Brooklyn-based photographer Penelope Umbrico’s latest project involves rephotographing the classic mountainscapes of canonical photographers with her iPhone. As Kirsten Rian describes below, “With the data-driven Internet, the role of photograph has shifted from a static, unique representation to an element contributing to a collective voice.” Umbrico frequently dredges the Internet’s “meta-index” of modern civilization for her work. We hope you will enjoy this original series!
— The Editors
We move mountains. Every day we try: waking and looking up at the vast peaks of bills to pay, health to maintain, and crises to avert. The summits of grown-up life—they are sharp and monumental amid the glorious lavender sky of sharing meals and walking the dog. While most of us have been moving the figurative mountains of modern life, Brooklyn-based photographer Penelope Umbrico has taken on something a little more literal.
One wouldn’t necessarily link smartphones and mountains, but that’s exactly what Umbrico did, turning her iPhone, 47 camera apps, and 526 photo filters on the Swiss Alps, on mountain photographs taken by amateur photographers, and on the mountains that appear in the works of master photographers such as those in Aperture’s Masters of Photography book series, for which she was commissioned to produced a work for the foundation’s 60th-anniversary Aperture Remix exhibition
Umbrico’s Mountains, Moving project began during a fellowship at the Smithsonian Institution in 2012. At the time, she noticed mountains appearing everywhere, the imagery of this geography so iconic and metaphorical, lending itself perfectly to advertising and magazines, and as a muse for artists. Using the online resources of the National Archives and Records Administration, she found reproductions of Ansel Adams’s photographs of mountains. As an artist, Umbrico observes, she makes connections, she follows threads, she uncovers the unfamiliar within the familiar—and she did that while studying these reproductions. Adams’s images are familiar, lodged in our collective memory because of their widespread distribution during the past century. And it is precisely that distribution into which Umbrico delved on a deeper level.
I steady my focus on the mountain: oldest subject, stable object, singular, immovable landmark, site of orientation, place of spiritual contemplation.
Umbrico made the distinction that the archivists’ goal was to render Adams’s images accessible—reproduction quality was not a factor. She found images with high resolution, low resolution, and everything in between. This mix was at odds with Adams’s meticulous, and at the time groundbreaking, focus on craft, yet fundamentally his goal was akin to that of the archivists: share the mountains, the vistas, the vast sky.
Umbrico chose the Apple iPhone to rephotograph the mountain images in an effort to create the greatest distance possible between her own photographic tools and those used for the photographs at which she was looking. “I steady my focus on the mountain: oldest subject, stable object, singular, immovable landmark, site of orientation, place of spiritual contemplation. I employ smartphone camera apps to make new photographs of the images of mountains that appear in canonical master photographs,” she shares.
My mountains are unstable, mobile, have no gravity.
The resulting images spill light and exchange perspective for moments of disorientation, surreal color washes, and iterations of the imagination. The digital C-prints, when hung in a group, translate as a galaxy of line, shape, and bright rainbow-infused layering to these pieces of geography we typically know as immovable anchors to land. In Umbrico’s hands, they lilt.
“Pointing my iPhone down at these mountains, the hallucinogenic colors of the camera app filters blend with the disorienting effects of the iPhone’s gravity sensor. Photo grain, dot screen, pixel, and screen resolution collide, often performing undulating moirés,” she says in her project summary. “My mountains are unstable, mobile, have no gravity….Here is the biggest distance, the longest range.”
The role of photography has shifted from a static, unique representation to an element contributing to a collective voice.
One of 10 photographers invited to make an “intervention” into one of Aperture’s books, Umbrico chose to pivot around the relationship between master and mountain. “I wanted to explore the idea of distance between myself and these masters, the photographer and the subject, and also between photographic technique then and now, photographic stability and instability. The project speculates that the more unstable photography becomes, the more photographs of mountains appear,” she shares.
With a phone camera’s imagery and the data-driven Internet, suddenly the role of photography shifted from a static, unique representation to an element contributing to a collective voice, one that is always changing in timbre and pitch. Umbrico describes this as a collective culture, a “meta-index” of a modern civilization.
