On Painting Photographs, Post-Internet

Zeynep Beler, Instagram #3, 2016.

Zeynep Beler

Is it possible to adopt an image, welcoming it into one’s familial and legal circle? [1] The speculation has been floating around in my head since 2013 when I first laid eyes on it on Screendump. Its author, conceptual artist, photographer, and “myth-maker” Joan Fontcuberta, makes the case that “post-photography is nothing more than photography adapted to our online life”—and, I would like to propose in the following essay, our creative methods. What was it about the potential of the immaterial image that led me, as an artist, to paint almost exclusively, although my practice remains firmly entrenched in photography? Writing this has proved to be an illuminative process during which I became more and more self-conscious in my practice and motives—through my roots in photography to post-photography, and eventually, painting photographs.

I thought of the quote again last summer when Özge Ersoy, one of m-est.org’s editors, and I were having coffee and she mentioned, in reference to my recent gravitation from photography to painting, the case of documentary photographer and Magnum Photos member Susan Meiselas and her subject from the Guatemalan war (referred to as “Molotov Man”), unceremoniously decoupaged and decontextualized by painter Joy Garnett to be used as basis for a canvas. Magnum Photos made a meandering and ultimately abandoned attempt to limit the painter’s use of the image, in itself a reflection of image-makers’ general struggle to assert copyright in the age of the Internet, which Meiselas herself concedes, exasperatedly, is probably a losing battle. We talked about how I knew what images to paint. Did I use my own photographs or others’? If it was the latter, how did one avoid potentially ethically/legally compromising situations?

Naturally the issue of copyright presents a conundrum of both the personal and public variety for the artist, specifically photographers, for whom the in-camera images and thus their presence and testimony are the currency they deal in. I was reminded of the iconic image of Che Guevera, one of the most familiar, widely circulated images of our time that, just like Meiselas’s Molotov Man, was severed from its context and came to merely represent a universal, messianic icon of resistance. (This documentary that covers the whole story is fascinating.) Post-Internet, this sort of thing has become a commonplace occurring, with predicaments such that of Molotov Man one among countless others. To strip a photograph of its original context in this manner is tantamount to erasing both the photojournalist’s and her subject’s presence at the event photographed, rendering null the “debt of specificity” Meiselas says she owes her subjects.

Because of my proximity to the issues concerning photographs and their subjects, I am doubly cautious in taking liberties with images on the Internet. It helps to follow the road already paved by appropriation art, or as it has also been dubbed in its post-Internet configuration, “neo-appropriation”, which had a predecessor in the work of Sherrie Levine: specifically, her series After Walker Evans, featuring the acclaimed photographs of Walker Evans rephotographed by Levine and presented as her own work—hijacked, if you will. When I first studied it years ago, I was impressed by the clever emphasis on photography’s dependence on contextual clarification well before anything like the Internet was around—it is like an early hypothetical positing of eventually quite real scenarios such as Molotov Man. Predictably, it will seem now, when the work was exhibited in 1981, the Estate of Walker Evans saw it as copyright infringement and, in a twist I presume was due to lack of other plausible legal action, acquired them and prohibited their sale. [2] 

Joy Garnett , Molotov, 2003.
Joy Garnett , Molotov, 2003.
Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4, 1981.
Sherrie Levine, After Walker Evans: 4, 1981.

Now post-photography has begun to offer clearer codes for what’s what. “Virtual photographers” wander the virtual archives of Google Street View, making entire documentary series out of screenshots, reinterpret the work of the previous generation of photographers—which, in an “After Sherrie Levine” arc, can involve taking pictures of screens—and attempt to pin down the worldwide web of communication tenuously forming afresh each day with the morsels of information users provide, arguably all fair use due to taking place in the Internet equivalent of public space. As such, the issue remains as to how to figure out the ethics, our “debt of specificity” (which I don’t think is limited to only the subjects of photographs)? How does photographing a photograph and painting it differ in that regard? In one case the redundant double act of photographing—with the referent caption as safety net—gives the viewer a sense of the artist’s intentions, whereas painting is an entirely different practice, one of representation versus presentation that allows the painter to make the image her own. This isn’t something to make light of in the age of intellectual property, yet with images so readily available now, if not downright thrown at us, many feel entitled to perusing on their own terms what they feel has come to have direct relevance to their own experience.

What “virtual photographers” do, by contrast, is recontextualize images: what Fontcuberta suggests we refer to as adoption. Choosing that word over appropriation implies that the adopter is responsible for the image: to take care of the image in the absence of a parent and in a more open context, with awareness of a watchful public. Most of post-photography focuses on “public” images, Google Images and Street View presently appearing to be its most fertile grounds for source material. Likewise, the most defining characteristic of the images I pick is their anonymity: free-floating bits caught on a hook and forced to become part of the physical world. (So much of the Internet brings the ocean analogy to mind—all the images like messages in bottles, and it’s up to the users to determine the content.)

