The capitalist economy is sexist: women earn less than men for doing the same job and the glass ceiling prevents them from ever reaching the top. Mainstream media are biased against LGBTs and propagate heterosexuality as the norm. It’s usually systems that are accused of being skewed against minorities, and usually on just grounds. But Adam Broomberg and Oliver Chanarin take it one step further. The artist duo echoes French filmmaker Jean-Luc Godard who, when shooting a film in Mozambique in 1977, refused to work with Kodak film because "Kodak film is racist." According to them prejudice can be inherent to a machine. Photo-cameras and the film used in them have been constructed in such a way to make white people look good and turn dark-colored faces into smudges with only teeth and eyes lighting up. Being the leading manufacturer of film worldwide, Kodak is identified as the main culprit.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Shirley 1, 2013 © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / Lisson Gallery, London
For celluloid, Kodak used fair-skinned women to measure and calibrate skin tones. These models, who would appear at the start of each strip of film, were called "China girls." The photography equivalent is called Shirley, named after the first model used. An enlargement of this Waspy housewife serves as the opening image of the Broomberg & Chanarin show at FOAM. A sign to her left says "normal." It was only in the early 1980s that Kodak started developing color film more susceptible to darker tones, but only because two of its most important clients, the furniture and chocolate industry, had requested it. ‘To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light’ was the tagline used for marketing the new film product. Fittingly, Broomberg and Chanarin have used the phrase as title for their exhibition.
Broomberg and Chanarin came to photography by way of philosophy and social studies, which at least partially explains their ideologically inspired approach of the medium. Their first joint project was Trust (1998-2000), which consists of documentary portraits of unposed subjects, such people playing video games and hospital patients under anaesthesia. Not one person the artists approached for the series refused to be photographed, even though they couldn’t control the way they looked on film. In the artists’ eyes it proved the authority of the camera.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4, 2012 © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / Lisson Gallery, London
The starting point for their current project was the invitation by the government of Gabon to document life and culture in the West-African nation. For their assignment Broomberg and Chanarin used Kodak stock from the sixties which had long exceeded its expiration date. Every single picture they took failed completely, except for one. Kodak Ektachrome 34 1978 frame 4, as it is titled, shows some luscious vegetation, which because of pigment deterioration looks pink instead of green. Richard Mosse’s infrared pictures from Eastern Congo immediately come to mind. But where Mosse employs unconventional and absurd coloring to open our news-wary eyes to the reality of civil war, Broomberg and Chanarin try to promote an unassuming, rather dull picture to the level of conceptual evidence. According to them it proves that "the technology of image-making is as politically fraught as the images it produces."
Still, Broomberg and Chanarin are very consistent in their methodology of appropriating technology and tweaking it. When working in South Africa for example, they used an ID-2 camera. Kodak had built this machine, outfitted with a flashlight to produce 42 percent more light and two lenses to produce a portrait and a prolife in one go, for the Apartheid regime. It was used to make the much-hated passbooks, mandatory for all black South Africans. In 1970 a Kodak chemist named Caroline Hunter discovered her employer’s scheme and started a protest movement which resulted in Kodak eventually pulling out of South Africa. Some four decades later Broomberg and Chanarin try to dismantle the technology’s racist origins even further by taking the ID-2 camera into the wilderness of the Karoo and making mostly blurry double portraits of flowers, plants and animals.
Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, Strip Test 4, 2012 © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / Lisson Gallery, London
Broomberg and Chanarin are attempting to rewrite photography’s history by overlaying it with aesthetics. In 165 Portraits with Dodgers headshots of Africans are lined up in a grid, reminiscent of the way early anthropologists classified and categorized indigenous people. The faces are partially obscured by white geometric shapes caused by so-called dodgers, a manual device used in darkrooms to make parts of a photograph lighter. The result is an obvious denial of the individuality of those represented, but mostly it’s a visually attractive installation.
There’s an undeniable logic to the artists’ methodology, unmasking the Eurocentric, Caucasian bias in photography, but it feels somewhat outdated as well. This breaking down of a phenomenon into basic assumptions and the identity of its producer was the mainstay of late twentieth century postmodernism. Broomberg and Chanarin are masters of this academic game, down to the wealth of cross-disciplinary references. But combined with their aesthetic bend it comes across as rather noncommittal. Worse, in a way, To Photograph the Details of a Dark Horse in Low Light plays the victim card, ignoring all those African artists—from 1960s studio photographer Malick Sidibé to present-day talents such as Oladélé Bamgboyé, Theo Eshetu, and Boubacar Touré Mandémory—who have taken this so-called racist machine into their hands, making it work to their advantage. In the meantime, the curtain has fallen for evil Kodak. Outflanked by the digital revolution the company filed for bankruptcy in 2012, only to re-emerge last year as a manufacturer of smartphones and safe-keeper of the world’s last reserves of analogue film and celluloid, much coveted by film directors and photographers who praise its warmth and liveliness.
(Image at top: Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin, I.D.022, 2013 © Adam Broomberg & Oliver Chanarin / Goodman Gallery, South Africa)