Penelope Umbrico is an artist living and working in Brooklyn, NY. Her photo-based installations, video, and digital media works explore the ever-increasing production and consumption of images on the Internet. Utilizing photo-sharing and consumer websites as an expansive archive, she navigates between producer and consumer, local and global, and the individual and the collective, with attention to the technologies that produce (and are produced by) these forces.
Umbrico has exhibited widely, both nationally and internationally, including in exhibitions at MoMA PS1, NY; Museum of Modern Art, NY; MassMoCA, MA; San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, CA; Le Mois de Photo a Montreal Photo Festival, Canada; Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie, Rossinière, Switzerland; Lodz, Poland; and Foto Colectania, Barcelona, Spain, among many others. She is the recipient of a Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, a John Gutmann Photography Fellowship Award, a Deutsche Bank Fellowship, New York Foundation of the Arts Fellowship, a Peter S Reed Grant, an Anonymous Was A Woman Award, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship, and an Aaron Siskind Individual Photographer’s Fellowship.
Mock-up for exhibition installation of Moving Mountains (1850–2012) for Aperture Remix, 2012
© Penelope Umbrico
Zach Nader: You recently exhibited Moving Mountains (1850-2012) at Aperture, a work in which you rephotographed depictions of mountains from the Aperture Masters of Photography series of books. Using iPhone apps, you processed these and output them as photographic prints, as a digital slideshow, and as a book. In the wall text, you stated, “I propose an inverse correlation between the number of photographs that exist of mountains at any one time and the stability of photography at that time.” What might stability in photography look like today?
Penelope Umbrico: The reason I focused on the mountain was that I had been seeing pictures of mountains everywhere: on the side of U-Haul trucks and moving boxes, insurance ads, the cover of Blindspot magazine. That project was about the immovable mountain, photographed with something that is so moveable, the smartphone. I cannot imagine a more unstable definition of what photography is than what it is to make a photograph with a smart phone. The gravity sensor in smart phones is really what does it for me. You’ll be taking a picture of something at a particular angle and the picture flips around. Many of the mountains are upside down in this project because I’m photographing looking down and the iPhone flips the image. I just left them in the same orientation they were made in the camera.
I began this work by searching the National Archives website where I found numerous scans of Ansel Adams’ photographs. What is interesting about them to me is that they have been created over a very long period of time. Some of the images are scans of prints, some are scans of books, high-res, low-res, copy stand reproductions of the actual photographs, copy stand reproductions of books, and so on. There is an incredible amount of reproduction. I think there is something really interesting about Adams going out with his camera and tripod and making these beautifully crafted images in order to provide the American public access to these mountains, and then the archivists in the National Archives doing the same thing with Adams’ work. They are using whatever means they have to make his work accessible to the American public – but what a huge difference between the two!
So when I was commissioned to make a work around one of Aperture’s books for their 60th anniversary exhibition, Aperture Remix, the entire Masters of Photography series seemed perfect to explore; the idea of the “master” photographing the mountain, in contrast to how we can take photographs now.
from Moving Mountains (1850–2012), 2012
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: In the March 2012 issue of Art in America you refer to images found online, stating that “all images (artful, authored, pedestrian or unauthored) become unassignable and anonymous in this unlimited exchange of visual information, and function as a collective visual index of data that represent us…” In this context, how do you see your role as an individual producer of images?
PU: I was talking about the idea of reception and projection of images. If I put all of my work online, and you do a Google image search for one of my projects, you see it mashed up with everything else. So, it becomes unassignable and unauthored, in a certain kind of sense, in that context. I know that I am authoring my work. But I understand that in the context of the web, anyone else coming to it receives it in any number of possible ways. It takes some work to know something about images you see on the Internet, but the Internet doesn’t encourage this kind of work. It’s very easy to come away with a superficial read of what you’re seeing.
Of course, when an individual takes a picture, she is the author of that picture, and her subject is the subject of that picture. But as soon as that picture is recontextualized on the web, the subject changes, the picture-taker changes, and I think that shift is pretty interesting. The picture goes from being an individual and authored image to a collective anonymous image that regards no author at all.
from Broken Sets, 2009
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: Do you think this authorship can be gained and lost repeatedly?
PU: Yes. But everything can be gained and lost repeatedly. A ring that I lose can be picked up and given to someone else, it could have a history of many hundreds of years, it would mean different things to different people.
