Advertising has proven itself
to be a self-consuming form
of mass entertainment.
Today almost no one would entertain the notion that photography were a guarantor of the truth. With the recent popularization of the digital technique, the belief in the premise that photography attests to a reality on the other side of the objective has been undermined. Almost everybody in possession of a computer is able to load up and re-work pictures of all types. Yet the technical progress of picture production has drawn us ever-deeper into a constructed environment, with every new development bringing an ever-greater ability to simulate the impression of reality. Although we know that the photographs which we encounter in our every day lives are mostly constructions, we are as seducible as never before to lending belief to their attractive semblance.
Since the emergence of new media, artists have also begun to experiment with digital picture productions. They use the entire computer spectrum to produce pictures resembling photographs, or to manipulate photographs. Yet the possibility of manipulating the photographic process did not surface with the invention of the computer. Photographs taken in the analogue form were also an ideal medium – exactly because they enjoyed the status of an "icon of reality" – of intervening in "reality" either in front of the camera, by creating a montage or through using technical tricks. The results varied, then as today, between manipulated reality and a fantasy placed on view, between construction and deconstruction.
Peter Freitag’s photo-based works are also constructions. In them, he takes as his starting point pictures from advertising, private or pseudo private photographs from the internet, which he then subjects to a complex process of re-working. Altogether, it is possible to denominate four groups in his work, which have developed in the last few years. His newest pieces are the SCENES FOR LIFE which find their material in mail order catalogues. Prior to that emerged the series EBAYS. This is based on the photographs used by vendors in order to offer their products in internet auctions. At the same time, he had been working on the series PRIVATE STAGES, based on pornographic picture material taken from the internet, whilst the oldest group of works, EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION took images from travel agent’s catalogues as their material.
Pictures from advertising create a carefree illusory world across which our eyes rove without stopping. Take for example the travel agent’s catalogue. In addition to landscape shots, they offer glimpses of hotel rooms in which groups of people pursue simple activities, which we associate with free time. The protagonists lie on the bed, reading, drinking, eating or playing with the children. The scenes communicate the impression of happiness and contentment and cater to our yearning for harmony.
Yet the impression of the relaxed togetherness is deceptive. In actual fact, the pictures are staged situations, the result of a number of decisions and interventions both in front of and behind the camera and during the subsequent computer editing. Advertising provides us with the symbolic essence of cultural experiences. According to Marshall McLuhan, writing in THE EXTENSIONS OF MAN advertising pictures capture "a broad field of experience in the smallest space" and transform it into fantasy pictures. These pictures appear livelier and more real than the original phenomena and situations, precisely because they concentrate on the essence of the matter.
Advertising photography recycles the picture memory of a society, containing all the pictorial products from tableaus to press pictures. Postures, gestures and mime become consolidated to picture formulas, which are increasingly employed either consciously or unconsciously. Using mores, social behaviour and established conceptions of beauty, the advertisements produce a desire which we feel more intensely, the less thought we give to the way in which the pictures have been produced.
It is thus even more surprising when we come across these goal-oriented pictures in an art context. What makes such pictures interesting for the visual arts?
At first glance, the EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION appear to be homogeneous and complete; initially the interventions in the idyllic holiday situations which the artist has undertaken are hardly visible. It is only upon second consideration that we recognize that all the moveable objects: glasses, books, toys, dishes, have been erased by computer, leaving only people, rooms and basic furniture. The edited pictures are then blown up, their colour contrast strengthened and presented as a series. The pixels are an explicit indication of the printed original – they remain visible or are superimposed on the pictures during the digital editing.
Devoid of the objects, the scenes presented in large format take on a life of their own. In the strange, lifeless world, the figures acting in isolation receive an element of the fantastically unreal. Involuntarily, we begin to bring the gestures and actions of the figures, emptied of all meaning by the absence of the objects, into relation with each other, and attempt to decipher the scenes. Images from the travel agent’s or mail order catalogues offer themselves as the material for Peter Freitag’s treatments, as with admirable economy, the photographs provide the minimum necessary to meet our expectations of an idyllic scenery. They are simply constructed, emotionally satisfying, basic situations, which cater to conservative role clichés and require only a few key props. If we remove only a few elements from the frugally staged, emotionally precise pictures, the semblance of familiar reality collapses in on itself just like the proverbial house of cards.
