a camera they are very adept at constructing or manipulating meaning.

PB: We all know now it seems that any photograph is constructed–the photographer chooses the point of view, lighting, angle, frame editing, etc. 


Jason Florio, Abdou Ndong, Gambian fisherman with a rescued crocodile, Kombo Central, The Gambia, West Africa (artist born 1965)

HG: When we arrived you said that the show was great because it presents so much major work of the last twenty years. Yet these Jason Florio photographs shot in Gambia surprised me and really stuck with me. Unlike so much of the work here–which is pretty familiar to me–these were new to me.

PB: Funny, I walked right by these because my politically correct self read them as colonialist, as white European representations of exotic “native” others.  Of course, these images are gorgeous and the one showing a Gambian fisherman with a rescued crocodile presents a view of life and nature that is remarkable.

HG: I kept coming back to these images. Florio does some interesting things formally in the way he shoots, by using a scrim hung just behind the figures to collapse the environment into an image. In one of these we can see someone holding the scrim up at the very edge of the photograph.

Jason Florio, Moudon Bah, Gambian Village Chief, Kombo Central, The Gambia, West Africa

PB: Florio’s photographs of these Gambian people are visually outstanding, but I am not sure how I should read or understand them. That makes them more interesting in a way.

HG: They picture a place in the world I have never been that I only ever see through other images. The meaning of these images is an accumulation of all those other images. Unlike the rest of the works in the show, these take me to an unfamiliar place and this may be one of the reasons I am attracted to them. This photographer offers something I don’t now.  It takes me somewhere new.

Claire Beckett, Civilian Krista Galyean playing the role of an American Marine injured in an IED blast, Wadi Al-Sahara, Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center, CA, 2008 from “Simulating Iraq” series

This happens for me too with Claire Beckett’s photographs of simulated environments from the Iraq and Afghanistan wars. She got access to American military training exercises where war scenarios and battles zones are reconstructed for soldier training, like the reconstructions of Osama bin Laden’s compound where the Navy Seals practiced before their mission.

PB: I didn’t see that at first. One image shows a white American soldier dressed as an insurgent wearing a graduation gown or a bathrobe, holding a high-powered rifle, another shows an American civilian playing a marine with an arm blown off by an IED. 

HG: I’m impressed that Beckett got access to go to these places and that she sends these back to us. In early photography the camera went to exotic places. Today, this is a place that I can’t go.

Looking at this photograph of an American kid dressed up like an Iraqi insurgent, it’s hard to pick apart the authentic from the fabrication or to pick these out from the hybrid formed in the image, which plays a part in this real training mission.  Once they have been fused it’s hard to get them apart again.

PB: Is this part of a new American imagination or identity, one that has been militarized in an age of terrorism? 

HG: Well, it is interesting to think about photography and the military. Photographs were used to fabricate bin Laden’s compound, for example. There was so much debate about whether or not to release a photograph of bin Laden dead, and Obama has decided not to release it at all.   It used to be that photographs could be used as evidence.

About Patricia Briggs
Patricia Briggs is the director of galleries and curator of exhibitions at Jamestown Community College in Western New York. She writes the blog "Scene Unseen: Viewing Notes" about visual art in her community.

6 Responses to Contemporary Photography at the Haggerty through May 22nd: “The Truth is Not in the Mirror”

  1. jerry belland says:

    i gotta see this exibit. I really like the premise.

  2. Anna says:

    This made me wonder whether every photo ever taken was a constructed identity. At first I thought it was not, because when scientist takes a picture of plankton, it seems to be just a record of the truth–a mirror. Then I corrected myself by thinking that as soon as a photo is taken, it is a construct. Life is not photos. It does not stop for inspection like a photo forces it to do.

    • It seems so counter intuitive Anna but it is good to think about how every photo is constructed, what is it trying to say and to whom. This yields pretty interesting thinking I have found.

  3. Mark says:

    if the truth isn’t there, are the objects at least closer than they appear?

  4. Vivi Hua says:

    I’ve looked these type of works before, maybe a famous artist but i missed name, it’s nice, and the meaning inside is strong.

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