ZN: I agree, but many people do not treat images that way…
PU: Nonetheless, it’s still true. Think about the Tiananmen Square picture of the guy in front of the tank – for Americans it represented something completely different than it was said to represent in China. But this is an image that’s known as authored, and seen out of context, will still be assignable. Or when we see a Walker Evans out of context, we still understand it as being authored by Walker Evans. There are images that are so iconic they become kitsch, which creates an entirely new genre of this sort of image. Memes, you might say. Talk about authorship gained and lost repeatedly!
Your work, in some ways, deals with memes, right?
ZN: I am interested in how types of images become sufficiently commonplace, in that their value lies more in their repetitive, reproductive aspect rather than any specific content. One of my main interests at the moment is exploring what happens to an image when the impetus for its creation is replaced.
A recent video of mine, optional features shown, began with clips from car commercials. It is striking to me how similar they all are, though they represent multiple brands from around the world. Through repetition and the removal of the cars, text, and persons – through this clouding of vision, an opportunity to see these images beyond their intended use occurs – their scripted nature can begin to unwind.
Your interest perhaps tilts more often towards personal edits rather than institutional decisions, though both self-perpetuate in similar ways. Your Grand Central project is especially relevant in that it addresses these types of scripted images and their drift over decades.
PU: Yes, that project for the MTA used the photographs I found online of the rays coming into the Grand Central terminal. It is an image taken by a specific photographer, well actually 4 photographers who took almost the exact same image, but online, these four images are repeated in a myriad number of ways – people have flipped them, added color, made them grainy, sepia, high contrast, enlarged and cropped them. They are sold as posters, and mouse pads and coffee mugs, and these four images are attributed to at least eleven different photographers as well as to “anonymous” and “photographer unknown.” And all have the commercial site’s watermark on them with copyright restrictions.
Installation view of Five Photographs of Rays of Sunlight in Grand Central Station
New York Transit Museum Gallery, 2013
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: What are your thoughts on others appropriating your work? Have you seen any successful executions?
PU: I actually don’t think it’s particularly interesting to see other’s appropriations of my work, though it is amusing. The questions for me is why would one appropriate my work – that is, how is the artist engaging with my work, and what is she trying to say by using it. I haven’t yet seen anything that is interesting. I’ve seen a few misguided jerk-ish attempts at criticizing my work – that’s not at all interesting from the point of view of art making – these attempts reveal more of an ignorance about art than any critical engagement with it.
Anyway, I don’t think there can be a successful appropriation of my work – I’m not iconic enough of an artist for someone to be able to do something about my work without it being a personal comment – and that’s just not interesting.
Installation view of TVs from Craigslist, 2009
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: Several of your works emphasize moments of technological breakdown, visually and with the obsolescence or emptying of the depicted object. Televisions are particularly prevalent: Zenith Replacement Parts, Broken Sets, Signals Still, TVs from Craigslist, and collections of Universal Remotes. What is your interest in and relationship to the television?
PU: The television is the first popular device that moved us toward an image-based culture from an audio and text-based culture. And every generation of television promises more life-like images. I am particularly interested in the screen as the surface of reception, and now projection, and how the screen sifts information. And of course, I am always on my screen… half of my studio practice is accessed through the screen, I read and write with it, and most of my professional correspondence is through it.
With TVs from Craigslist, I was thinking about the obsolescence of the TVs being sold – no one wants these big old bulky TV sets. But what I found fascinating is that the subjects taking picture of the TV in order to post them on CL are often reflected in the very object they are trying to get rid of.
As I am wandering across America through various city’s Craigslist sites, I have a kind of access to people’s private spaces – these pictures are taken solely for the purpose of selling a TV, no one seems to care what else is in the image, and I find a lot there! It’s quite voyeuristic except that these images are offered to us without reservation. The images of people reflected in these dark TV screens have the appearance of ghosts, and I have come to think of this work as revealing “us” as the literal ghost in the machine.
Installation view of Signal to Ink, Ink – Out of Order, 2011
© Penelope Umbrico
spread from Signals Still / Ink (Book), 2011
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: Your 2011 artist book Signals Still / Ink (Book) was printed at 125% ink density. The ink quickly rubs off as one flips through the book, leaving marks on the reader’s hands and on the pages. This material aspect of the book seems to physically draw parallels between the ways in which we experience images and the ways in which we leave marks on screens that we touch (blank screens are depicted in the book). What was your thought process in making this work, and what is the significance in making a book that leaves a trace of itself on the viewer?
PU: That project came out of thinking about images and how they are now untraceable when we see them online – the unassignablity you first asked me about. I was considering the materiality of print medium versus the lack of materiality of the screen-based image, but I had come to think of the objects being sold there as heavy physical bodies (some of which contained ghosts). Making physical, material prints of them was a way for me to address an aspect of this materiality/immateriality.
