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Hub Culture Salon, Singapore: The Photo Aesthetic

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2nd Oct 2008




Saturday, 12 July 2008

The latest installation in Hub Culture's global Salon series arrived this month in Singapore to tackle "the photo aesthetic" - an exploration of the connection photography plays in how we see the world. The group discussed manipulation and the definition of truth, and the way real life can feel photo-surreal, just as photography sweeps us away from reality.

The evening was hosted at Priv , one of Singapore's new signature destinations. Set along the new Keppel Island Marina, it has a stunning view of Daniel Libeskind's emerging Reflections project and picture-perfect garden harbour views. It included a range of participants and a top-notch food and wine selection from Michel and Yuan, Priv owners.

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by Lin Zhipeng, photographer, artist, magazine creator
Who was there?

Lisa Botos, OoiBotos, Hong Kong's hot contemporary gallery

Araya Solomon, Accenture

Erica Dubern, RioTinto

Nadav Lehavy, AIG

Virginia Yang, Yahoo Mobile

Philip Hemnell, a VC and collector

Jon Kiehnau, meitimedia.com - a media consultancy

David Dietz, working with the US Centers for Disease Control in Washington DC

The discussion kicked off with a Carnival cruise ship setting out through lush foliage only meters away from the group, framing a surreal perspective as a sea of yellow windows glided past. Blackberries flashed.

Lisa starts: "Photo based art is so hyper-real now people expect to see things in a grittier way... people want flawless... photo is the medium of the 21st century and it includes video and installation." Her gallery, OoiBotos, specializes in contemporary Chinese art. Lisa sees it shifting radically as the Chinese explore their new world with photography, their principal medium of expression.

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by Liu Ren: Some Day Somewhere 01, 2005
On aesthetic, Lisa points to artists like Russell Wong, Yee I-Lann, Liu Ren, Lin Zhipeng, and others photoshopping works that take months to complete, forming a hybrid photo-digital art experience. This manipulation is stretching the definition of "photo" to the point that "the definition of photograph needs to shift." These artists represent a new aesthetic that combines many photos into a single 'hyper-real' image, one that tells multiple stories.

"There's incredible art out there and its on Flickr." Philip, a collector, embraced the hi-lo: not only does he buy at auction from leaders like Christie's, he also regularly trolls Flickr for beautiful images to add to his collection.

Everyone agreed on the idea that photography has widened dramatically in recent years, driven by digital and the idea that anything can be shared - but not everyone felt that anyone can be a great photographer. Who judges? It quickly fell into three camps - the collective, the expert, and "ME".

Nadav gravitated toward the idea that experts still control the aesthetic we experience - "Everybody can take a good picture, but that doesn't mean they are a good photographer," a sentiment echoed by Araya, who maintained that photo greatness "comes down to repetition. Can you repeat your success? If not, it doesn't matter."

Virginia, who works on mobile design interfaces for Yahoo, took the Silicon Valley approach, that crowd sourced wisdom would win out over the expert. In her world, the best aesthetic floats up, filtered by millions of users who collectively judge the value of images and ideas. "The internet has changed the definition of what success is in photography," she says. "Flickr made it possible for everyone to distribute their art." But from an aesthetics point of view, this translates to: Would you rather have your photo embraced by many with little financial return, or acclaimed by an expert for large reward?

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Yee I-Lann's 'Sulu Stories' 2005 photographs on view
The final view came from Philip: "For me, the only thing that matters is what I think of a piece."

David shifted gears, telling a story about a health ship connected to the US Centers for Disease Control he has been working on. The ship visits villages, clinics and hospitals around Asia. Recently in Vietnam the group and locals helping them were shooting scenes in a ward, and one of the photos taken by a local youth turned out to really capture their idea of the moment. It found its way into the CDC briefing booklet, and eventually to the desk of US President George Bush.His point is that a great image defines a moment and our memory of it, and instantly becomes larger than the person who created it. But perspective defines the photo - only the Vietnamese kid saw what he shot, and it was his view that later defined the moment for all. Today, a good photo can come from anyone and travel anywhere.

The perspective example was highlighted when the group suddenly switched sides: half had been watching a neon bridge shift colors over the harbour, while the others had a view of Priv , its happenings and lush foliage. After the change both sides felt they liked "their side" better, until they settled into their new view.

Erica expanded on this, introducing the group to "thought pollution." Because she has limited time to appreciate photography and art, she is finding that "ingrained visuals" are increasingly reminding her of brands. As car companies co-opt winding roads and alcohol brands barrage us with images of friends having fun, Erica increasingly finds herself thinking of these brands when she encounters a real-life experience "that feels like an ad." It happens with music too, where the youngs unwittingly have brand triggered memories instead of their own experience memories. If you only know a Bob Marley song and Caribbean beach from a rum ad, when you encounter the real version of either, people increasingly associate it to the rum instead of building their own experience with it.

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The private view at Privé Restaurant, Singapore
"My reality is too real" she says, reflecting on how this glossed expectation can breed disappointment with real experiences, because an image of a location is almost always better than the real thing. "That's because you didn't get up at 5am and hike 10 miles covered in tsetse flies to get the shot," says Philip, with a touch of regret.

From here the conversation veers into the surreal - snuff films and nudes vs. porn - what is art, porn or news in a world that is so visually manipulated? "Context is fundamental," confides Virginia. Jon offers: " Some things are just because they are. With all photography a piece is only worth the storytelling it does." But what about now, where images are increasingly altered to match our changing view of what's aesthetically pleasing? "No pixels, no graininess allowed" says Lisa, referring to more than low quality images but to the very idea of sight - we want everything sanitized and perfect, with little regard to TRUTH.

So when it comes to our expanding ability to manipulate an image, and therefore manipulate the truth, where is the line? The aesthetic is defined by the images we receive. "It's hard to believe what I see" says David, because he knows the news is first edited, then manipulated, to create an image the editor thinks the reader wants.

"Everything hinges on a photo" and the images polarize the view: "Stewart and Colbert are the Rather and Cronkite of our generation." "Barack is the new black." It all boils down to a "fist bump, vs. I can't raise my arm" - images that decide everything for us, regardless of the facts.

As the neon links on the bridge fade to black, someone summed up the deepening mood perfectly. "Trust is truth, but truth isn't trust." Which means: in a world where images are totally manipulated, we can believe what we see, but that doesn't mean it ever really happened.