NZ-born, Melbourne-based photographer Vivian Cooper Smith challenges the limits of a 2D photograph. His creative process is multi-layered and just a little bit meta: first he takes a photograph, then distorts it, then re-shoots it. What results is an image that's more sculptural than static, which messes with both the medium's depth perception and tradition. In his latest Concrete Composition series, Vivian responds to images of war and conflict by taking literal chunks of concrete and shooting them against subject-less, vibrant hues (photographs within themselves). He’ll be showing this new series at Sydney Contemporary (Australasia's international art fair) at the Galerie pompom stand. We caught up with him ahead of the event, which opens on September 10, to find out more about his latest work and overall thoughts on the subversion of photography.
The Creators Project: When did you first pick up a camera?
Vivian Cooper Smith: I received a camera for a birthday present when I was around 12. It was an Instamatic of some sort, not particularly sophisticated, but I remember forcing my family to sit in the blazing hot sun for an eternity while I composed the shot. Needless to say the image isn’t a great one but it opened my eyes to the world of photography.
A lot of your photographic work pushes the limits of a two-dimensional surface. By cutting and collaging, you give static images an almost sculptural feel. Why are you so interested in tampering and subverting?
It’s been understood for as long as photography has been around that the photograph is not an accurate depiction of reality and yet we as a community still refer to it as a documentary process and rely on its perceived truthfulness. I’m interested in interrupting these presumptions. I believe the photographic object can be an effective device to explore broader philosophical questions but to do that effectively photography’s role as a mediated image needs to be brought into the open or at least questioned. By messing around with the materiality of the photograph I highlight the nature of its construction and hopefully open up a critical dialogue around image-making and its relationship to the world. Re-photographing crumpled or ‘sculpted’ prints creates a curious illusion of depth, which is useful in initiating this dialogue.
Do you manipulate them by hand or is it done digitally?
I do both. For most of my work I physically manipulate the printed image before re-photographing it. I enjoy the tactile action of damaging the printed photograph. It’s a considered process—a performance of some kind—of which the final image is the result. I shoot digitally and so there is an inevitable and important processing, editing and manipulation stage as well. I like the construction of making to be ambiguous to the viewer and so I deliberately have a multi-staged process, which is both analogue and digital. In the work from And yet, but for these flowers I did explore digital collage, which was an enjoyable process. In this instance I didn’t hide the fact that the images were made through a digital process however as a final stage I printed out the collage, crumpled it and re-photographed it, which added a dimensionality to the image.
Can you tell us a bit about your Concrete Composition series—why use concrete and what does it mean?
This series came from an urge last year to respond to the images of destruction and conflict that seemed to be on every TV news or website I saw. Border conflicts and national identity seem to dominate our lives and yet it can seem so arbitrary to someone on the outside. Walls go up and walls come down in piles of rubble. The role of concrete seemed to be central to this cycle and I started thinking, “Why not leave the walls broken?” rather than constantly rebuilding these divisive barriers. So I made some concrete and broke it into fragments that then formed these images. In some ways it’s a celebration of the broken wall; an optimistic look at a world that celebrates difference and diversity and where identity is not formed by having an opposite or enemy.
Even though you’re dealing with some pretty serious themes, a lot of the time your artworks are actually really pleasant and beautiful to look at. Is there any reason for this, is it to sort of ‘lure’ the viewer in and then get them to think a bit harder?
I don’t deliberately go about trying to create beautiful images but I do like to make images that I like to look at. If they’re beautiful, I hope they are because they aren’t perfect and resonate with a real engagement with the world around me. My images are mostly made from broken, damaged or temporal things. I like to think they carry something bittersweet or melancholic in spite of their overt prettiness. In the example of the Beginnings images, the rose garden where the images began is the site of my grandparents’ first kiss. It’s a lovely event to reflect on but it has a sadness given they’re no longer here. Flowers have always reminded me of the joy and sadness in life.
Vivian Cooper Smith is represented by Galerie pompom. He will be showing his Concrete Compositions series at Sydney Contemporary, which runs from September 10-13 at Carriageworks. Find out more about the fair here and visit Vivian’s site here.