Honesty is generally defined as truth, but honesty is based more on trust than it is on truth. In a world where art is oftentimes created by “phantom” artists (be they writers, sculptors, visual artists…), honesty, and by extension trust, between the work and the viewer is the necessary link in establishing a lasting connection. No where, however, is honesty more important than in photography. In the age of photoshop, we must trust that what we see is the end result (whether it is photoshopped or not) of the photographer’s artistic explorations. In other words, we must trust that the photographer is not trying to trick us – Yes, that really is Sarah Palin holding up a Greenpeace sign – but that, instead, they are presenting images that stem from an honest exploration of a theme.
Images that stem from an honest exploration of a theme is what the photography of Montreal-based photographer Thomas Kneubühler is about. During our talk, he made the distinction between a photographer and an artist who uses photography as their medium. Photographers snap shots they find interesting. Artists who use photography as their medium, think about issues that concern them, and then shoot the images that reflect their concerns. What concerns Thomas is the isolation that technology has imposed upon an “urbanized” landscape. This situation is often unfriendly, uninviting, and non-conducive to a human connectedness. This applies to his photos of public spaces as much as it does to his private ones. From the series Absence, 2001, to his Electric Mountains, 2009, alienation, and its complex relationship to technology, is the predominant, inter-connecting theme.
In Absence, we witness, up close, the faces of people as they stare at their screens. Their gaze is as absent as the expression on their faces, their entire being absorbed by whatever is on the screen. The theme of isolation is further explored in the series, Zones where we are confronted by the public space of airport and airplane and time zones that are never clear. In both series, there is a feeling of limbo – individuals suspended between the here and the not here.
In the Office 2000 series and the Access Denied series, Thomas pushes the theme of alienation and technology to include the concepts of waste and private property. In his exploration of these issues, he uses not only his camera, but his own self. To get the incredible aerial shots of the office buildings – which are private property – Thomas had to first ask for permission and then pay for the privilege of being escorted to the rooftop by a security guard. Office 2000 intentionally echoes Microsoft’s Windows 2000, something that becomes evident in the way each lit and empty office is framed by a window (thus becoming a framed image) and how, together, these framed images recall pixels.
Often, however, access to these private realms would be denied, either by a wired fence or a security guard. In an ironic twist, the security guards in the Access Denied series are actually guards Thomas hired from various security firms (the real guards refused to be photographed). Extending the irony, hiring the guards gave Thomas the control usually taken away from him – instead of a guard telling him what he could or could not do, it was Thomas telling the guard what to do or not.
There is no denying the ethereal beauty underlying the Office 2000 series. Technology is seductive. Ownership is seductive. Even waste is seductive (think of the big car, the twenty pairs of shoes). Who isn’t enticed by the power technology offers or by the possibility of ownership or by the ease of having all the lights turned on. These are multi-layered themes that come together in the Electric Mountain series where we see the lit mountain without any skiers.
There is nothing new in Thomas’ exploration. Technology and its love/hate relationship with the human spirit is one we have all experienced. Art, however, is not about figuring out the latest trend before anyone else does or coming up with ideas no one has ever heard of. Art is about presenting us with a new way of seeing. If it is honest and well thought out, this new way of seeing will encourage us to re-think the issues that surround us. It is the truth of this commonality that gives Thomas’ photography an immediate honesty.