Umbrico has also focused her attentions on the mountain images taken by pictorialist George C. Poundstone during his world travels, at the invitation of Bethel University, which houses his collection in its permanent archive. This manifestation was distinct from the Aperture project, because it was entirely screen based. The university emailed scans of Poundstone’s photographs to Umbrico, and two resulting projects—Reconstituted Mountains and Acceptable Mountains—amid the Mountains, Moving project expanded the focus and tonalities, mixing screen grabs and reworked images on C-prints, offset prints, and archival pigment prints. The master became less significant in this context, the range expanded.
A public installation of billboards of the work appeared in the majestic and towering Swiss Alps. Selected for inclusion in the Alt. +1000 festival in Switzerland, Umbrico rephotographed iconic and particularly idyllic images of the Swiss Alps, mostly from vintage images found online and postcards she came across on eBay, photographing some of them directly off the computer screen. The billboards, with their splashy colors and blocks of static imagery, when set against the backdrop of the actual Alps, recontextualize and, in many ways, animate the mountains themselves.
One of the definitions of icon is an object of uncritical devotion.
“I had never actually been to the Swiss Alps—they were mythic in this sense and only existed for me in pictures, movies, and stories,” she shares. “The mountain has always had this distant fantasy aspect to it for me, growing up in Toronto—no mountains anywhere—and as a kid I thought of the idea of going west to Vancouver as very exotic because of the Rockies.” This physical disassociation reinforced the idea of distance in literal and metaphorical expressions, all of which she develops differently in each of the three mountain projects—between herself and the original photographers; between their photographic process and hers; in time; and in geography.
By working with iconic imagery in the Switzerland setting, Umbrico also inserts a discussion on memory and the emotional associations triggered by the objects (manmade and otherwise) that surround our valleys (emotional and otherwise). One of the definitions of icon is an object of uncritical devotion. Another is a sign suggesting meaning. It is not that Umbrico is being critical, but rather she is highlighting the messages inherent in these monolithic forms, taking them out of context, and thus triggering new associations or questions or interactions. “When you ‘frame’ something, formally or conceptually, you are inherently separating it from its context,” she says. “By making a photograph, you are framing the visual world, taking it out of its context by presenting it somewhere else, and hopefully saying something new.”
One of Umbrico’s signatures as a photo-based artist is her ability to find, make, and utilize photography, film, and video in ways that question, challenge, and demonstrate not only thematic content but also meta-messages about the medium of photography itself. She is a collector, repurposing images both still and moving, swapping places with expectations and function, with intent and circumstance, with fact and fiction, with found and made. Her projects also touch upon the role of delivery systems—whether in the traditional form of physical photo paper or on the screen of a smartphone or posted somewhere online—and how that presentation does or does not affect content and meaning.
“In much of my work, I address how differently an image functions on the Internet than in physical time/space, the shifts in meaning around the subject depicted in the image in both contexts, and what happens to the image’s perceived value when transcribed from Web-based to print-based media. The production of each of the projects I do follows the logic of the concept of the work,” she says.
Umbrico uses traditional methods of image appropriation, extraction, and production, as well as new collective practices driven by online capacities now available to artists working in any medium. “A constantly changing autoportrait,” she calls it, and she sees this process as a valuable opportunity to explore not only the medium of photography but also what this imagery and data reveal about culture, and about social needs and wants. “I view all visual expression within this collectively emergent environment as potential for social signs that hint at something other than what they depict.”
Her notable previous projects include Suns from Sunsets from Flickr, in which Umbrico found millions of pictures of sunsets from around the world by searching the word sunset on the image-hosting website Flickr. She downloaded and cropped away all but the sun from these pictures, then made machine prints and exhibited them in grids. This is an ongoing project, and for each new installation Umbrico searches sunset on Flickr and titles the installation with the ever-increasing number of returns she gets and the date. Broken Sets includes screens cropped from images of broken LCD TVs for sale on eBay for spare parts. “These abstract formal compositions,” she explains, “collapse the breakdown and failure of new technology with the aesthetic formalism of utopian modernist abstraction.”