As part of our “What is…?” series, Art Radar sheds light on the medium of photosculpture.
Art Radar brings you a short history of photosculpture, and introduces a selection of contemporary Asian artists working with the medium in its various manifestations.
What is photosculpture?
Photoscultpure: An introduction
Photosculpture (photo + sculpture), etymologically, is the combination of photographs and sculpture. In an early nineteenth century Webster’s Dictionary (published 1913) definition, it was simply defined as:
A process in which, by means of a number of photographs simultaneously taken from different points of view on the same level, rough models of the figure or bust of a person or animal may be made with great expedition.
In a contemporary version of the Merriam Webster Dictionary, the definition has been slightly updated:
a method of sculpture whereby one or more cameras are used to produce photographs that are processed and combined in one of various ways to make either a bas-relief or a solid sculpture.
Both entries limit the definition of photosculpture to a ‘classical’ one, which could be in some ways linked to photorealism, and described as a solid reproduction of people, animals and objects with the aid of photography.
In contemporary artistic practices, the term photosculpture has evolved to include works of art that utilise photography as the primary medium, albeit not in its pure, two-dimensional printed format. Photosculptures combine photography – or photographic prints and methods – with a sculptural approach, be it to recreate real objects and forms in three dimensions or to challenge, expand and push the boundaries of the photographic medium through a variety of other techniques and media.
Photosculpture: A brief history of origins
When searching for a history of photosculpture, one of the first pieces of historical information to be found is the French artist, photographer and sculptor François Willème and his photosculpture invention of 1859. In his essay “Sculpture as the Sum of Its Profiles: François Willème and Photosculpture in France, 1859-1868″ (The Art Bulletin, 62.4, 1980: 617-630), historian Robert A. Sobieszek defined photosculpture thus:
A photo-sculpture is the solid reproduction of persons, animals, and things, obtained through a process of 3D scanning and 3D printing. The results are small statues that represent the portrayed entity.
Willème’s device involved a rotating platform divided into 24 numbered sections, onto which the model posed to be photographed by 24 cameras, each spaced at 15 degrees apart in a sphere around the platform. The resulting images would then be projected onto the mould at its various angles in order to reproduce a complete, realistic portrait of the subject. This process can be directly related to contemporary photosculpture in its first hybridisation of the medium of photography, although the latter is not visible in the final result.
Photosculpture: A brief history of contemporary practice
In contemporary times, more than a century after Willème’s invention and into the 1960s and 1970s, photosculpture saw its real emergence in art. In an era of experimentation with a variety of media, and of predilection for minimal and conceptual approaches, photography’s status as ephemera was being put into question. As it entered the realm of fine art, artists were challenging the medium and its potentialities through the creation of hybrid forms of photography.
A landmark exhibition held at New York’s MoMA in 1970, entitled “Photography into Sculpture”, brought together the work of 23 American and Canadian artists who were experimenting with the photographic medium in a variety of combinations and forms. Through techniques that reflected “modern technological culture”, the artists created a vast array of hybrid works, including:
- contour vacuum-moulded plastic containers for photographs and film transparencies
- film positives layered in lucite constructions of varying depths seen by reflected or transmitted light
- photosensitised contour-moulded cloth sculptures
- life-size figurative compositions constructed from hundreds of glass transparencies with multidimensional views
- fabricated pictorial or illusionistic boxed environments
- participation puzzles
- topographic landscapes contoured by vacuum process
- lucite cubes of photographs
- three-dimensional wall constructions
- reductive or minimal sculptures of multiple pictorial boxes
- light and negative constructions
As MoMA’s exhibition director and Curator of Photography Peter C. Bunnell put it in the seventies, photosculpture embraces
concerns beyond those of the traditional print, or what may be termed ‘flat work’, and in so doing seeks to engender a heightened realisation that art in photography has to do with interpretation and craftsmanship rather than mere record making.
Bunnell went on to say that these “photographers/sculptors” were looking for
new intricacy of meaning analogous to the complexity of our senses. They are moving from internal meaning or iconography – of sex, the environment and war – to a visual duality in which the materials are also incorporated as content and at the same time are used as a way of conceiving actual space.
Photosculpture: Contemporary manifestations
Among the artists in the MoMA exhibition was ‘paraphotographer’ Robert Heinecken (1931 – 2006), whose work made use of photographic images sourced from TV, magazines, ads and other media to create textured compositions that looked like today’s digitally manipulated photographs. He was one of the pioneers in the postwar era to work with photography, beside or beyond traditional notions of the medium.
