Catalan artist Joan Fontcuberta makes his work within the blurred boundary of fact and fiction. “I started in the 1970s when I was working in communications and advertising,” he tells Colin Pantall in this month’s British Journal of Photography, “so I am well acquainted with lying and using photographic techniques to persuade. In the first half of the ’70s, Spain was ruled by Franco, so you had a political climate where propaganda, censorship and a lack of political rights helped form a sense of manipulation of information.”
What Fontcuberta wants us to do is question what we see, to make our hindsight more contemporary. We should greet with scepticism just about everything we see, and consider more closely who is behind it and why it is being shown. The basic premise is, who is lying to us, what lies are they telling, and what are the vehicles they use that make us believe? “My work is rooted in this. I use photography in the sense of it being an authoritarian tool. When we see a picture, we believe it is a picture of fact, but this is just a convention. If you study the history of photography, you can see this.”
Go through the history of 19th–century photography and these conventions are everywhere; the manipulation of portrayals of war (Timothy Gardner), the taboo of representing death (Roger Fenton), the use of photography to exoticise alien cultures (Edward Curtis) and performance masquerading as fact (Charcot) are all historical examples of these ‘authoritarian’ conventions. What Fontcuberta does is play with these conventions. “I transfer this kind of information to other situations so it acts as a critique of the discourse of science, of the church, of the museum, of academia. That’s why I’m so pleased to be exhibiting in the Science Museum [at its Media Space Gallery, from 23 July until 9 November, before transferring to the National Media Museum, Bradford from 19 November to 08 February 2015], because I’m establishing a critical dialogue.”
The earliest of Fontcuberta’s work on show is Herbarium. He made austere black-and-white still lifes of fictional plants that were sculptures, where plant matter was mixed with domestic and animal detritus. So in Lavandula Angustifolia we get a picture of what looks like a chicken head perched convincingly on a swirl of brussels sprout leaves, while Braohypoda Frustrata features a stem spiked with what appear to be inverted rose thorns. It’s all terribly convincing right down to the Latin names and the referencing of Karl Blossfeldt, the master of the botanical portrait.
In Fauna, a later series, every presentational device is a photographic McGuffin, the idea being that in real museums, the pedestal, the frames and other means of presentating grand narratives are some kind of visual quotation marks; McGuffins designed to lead you into believing unconditionally in whatever narrative the institution is seeking to impose.
Fontcuberta questions the sacred cows of photographic history, the museum and the language of the presentation of science, and you get the feeling he could happily target just about anything in which there is a status quo. He’s like a photographic Chris Morris, but where Morris used film and television to poke fun at the languages of politics, advertising and terrorism, Fontcuberta delights in having fun with images; there is nothing sober about his work, and this is apparent in every project he makes, regardless of the method.
“I like to consider my work a vaccine, where you inoculate the world with a weak virus so it will protect you against the big virus. My mission is just to warn people about the possibility that photography can be doctored, that people need to be sceptical of images that format our behaviour and our way of thinking.”