Again in SCENES FOR LIFE, the artist cuts out – this time entirely mechanically, using scissors – figures posing for the camera in a mail order catalogue and places them in a new context. The differently-sized figures are affixed to panes of Plexiglas using cellotape, which are then arranged in a staggered fashion in front of the image of a room interior, following the rules of perspective, and are then illuminated. The camera‘s lens contracts the scenarios into new situations. The spatial staggering and uniform illumination impart the photographs an optical plausibility and an idiosyncratically intensive penetration. Their theatrical basic situations remind us of the staged photographs in film stills. Presented often as a sequence, they appear as if taken from an episode of a film, which however remains mysterious and fractured. Even more clearly than in the EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION, the SCENES FOR LIFE expose their manufactured status. Unlike the images from the advertisements, Peter Freitag avoids the suggestive explicitness of semblance. The production process remains discernable in the strips of cellotape, light reflections and scratches on the Plexiglas panes.
The EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION and SCENES FOR LIFE exhibit in a simple yet effective manner, how effective and inconspicuously advertising pictures lock on to and reproduce social codes in order to arouse particular emotions. Unnoticeably and without resistance, they merge fluently with the existing image culture. Peter Freitag scratches the surface of the pictures. As simple as the individual manipulations are, they alter the message of the image completely. His manipulations have the effect of barbs which snag the viewer’s gaze.
Without their original order, the pictures can no longer simply be consumed. The drama which one believes to be following does not reach a conclusion in the pictures. For the psychological moments of alienation, happiness or aggression, which we think we read from the pictures, are a creative achievement brought in by us as the viewer. The new situations entice us into a gradually fumbling, enquiring form of viewing. The light veil lying over the scene proves to be a dot matrix, stemming from the printed model; the wish-dream atmosphere as being the effect of a manipulation. Yet even when we recognize how the pictures have been produced, they do not lose anything of their fascination. Their ambivalence is their strength; the message is left open.
What is valid for the EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION and SCENES FOR LIFE can also be demonstrated for the EBAYS and the PRIVATE STAGES. The series PRIVATE STAGES is based upon homemade or appearing to be homemade pornographic photographs taken from the internet. As a rule, the material which Peter Freitag selects shows a single figure assuming a sexually provocative pose. Exactly like the advertisement, the pornography aims at arousing a desire: Lust.
Sexual depictions on the internet, also comparable to advertisement in this point, always reproduce the same poses and contents. Deviations are more often the exception than the rule. The pictures circulating on the internet serve as raw material. They are downloaded by users and used as material for their own private staging. It is thus no surprise that porno photographs and advertisement photos function following the same principle. They follow the paradox of capitalist logic: consumption does not satisfy, but rather produces ever more desire. The hunger for pornographic pictures can never be satisfied.
In a manner similar to EXAMPLES FOR COMMUNICATION, in his processing of naked photos, Peter Freitag concentrates on one element. The actual object of the picture, the figure, disappears. It is pasted over with circles cut out of the picture background using a hole punch. The circles translate the figure into a sort of transparent soap bubble pattern. Instead of the clearly erotic staging of a body, the viewer sees himself confronted with a blank.
With the disappearance of the figure, the world of permanent lasciviousness proves to be a fiction. Only the setting remains and the spot light brings out its very shoddiness and every day nature even more clearly. In addition to the exhibitionism of the body, there is also that of the setting, so that even after the artificial atmosphere of desire has collapsed in on itself, we nevertheless ourselves become voyeurs. Without the theatricality of the pornography, the otherwise carefully protected private sphere becomes the actual subject which had previously been exposed – voluntarily or involuntarily – only together with the body. It is a feeling as if though one has forced one’s way into the house of one’s neighbour. From the pattern of the carpet to bathroom furnishing, book cases, furniture and even photographs of children and relatives, the entirely private world becomes public. EBAYS deals with the problem of the involuntary disclosure of intimate life situations in a similar fashion, when Peter Freitag assembles the photographs of an ebay vendor in a sort of domestic situation. Both EBAYS and PRIVATE STAGES generate a feeling of intimacy, although the people themselves remain anonymous – even though in the case of the background of the PRIVATE STAGES the image supposedly shows only the backdrop of a low-budget photo shoot.
The photo-based work of Peter Freitag makes one thing very clear: the old question regarding the difference between reality and image has declined in relevance. Pictures in art usually relate to other pictures. They mark the intersection between different picture systems, and it is necessary to differentiate between their respective functions and modes of action. Unlike the self-consuming pictures of advertising, the works are both at peace with themselves and represent an organic unity. As works of art they produce an intimate space in which the viewer is invited to fathom their secret. As with painting since the onset of modernity, reflection upon one’s own condition is part of the content. The works lay open their concept and genesis, yet the conundrum of their impact remains intact.