More recently, Brooklyn-based German experimental artist Oliver Herring creates the more ‘traditional’ and literal kind of photosculptures, with Styrofoam bases covered in photographs taken from a variety of angles to portray his subjects realistically.
Bulgarian Missirkov Bogdanov uses photography to bring images into three dimensions, such as in The Unloading (2009) where he pastes digital prints onto PVC boards, or Cvetana Maneva (2004), in which an installation of portraits of the Bulgarian actress on transparent paper plays with light, reflections and shadows in the exhibition room. American Nils Nova manipulates surroundings with large-scale photographic installations that create the illusion of spatial depth and play with our perception of space.
In recent years, a number of exhibitions have celebrated the evolution of photography and the creation of hybrid photographic works. It is interesting to highlight, as did an article on Artspace in 2014, that this is a key moment in the history of photography to be revisiting “the physical manifestations of photography” in an age of digitalisation.
Types of contemporary Photosculpture
Photosculpture takes a variety of forms, from collages and puzzles using photographs and other media, to sculptures, installations and weavings, among others.
Photoweavings usually involve large-scale photographic prints cut out in thin strips, which are then woven together like textile threads or straw and bamboo baskets to make the final composition.
2. 3D Photosculptures
Three-dimensional sculptures, as seen above, use hundreds of photographs of the subject taken from various angles and combined together, usually on a base, to shape a realistic 3D representation.
3. Photosculptural collages and objects
Collages and other objects use a combination of photographic paper, prints and methods with other media and objects. For instance, a cut out photograph might be pasted together with a real object, an environment might be re-created in miniature with a combination of photographs and other things, and so forth. These works can be two- or three-dimensional.
4. Photosculptural installations
Installations using photographs take a variety of forms. The photograph is not merely a representation and a two-dimensional reference, traditionally mounted on a wall. Printed images are in this case engaged in a larger dialogue with the space and other components of a work of art. Photographs might be placed on the floor, such as in Carter Mull’s floor-based installation of scattered prints Connection (2011–12), or might be hanging in grapples from the ceiling in the middle of the exhibition space, among other arrangements.
Contemporary Photosculpture artists from Asia: a selection
Dinh Q. Le (Vietnam)
When working with photography, Dinh Q. Lê (b. 1968) pushes the boundaries of the medium through a variety of methods, including his uniquely mastered weaving technique borrowed directly from his traditional heritage: bamboo baskets. He cuts large-scale prints into thin strips and weaves them back together to create surrealistic images laden with meaning and references, which appear to be in flux or movement. Other experimental photographic works include digital prints presented as long scrolls and manipulated photographic paper.
Rashid Rana (Pakistan)
Rashid Rana’s (b. 1968) photographic works extend beyond the traditional parameters to embrace the myriad possibilities of composing environments, portraits and stories with images. Among his work are carpets made of tiny photographs, portraits that on closer inspection hide millions of tiny images, and Desperately Seeking Paradise II (2010), a cube skyscraper-like structure composed of thousands of photographs, among others.
It’s ironic though, that my fascination with formal concerns to do with two dimensionality are manifesting in three-dimensional works.
Osang Gwon (Korea)
Photosculpture is given literal existence in Osang Gwon’s (b. 1974) figurative works. Through a process of photographing his subjects from thousands of various angles, the artist records every detail from a 360-degree view. He then pastes the carefully collected and cut photographs onto a sculpted and carved plaster or Styrofoam mould, thus photographically recreating reality with its imperfections. Talking to Flavorwire, Gwon says:
The early works were more distorted than the ones I’m making now. That said, I’ve never aimed at making a totally realistic figure. It’s always going to turn out differently.
Jang Seung-Hyo (Korea)
Jang Seung-Hyo (b. 1971) transforms the two-dimensional into the three-dimensional in order to construct more scientific and spiritual notions of identity, through a photographic process that the artist compares to recollecting memories. In a statement, Jang says:
I record the world I perceive in the form of photograph or video and through the documented images I talk and express the stories of myself. The images are positioned in layers to each other forming an outcome that obscures the boundary between sculpture, painting, photography and installation. To me, the images become paint that draw, materials that compose sculptures and photographs that document my memories.
