Photography is distinguished from many other art disciplines by its reproducibility. This property is the starting point of the exhibition “The Image and its Double” held at the Centre Pompidou’s Galerie de Photographies. It comprises some sixty works from the collection of the Musée National d’Art Moderne. Divided into three sections, “The Grammar of the Double,” “The Imperfect Copy,” and “Possessing the Real,” the exhibition brings together some twenty international artists, past and present, who approach the topic from multiple angles.
The exhibition opens with a 1937 portrait by Man Ray representing the patron of the arts Edward James hiding his face behind a photographic print of his own face. A nice slap in the face, to start with, which raises the idea of the double within the image itself. Two works by Pierre Boucher, dated 1935 and 1942, offer multiple variations on this theme. One is a collage of a child’s portrait whose face is replicated about thirty times, either whole or fragmented. The second is an image representing a hand and its shadow.
The second portion of the exhibition focuses on artists who have used unusual tools, such as the photocopier. As early as 1967, Timm Ulrichs played the humor card by proposing a work captioned: “Walter Benjamin. The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction. Interpretation by Timm Ulrichs: The photocopy of the photocopy of the photocopy of the photocopy.” It is an assemblage of 100 photocopies whose content is less and less legible as the process goes on. This is Timm Ulrichs’s way of responding to Walter Benjamin who, in his famous 1936 essay, questions the status of the work of art which, he claims, loses its “aura” once it becomes reproducible.
In 1974, the French artist Nicole Metayer placed her face on the glass of the photocopier to create a series of surprising self-portraits. And, in 1991, Italian Bruno Munari played with the functions of this office automation tool to obtain what he affirmed to be originals, and not copies, since the alteration of the image obtained is different every time, and thus unique.
Another unexpected “camera” is the scanner. The American Pati Hill has used it from the late 1970s to create still lifes by placing the objects directly on the scanner bed. While this artistic genre is a staple in the history of art, Hill privileges ordinary objects: foodstuffs, audio cassettes, and other plastic containers.
The last part of the exhibition, entitled “Possessing the Real,” focuses on the way photography belongs to the real and how it is disseminated. This question is illustrated by Philipp Goldbach’s monumental installation entitled “Lossless Compressions,” which consists of 200,000 slides stacked one on top of the other. Here, it is the slide as an object that is the work, not the images it represents since they are hidden from view. Dated 2013–2017, this work reflects on the notion of recycling and obsolescence. As for the content of these slides, it has been digitized, and is therefore accessible in a way other than through the original medium.
Finally, we must mention The Life of an Image (2018), an installation by Susan Meiselas based on her famous image Molotov Man, taken in Nicaragua in 1979. Moving from the original, as a contact sheet, slide, and print, to its iterations in the form of a wall drawing or a T-shirt design, to magazine publications and posters, we can gauge the image’s iconic status. This is yet another proof that an image may have many lives.
By Sophie Bernard
Sophie Bernard is a journalist specializing in photography, a contributor to La Gazette de Drouot and Le Quotidien de l’Art, a curator, and a teacher at EFET in Paris.
“The Image and Its Double”. Centre Pompidou, Galerie de Photographies, September 15 to December 13, 2021.