Stranger Than Fiction–Joan Fontcuberta


I finally managed to get to this exhibition – and I wasn’t disappointed!  Fontcuberta’s work has already featured in here and in my Contextual Studies, as has his writing.  His highly creative and imaginative use of photography to create fiction; his intelligent and thoughtful essays; and his subversive sense of humour, too; they have all proved informative and inspirational for this Body of Work.  But this was, apart from the occasional image seen in multiple-person exhibitions, my first opportunity to look at his work ‘first hand’.  The show, which moved up from Media Space at the Science Museum in London to the National Media Museum in Bradford, during the autumn, includes work from six different projects.  It seems sensible to look at them under those six headings.


Based on the ‘discovery’ by Fontcuberta and a colleague, of the archive of mysterious and controversial ‘zoologist’ ‘Professor Peter Ameisenhaufen’, Fauna presents ‘documentary evidence’ in the form of diaries, photographs and ‘taxidermy’ of the strange creatures that he came across through his research and network of ‘informants’.  It is, of course, all fiction, but superbly presented – and all the more subversive and provocative for that.  There are samples of handwritten notebooks, smudged, stained and blotted;  there are bone samples, sound recordings, even ‘stuffed’ animals; there are typed up versions of the handwritten notes, printed on yellowish, punched paper and pasted to the ‘museum-green’ walls; and of course there is the indisputable photographic evidence – black and white, grainy, sometimes blurred by the ‘animal’s’ movement!  All of which creates a slightly dated, museumish feel  that at one and the same time precisely reproduces the evidence-based approach of many 19th and early 20th century scientific explorers, and totally subverts it.

A number of points worth noting to inform my own work are:

  • the combination of text with photographic images to create fictions;
  • the appropriation of photographic (and language) styles;
  • the deadpan delivery, but with humour;
  • and the way in which, besides the direct questions about photography and truth/evidence, the work touches on some wider ethical issues e.g. the recurring and apparently innocent explanations of the deaths of the captured species, the references to their behaviour in the contexts of birth, death, reproductions, responses to humans;
  • the completeness and thoroughness of what was presented.


Again, strong references to traditional photography of botanical specimen, e.g. Bosshardt, applied to constructed ‘plant’ samples that are completely artificial and made from all sorts of household objects, as well as real plant parts.  The selection of beautifully lit and printed black and white images was displayed on a single wall, perfectly evenly spaced, in three rows, with an equivalent numbered printed key at each end that listed their scientific names. An entirely ‘convincing’ and deadpan presentation which again both reproduced and subverted the original genre of image.  A strong reminder here of how aesthetics can add credence to a photographic presentation – even a fictitious one.


In this work, Foncuberta moves into the genre of Landscape – in traditional painting, in fine art photography, and even in geography.  These images, printed large scale and often in full colour, mimic the sublime modernist landscape photographs; yet, once again, they are fictions, and not even photographs in this case.  In many cases, they combine, strangely, map-reading software and paintings.  The software, used by geographers, reads scanned map images and converts them into 3-D terrains.  But Fontcuberta has (as he put it in one of the exhibitions films) also ‘fooled’ the computer.  Instead of maps, he has fed in scans of paintings (and of body parts in some cases), from which the software creates 3-D fictions, to which he then adds details, such as animals and water and sky.  The outcome is interesting and effective – though it does have a computer-generated feel about it, to be truthful.  And this reaction was probably not helped by having watched one of Disney’s most recent animations, Frozen, a few days before.  Created in 2002, Orogenesis cannot match up-to-date Hollywood CG landscapes – though I’m not quite sure just what I’m saying there, since both are entirely in the hyper-real bracket! So what is the benchmark?


This is an earlier body of work that, again, does not involve the use of a camera.  Claiming to be a keen amateur astronomer, Fontcuberta has ‘depicted the night sky’.  The key word here is ‘depicted’.  It isn’t the night sky at all but, according to a passing comment in another exhibition film, mosquitos and other insects splattered on the screen of a car.  He doesn’t explain exactly how the images are produced, but presumably it is some form of photogram.  The most interesting aspect for me, again, was the presentation.  Quite large scale images, principally black, with spots and splashes of white, were hung either side of a dimly lit space, and I was immediately reminded of Sugimoto’s monumental ‘sideways’ landscapes in Arles 2013, where the scale, muted black and white tones, and dimmed lighting produced something akin to a religious experience.  Fontcuberta hadn’t quite achieved that, but he was, I think, appropriating and subverting the style.


This section is based on the history of another mysterious ‘historical’ character – Father Jean Fontana – who discovered, whilst living and teaching in the Southern French Alps in 1947, the fossilised remains of an extinct (mythical?) creature called Hydropithecus alpinus, half monkey, half fish.  Fontcuberta, has been hired by National Geologic (sic) magazine to do a photographic study of what is now a ‘World Heritage Site’.  There is a life-size plaster cast of one of the perfectly preserved skeletons, in a glass case, surrounded by large-scale, full colour prints of the site and the fossils.  Camera angles, compositions, use of focus etc, all copy the ‘fine art’ style of such ‘real’ magazine photography – albeit somewhat self-consciously.  There are other artefacts associated with Father Fontana, in glass cases, a ‘mock-up’ of the feature as it appeared in ‘National Geologic’, and a documentary film that would site perfectly comfortably on one of the dozens of documentary TV channels – apart from the occasional surreally gauche moment that just keeps everything on the ‘wrong’ side of ‘truth’.  This was, perhaps, the most complete of the fictions, with less text than, say, Fauna, and was probably the best section of all, for me.  It brings home, again, the importance of ‘completeness’ in presenting fictions, including a ‘back story’.  I have been debating how to use the ‘back stories’ with my own Portraits series and this exhibition has convinced me that I should give serious consideration to their inclusion in quite an overt way.

Karelia, Miracles & Co

Gallery fatigue was, I admit, beginning to set in by this stage.  This is a series that I had probably given most pre-attention to – given the use of the ‘self-portrait’ – but I found it the least satisfying in the exhibition.  Great fun, of course, and delightfully ‘delivered’, but erring a little towards the ‘daft’.  Of course, this could well have been deliberate, since there is a kind of double-bluff going on here.  The monastery in Karelia that supposedly trains monks to perform miracles is being visited by an investigative journalist and photographer, Joan Fontcuberta, posing as a novice monk.  So, the outcome, given that this journalist has set out to expose the monastery as a fraud, has a deliberate agenda to make things look ‘daft’.  So Fontcuberta is certainly not sending up the monastery and its miracles but he is questioning the approach of the investigative press, with their preconceived ideas and their tendency to look more for spectacle and entertainment than for ‘truth’.

So, a well-presented and thought-provoking exhibition that has helped me understand the quality, thoroughness and sheer creativity of Fontcuberta’s work.  It was inspiring and informative for my Body of Work, giving me confidence, particularly, with the Portraits series.


1 thought on “Stranger Than Fiction–Joan Fontcuberta

  1. Pingback: Research: Joan Fontcuberta | Stranger Than Fiction | A Degree of Photography Too

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