Exhibition review: Paradoxes of Photography

“Paradoxically, if you see an image as a photograph, it is a photograph – for you.” This is the idea inspiring the current exhibition at the Finnish Museum of Photography: “An image endowed with a photographic look is easily thought of as evidence of a presence in front of a camera, even though it may result from computational processes.”

This is the legacy of photographic discourses cultivating, since the inception of photography, approaches to image making in terms of evidence and documentation – culminating, perhaps, in photojournalism and its insistence of showing the truth as it appears in front of the camera but re-visited, and strengthened, also in current politico-aesthetic approaches to forensic photography.

This exhibition, curated by Mika Elo, “invites viewers to reflect on the expectations and concepts related to photography” – and its paradoxes.

There is a problem, however, formulated by Trevor Paglen with regard to “the invisible world of machine–machine visual culture,” i.e., machine-readable images made by machines, circumventing human beings as producers or consumers of images and, as such, ingredients of the post-photographic age addressed in this exhibition.

Such images – pretending to be photographs and, therefore, regarded as photographs – necessitate not only reflection but, fundamentally, unlearning: “we need to unlearn how to see like humans” but such unlearning – which is also a kind of learning – is inhibited by powerful photographic discourses and formal concepts, translated into established ways of seeing developed by such famous, and authoritative, figures as Walter Benjamin, Roland Barthes, and Susan Sontag, to name but a few.

Such concepts, Paglen argues,

“contain epistemological assumptions, which in turn have ethical consequences. The theoretical concepts we use to analyze visual culture are profoundly misleading when applied to the machinic landscape, producing distortions, vast blind spots, and wild misinterpretations.”

Images, rather than being the sole object of our gaze, “look at us … We must begin to understand these changes” – and other changes connected with digitization – “if we are to challenge the exceptional forms of power flowing through the invisible visual culture that we find ourselves enmeshed within.”   

This exhibition offers ample starting points for such understanding. 

Finnish Museum of Photography, 13 May – 28 August 2022

Exhibition description