Thinking Images v.26: From Joseph Nicéphore Niépce to Google Images

Given the difficulty of talking about photography, it is possible an image can convey insights about this complex field. Although it is now seven years old, and many will have seen it, Joan Fontcuberta’s Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is perhaps one such image. I’m not often taken by photographic art but seeing Googlegram: Niépce (2005) this week struck a chord.

Fontcuberta’s artwork is based on the first known photograph, Joseph Nicéphore Niépce’s View from the Window at Le Gras (1826). Currently on show at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York as part of the After Photoshop exhibition, the construction of Googlegram: Niépce (2005) is described in these terms:

Fontcuberta created this work by processing the results of a Google Image search for the words “photo” and “foto” through photomosaic software, which generates a tiled picture from a large group of thumbnail images arranged according to chromatic value and density. The result is a composite of ten thousand tiny electronic images that links the photography’s chemical origins to its dematerialized, pixelated present.

It is hard to convey the mosaic, almost impressionistic style, of Fontcuberta’s artwork in a screen grab, but this detailed view gives a sense of the thumbnails that are shaded and shaped to replicate Niépce’s 1826 image.

The link from past to present is neither clear nor linear (and the present is not purely virtual as suggested in the above description), but in representing both the historic and contemporary layers of photography in one image, materialising the popularisation and proliferation of images, Fontcuberta has pictured something important about the complexities of photography.

There remains much anxiety in traditional circles about the impact of vernacular digital imagery and its circulation, not least in the periodic outbursts against apps like Hipstamatic and social media channels like Instagram. Reflecting on the logic of Fontcuberta’s artwork might be one way to rethink the idea that the image present – for all that it involves heightened scale and speed – is just a departure from or corruption of the photographic past.

Image credits: Googlegram: Niépce (2005), copyright Joan Fontcuberta, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art collection; Googlegram 200 detail, from the National Museum of Wales web site.