Justine Khamara (Australia)
Justine Khamara’s (b. 1971) practice investigates and intervenes with the photographic medium, giving life to works that extend photography into the three dimensions. She builds objects using multiple images, slices photographs so that they can be pulled out of walls, weaves and sculpts portraits, and manipulates prints into deconstructed images. Talking about her process, Khamara told Wired:
I loved the butteriness, the physicality of the photographic paper a quality that reveals itself when one slices into the surface of it with a very fine, sharp blade.
Myung Keun Koh (Korea)
Myung Keun Koh’s (b. 1964) photographic practice verges on the experimental, by giving form to a distorted yet realistic three-dimensional sphere. His works are complex constructions of photographic laminates that combine sculpture, architecture and photography. These “boxes”, as the artist calls them, give impressions of holographic landscapes, cityscapes or ‘aquariums’. The translucent photographic images mounted on each side of the box repeat, overlap and resonate through the constructed space.
Yuki Kimura (Japan)
Yuki Kimura (b. 1971) integrates images and spaces, creating installations that include the viewer as an intermediary. She deconstructs the relationship between images and objects through the use of images as objects. Kimura creates staged sculptural arrangements using manipulated found images. In Interior 6L01–107T, Kimura plays with the concept and representation of ‘rooms’. She told Frieze in an interview:
I’ve always been concerned with exposing and disrupting the illusion presented by the photograph, and experimenting with the relationship between one photograph and another. The viewer is a necessary intermediary for something to be expressed within those relations. I’m also interested in how one experiences multiple images in the space of the gallery.
Zarina Bhimji (India/Uganda)
Zarina Bhimji (b. 1963) uses the photographic medium in a variety of ways, both traditionally and more experimentally, to give impressions of three-dimensionality to flat images. In her series Listen to the Room (1995) she created an installation of lightboxes with photographs of internal organs and human body parts that appeared like real specimen jars.
Jaishri Abichandani (India)
Jaishri Abichandani’s (b. 1969) work takes shape through a variety of media, including photography. In her early Mind’s Desire (2002), she took inspiration from the ancient South Asian form of Mandalas and Yantras as well as researched Tantra to create a series of photoscultpures. The double and triple exposed self-portraits are used to explore contemporary existential and social/political issues marrying an ancient symbolism to modern representation.
Navid Nuur (Iran)
Navid Nuur defies all categorisation by creating work in a variety of media, including neon, video, C-prints, paint and found objects. His use of photography tests the potentialities of the material and its hybridisation. Among his works are collages made of photographic prints and other materials and obejcts, such as Location (study)(2012-2013), and installations of Polaroids pinned to the wall. In Distant relations between lovers could fail by the lack of your true focus (2011), Nuur uses printed images and pages from art magazines and catalogues to comment on the relation between artists and public commercial art places.
Selected recent photosculpture exhibitions
- “Robert Heinecken: Object Matter”, MoMA, New York (March 15–September 7, 2014)
- “Lens-Based Sculpture. The Transformation of Sculpture through Photography”, Kunstmuseum Liechtenstein (16 May – 31 August 2014)
- “The Photographic Object, 1970”, Hauser & Wirth New York (26 June – 25 July 2014)
- “The Photographic Object 1970”, Le Consortium, Dijon, France (4 July – 29 September 2013)
- “L’image dans la Sculpture”, Centre Pompidou, Paris (2 May – 5 August 2013)
- “Photo-Sculpture pictures, objects and paradox”, MOP, Australia (13 September – 30 September 2012)
- “Photography into Sculpture/The Evolving Photographic Object”, Cherry and Martin (10 September – 22 October 2011)
- Rashid Rana, A room from Tate Modern, Dhaka Art Summit 2014, commissioned by Samdani Art Foundation (7 – 9 February 2014)
- Dinh Q. Le, “Warp, Woof, Zero, One”, P•P•O•W Gallery, New York (24 April – 24 May 2014)
- Navid Nuur, “Unified Not Uniformed”, Gallery Martin van Zomeren, Amsterdam (12 October – 23 November 2013)
- Justine Khamara, “Reconstructure”, Arc One Gallery, Melbourne (27 August – 28 September 2013)
- Osang Gwon, Postmodern Times, HADA Contemporary, London (4 April – 31 May 2013)
- Yuki Kimura, “Interior 6L01–107T”, Taka Ishii Gallery Kyoto (30 November 2012 – 19 January 2013)
- Rashid Rana, “Everything is happening at once”, Cornerhouse Manchester, UK (1 October – 18 December 2011)
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