I got excited yesterday when I saw a photograph of a bird-like creature with a tortoise for a head. The creature, Alopex stultus, part of Joan Fontcuberta’s Fauna series, was standing in a snowy patch of grass and intently returning the gaze of Fontcuberta.
Alopex stultus, Fauna, 1987 © Joan Fontcuberta
The photograph (as I encountered it) accompanied a book review by Jörg M. Colberg of Fontcuberta’s new book The Photography of Nature & The Nature of Photography, recently published by MACK. The review raises the issue of photographic truth, which is a key theme in Fontcuberta’s work, and points to recent examples of photo-manipulation within photojournalism.
The truth at stake here is a photograph’s claim to be an index to an event.
Artifice (the staging of a photograph) and manipulation (in photographic processing) have been present in photography since its earliest days and both exist along spectrums of photographic practice. Any particular photographer may position themselves temporarily or permanently somewhere along these spectrums and chose to work with either a lot of artifice and/or manipulation, or very little.
Spectators within photography need to be able locate a photograph within these spectrums in order to help them read it with any transparency. For photojournalism, which holds veracity as sacrosanct and so is taken as given by spectators, any use of artifice or manipulation is rightly met with concern.
The issue of indexical truth however, wasn’t in this case what I was reacting to. There is another truth that Fontcuberta is playing with here, truths concerning the Other, or, how humans know truths about non-human animals.
Animal Mashups is a recent project which does something similar to Fontcuberta by showing photographs of impossible animals. The photographs are in colour and the main aim seems to be humour (and possibly also the recitation of ‘Photoshop’).
Elephant-Duck, 2013 © Animal Mashups
Fontcuberta approaches the subject matter differently and produces photographs in black and white from what looks like film, evoking early animal photography. In choosing film (or the appearance of film) the photographs claim more indexical truth than one that is obviously a digital manipulation.
It is the making of this claim juxtaposed with the impossibility of the animal depicted which creates a moment of pause.
A pause to consider not only the indexical truth of the photograph, but further, to consider what it is and how it is that humans know, or create, any truths about non-human animals.
Centaurus neandertalensis, The professor examines Centaurus’ hand c.1985, Fauna, 1987 © Joan Fontcuberta