We often forget that photographs have always been imprecise, corrupted by multiple levels of artifice. Printing techniques have long allowed photographers leeway with the fiction of objectivity; the camera itself is probably best thought of as an editing tool, rather than as a mimetic machine of pure reproduction. The New York début of the deft young German photographer Florian Maier-Aichen, which ran in parallel with an almost identical version mounted at Blum & Poe in Los Angeles, provided an opportunity to consider again our faith in the photographic image, however misplaced.
One needn’t look far to find examples of this faith around the art world. Thomas Ruff said rather remarkably in 1993 that ‘most of the photos we come across today aren’t really authentic any more – they have the authenticity of a manipulated and pre-arranged reality’. We get the larger point, but given the fact that the pioneering French photographer Gustave Le Gray combined separate negatives of sky and ocean to make his celebrated seascapes as early as 1856, we might ask why and how this belief in ‘authenticity’ survived the 19th century for Ruff to pretend it existed intact in the late 20th.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Le Gray happens to be one of Maier-Aichen’s heroes; Ruff, on the other hand, is the seeming heir to the influential German brand of objective photography promulgated by Bernd and Hilla Becher that is the most obvious target of Maier-Aichen’s work. In this show an imploding smokestack (all works untitled, 2005, unless otherwise indicated) alludes so strongly to Becher-style industrial portraiture that you would be forgiven for thinking it quotes an actual Becher photograph. The image combines a rough, rendered quality – the industrial architecture has the appearance of a pastel drawing or painted backdrop – with a polished, lush blue sky. It turns out that the sky is the only part of the image captured with a camera: Maier-Aichen drew the rest on the computer, using an image he found in a book on architectural demolition. The deconstructive drama of its subject and this handmade, subjective method mount a clever, if slightly literal, attack on the Bechers’ legacy.
Given his interest in the natural and artificial sublime, and our relationship to image culture, it makes sense that Maier-Aichen went to Los Angeles in 1999 to attend graduate school. He now divides his time between Cologne and California. His odd, computer-rendered version of the Fox logo (20th Century Fox), at first seemingly out of place here, in some sense symbolizes the German–American axis of Maier-Aichen’s experience and interests, his place somewhere between German Romantic and 19th-century American landscape painting, and his shifting position between the likes of Andreas Gursky, Thomas Struth and Ansel Adams. In Maier-Aichen’s hands a classic piece of Hollywood reveals hidden fascist undertones.
His aerial infra-red pictures of Malibu and the June Lake ski resort in northern California (Above June Lake) feel at once unremarkably pedestrian and other-worldly. This kind of low-boil push/pull between American postcard genericism and old-world ascetic sublime animates much of Maier-Aichen’s work, particularly his stunning twinkling images of Lucerne and some northern California suburbs, digitally unmoored from their respective landscapes.
Might certain contemporary photographers be over-emphasizing our adherence to photographic truth in order to make their supposed transgression of it worthy of our attention? Probably, but Maier-Aichen isn’t one of them. Somewhat hilariously, he builds labour into his image-making process where none need exist. Untitled (Insel Vilm) is a picture of a boat cruising a quiet river. The idyll, however, is immediately disrupted by a disjuncture of scale between landscape and boat. Maier-Aichen achieved this by strapping a 30-foot cut-out of the cruise ship’s shape to a small motor boat so he could get the wake and reflection right; then he had a 3D digital model of the cruiser dropped into the picture in place of the clunky (and unnecessary) prop.
One wonders if Maier-Aichen’s project might lapse at points into provincial academicism if it weren’t for our obstinate insistence on the inviolate photographic image – an ironic point, since he’s lobbying for a more honest engagement with photography’s lack of honesty. Le Gray wrote that ‘since its first discovery, photography has made rapid progress, especially as regards the instruments employed in its practice. It now remains for the artist to raise it to its proper position among the fine arts.’ Maier-Aichen is among a new generation of photographers that is doing so without fretting over the digital instruments at his disposal. He recognizes that part of the medium’s value as ‘fine art’ depends on dispensing with the myth of veracity that surrounds it, but specifically without giving it its due.