Jon Rafman, from The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 9-eyes.com.
Jon Rafman, from The Nine Eyes of Google Street View, 9-eyes.com.

The first painting I made was in 2012, of a photograph I found on fail blog thisisphotobomb.com. Thisisphotobomb exclusively features photographs “ruined” by the titular antic: most commonly, when people are earnestly posing for a photograph and the photobomber sneaks up behind them and pulls a hideous face as the shutter is pressed. These pictures are “fails,” discarded by their owners, the reverse chronology of the Internet ensuring their swift burial under an oncoming flux of newer posts. I was interested to see that through paint, a hilariously mistimed snapshot of (presumably) a father bending down to adjust his toddler’s shirt was transformed into some sort of comment on parenthood and identity (or so people who were unaware of the origin of the image interpreted it at the time).

The reflex for picking out orphaned images stood up and declared itself. Noting that the everyday plethora of lo-fi images on my screen could at times pander more credibly to my personal narrative than photographs I took myself, which could be heavily influenced or defined by applied photography, I started to lean into a practice free of those implications. Oil painting comes laden with its own meaning—not that I was relying on that alone, since I don’t paint photorealistically. Rather, I liked the playfulness and leeway in overstating certain tactile qualities of the image, prone to being lost in compression, while assimilating or simplifying other aspects. It allowed me to manipulate a photograph without changing its essence as I perceived it and gave me a new angle in how I saw and presented images where up till now I had been dependent on choices in editing.

A lot of the work I’d done prior to it had focused on monotypical visual catalogs (my used Starbucks cups, grimy purse paraphernalia accumulated over two years) all of which I can broadly describe as self-deprecating narratives of my consumer’s habits in the city—or, you don’t really know a person until you’ve sifted through their garbage. Now, however, I was starting to focus on individual images, and also those not made by me but tagged “found” and filed on my computer with other piquant images, which I suppose is another kind of hoarder’s habit. In any case, during the interval my working space metamorphosed from post-production and editing space to paint-covered studio, images that I “adopted” among others were: YouTube stills of ISIS militants blowing up an ancient tomb or what appear to be around thirty dogs repeatedly jumping in a pool—which I watched in the same sitting, having no idea how I got from one to the other—iPhone photos of American girls at prom “bombing” one another’s photos, police photos, editorial photos accompanying popular science articles, friends’ profile pictures and my own Instagram uploads, plucked out of a sea of lo-fi, fair use, vernacular images.

Zeynep Beler, iPhone smuggler, 2015.
Zeynep Beler, iPhone smuggler, 2015.

Gradually, rather than photographing to find out what something would look like photographed, as Garry Winogrand famously said, I became aware of photographing to find out what something would look like painted. Most photographers should be able to identify with the haptic thrill at seeing professional art prints of one’s photographs, doubtless increased because most of us don’t get the chance—and the funds—to get them very often. I observed, while painting 10×10 cm canvases of my Instagram snapshots, that transposing the tiny images made of light (incidentally, our phone screens are Daguerreotype-sized) into a gleaming surface of paint was similarly satisfying. Instead of pursuing the “perfect” shot—indeed, my disillusionment with this aspect of photography may be the main culprit for my digression, because it’s a bit like chasing a carrot—I presently pursue images that translate to painting-mementos in the most perfect way.

So I can never seem to venture far from my own photography, as decidedly downgraded as my equipment is now, while also still, at times, “adopting” found photographs. One point I make is indicating the origin of the image in the titles of my works, such as untitled (photobomb 1) or untitled (YouTube still). The titles can be considered footnotes or, in the welcome event that the viewer Googles them, manual links. It also brings around the issue of context full circle: the photographs, once again material, are also once again married to captions and dependent on them for full coherence.

Nicholson Baker advocates the practice of copying excerpts out of books “out of a desire to stay delight’s presence rather than autodidactic obligation” so the reader may mull over a passage in Zen-like meditation that “mere underlining [or] an efficient laptop retyping” does not offer. In this sense, on the rudimentary basis of entering a dialogue with the reader/viewer, visual representation is not unlike language. If receptive, we “read” photographs and they fascinate us, so simply put painting photographs may be my current effort to stay the otherwise short-lived presence of images from the collective consciousness, these days embodied by the Internet. (“Just don’t do it too much—“ advises Baker in closing, “and always use quotation marks.”)


[1] Joan Fontcuberta, From Here On (2013), p. 130.

[2] Reena Jana, “Is It Art, or Memorex?”, Wired Magazine, March 21, 2001.

Edited by Özge Ersoy

Zeynep Beler received a BA in Graphic Design from Bilkent University and an MA in Photographic Studies from Leiden University. She lives and works in Istanbul. zeynepbeler.net