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Prix 1987 - 2007

ORF Oberösterreich

Fictitious Portrait
Keith Cottingham

The photograph "Fictitious Portrait" by Keith Cottingham - the portrait unsettles the viewer. One seems to sense that this photograph could have never been taken in "reality". With the help of electronic reproduction K. Cottingham creates a portrait of multiple personas.

Keith Cottingham's work "Fictitious Portraits" gnaws away at two of the foundation myths of Modernism: the scientific objectivity of the photograph, and the creative authenticity of subjectivity. His photographic triptych demonstrates that both notions are merely social constructions.

Computer technology makes Cottingham's exploration technically possible. Through the techniques of electronic imaging he has literally loosened his photographs from their tether to a light-sensitive material's reproduction of aspatio-temporal constellation - to what Modernity has labelled "reality". Cottingham has cut the umbilical cord to the Modern and has entered into the imagined, virtual space which lies beyond the "real".

Yet, what is most exciting about "Fictitious Portraits", what sets it apart from manufactured make-believe, where effect serves as seductive escapism, is that this virtuality folds back the cover upon the mysteries - both glamorous and terrifying - of "Modern" society.

Yet, by mimicking representational photography so craftily, "Fictitious Portraits" demonstrates that as a label, "realism" is remarkably elastic, and that just like painters, photographers invent rules and schemata for laying downvisual signs. Photographs no more guarantee reality than paintings do. In the words of E.H. Gombrich, photography as well as painting is "something akin to visual hallucination".

We find, then, that Cottingham's concern is not with "realism", but with what he calls "constructed realism": "The realism in my work serves as a revealing mirror into ourselves and into our inventions, both charming and nauseating. Technique simply serves to project the imaginary reality".

Through electronic reproduction Cottingham draws on what is imagined and writes it upon the real. The illusion of photographic authenticity, then, allows him to combine otherwise discrete and even competing contexts. Yet, the artwork becomes not a collage of an image, but a collage of reality. This ability to construct the essence of the real and imagine its content is what gives Cottingham's work its unsettling power.

In "Fictitious Portraits", electronic re-production allows Cottingham to use and abuse photography's myth; its privileged claim to the real, to criticise what he calls "the most important invention of modern times - the subject." The self, the Modern notion of personhood, is what is being called into question by Cottingham's photographic triptych.

By hybridising himself with others, by creating characters out of clay, anatomical drawings and numerous photographs of different races, genders, and ages, instead of representing subjects, Cottingham imagines bodies. These seemingly formal photographic portraits are the foreground to human reality as construction, as the product of signifying activities which play upon the body. As Cottingham poetically describes the image: "There's the lifeless, external shell with its guilt, angrily questioning the viewer's responsibility, leaving body, blank eyes. Breath. Older, hard, intense - younger, innocent, relaxed. Unaware. Flux of warning, guilt, worried questioning. In the blink of an eye, the movement between life and stagnation." Through the construction of bodies, made possible by electronic reproduction, Cottingham shows that selves, like "Fictitious Portraits", are mental collages made from numerous images from the past, future, and the imagined. By creating a portrait as multiple personas, the "self" is exposed not as a solidified being, but as the product of social and internal interaction. Cottingham shows that discourse involves the "match" of the signifiers "I" and "you" to ideal representation, and that it is through such representations that the subject finds itself.
(Greg Grieve/Keith Cottingham)

Technical Background
HW: Macintosh II
SW: Adobe Photoshop