The Signals Still project was about the screen having a signal that has no message, or at least no message we can decipher. I had found a lot of TVs for sale whose screens were turned on but there was no signal, just static, or a haze of light, like a sort of hum. For the book, I printed those screens on an offset press at 125% ink density on newsprint. I wanted to make a relationship between ink on paper as the first screen that sifts information and how we receive images now. And I wanted to address the effect of the signal on our bodies, literally that the medium works on you in a physical way (in the McLuhan sense). So if it comes off on your hands, there it is: the signal leaving a trace on you that is traceable.
Installation view of Signals Still, 2011
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: You have previously referred to yourself, specifically, as a “photographer” rather than an “artist.” What is the distinction and importance for you?
PU: That was more of a response to the exclusivity of what it means, in some circles, to be a photographer. I wanted to acknowledge that there has never been one kind of photography. It was sort of a reactive statement based on the fact that what I do online uses a photo-documentary strategy. I travel, navigate, through virtual space and I look for things that will support an idea I have. I make screenshots or download images and crop them in specific ways for what I am looking for. I frame the virtual world the way I want to see it. This is what a photographer does, frames and edits the world in the way that she sees it. So, at one point, I decided not to make a distinction between my practice and traditional photographic practice. I felt it was constructive within a photo context to claim the medium in my practice by asserting my title as a photographer. I think, in general, those kinds of distinctions are not very useful though, and I have called myself a “photo-based” artist, but even that is sort of ridiculous because I do many other things that are not photo-based. But, I can live with this because I’m always thinking about photography. Maybe everyone needs to be called photo-based now – since we are all making and viewing images all the time and, more than ever, we see ourselves and create our identities through these images.
ZN: In your recent monograph from Aperture you included many texts that support your practice. You chose to scan the original source material, presenting the text in the context of the book page. Why this approach?
PU: The book is laid out in two parts. The first part contains nine bodies of work arranged by theme, and the second part is a sort of appendix about the work. Because all of the work comes from appropriated sources, I wanted to maintain a parallel relationship in the texts – an equal dialogue between the bodies of work and the texts around them.
The idea of treating the text like an object was a way to give it a physical and material integrity. When you read a text in a book, the book itself becomes part of the context. We’re used to receiving or making photocopies of texts, and we all take excerpts of text and re-contextualize them to support an idea. A photocopy is another context, of course, but still the trace of the original book remains. Photocopying seems quite natural, but paradoxically, if you make a good photograph of text, it becomes something else. What is meant to give a contextual integrity seems inverted – the more this image has fidelity to the original book, the more it seems like an appropriation.
Some of the texts just read like text, while others, such as a photocopied page from one part of a book inserted into another part and scanned, read like collage. And some read like objects; A scan of a folded photocopy printed to scale and slipped into the book as though actually a photocopy – it’s an image of an object, but it’s also an object to be read. Of course, these are all meant to be read, but I wanted to raise questions about authorship and how text on a page might function as image and object and conceptual information. I love the slippage between image and text in these reproductions.
Installation view of Mountains, Moving: of Swiss Alp Postcards and Sound of Music
Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie, 2013
© Penelope Umbrico
ZN: What are some upcoming projects of yours that we can look forward to; any lectures, exhibits, or events?
PU: I’m doing another “mountains” project for the Alt. +1000 Festival de Photographie in a small town in the Swiss Alps. The title of this work is Mountains, Moving: of Swiss Alp Postcards and Sound of Music and the images are sourced from old postcards of iconic Swiss Alp images and images of the Austrian mountains from the film, The Sound of Music. While searching the web for Swiss Alps, these mountains kept showing up. Of course, in the story, they are supposed to be in Switzerland – they’re crossing into Switzerland to safety. I like the fact that one mountain range can substitute for another. I shot all these images of mountains off of my computer screen. I wanted the idea of remoteness to be in the act of looking and capturing, as well… to talk about the idea of distance this way. I’ve never been to the Alps, so for me those mountains are distant, mythical and, in a way, not real. The camera apps further this sense of the unreal, turning them upside down and making them almost psychedelic.
ZN: How will these be displayed?
PU: We’re making out-door billboards – they’ll be situated right in the mountains. I’m also doing a public collaboration there, and calling it A Proposal and Two Trades. The proposal asks people to think about looking collectively, and what it means to take a picture they’ve already seen of the mountains in front of them. The two trades are: 1. Take this “already seen” picture with a smartphone – the ancient mountain and the new smartphone/technology trade information, and 2. E-mail me the picture, I receive it and process it with various smartphone camera filters and send it back. I get new material, they get my work.