Rights Managed commercial stock photographs hired for one month, then whitewashed over
For A Period Eye, curated by Richard Denyer
Norwich Castle Museum and Art Gallery, Norfolk, England
This commission called for a response to a historic photographic archive; as a starting point we engaged with a contemporary archive, a stock photographic agency. We decided not to make new photographs but to hire existing ones, and then appropriate them as a way of focusing attention on their ownership and control.
In commercial stock photography, the photographer produces images not for a specific commission, but to be hired out by the agency for an agreed purpose and period of time. The images may be understood as commodities in themselves, as signs produced in speculation of market demand. Vast numbers of such images are grouped in generic categories, which aim to 'reflect current trends and aspirations'.
Pursuing a strategy of acquiring photographic archives and agencies, the Corbis Corporation currently holds over 70 million images, and is implicitly acknowledged as the worlds largest collection. Corbis is owned by the richest man in the world: Bill Gates, co-founder and chairman of Microsoft.
We connected the economies of stock photography and contemporary art by using our production budget to pay for the licensing of images for one month, according to the terms and conditions set by Corbis. Our picture search combined keywords for a region and a genre, 'East Anglia Landscape', which yielded just four images.
Corbis permits its clients to produce an agreed number of prints of an image, while retaining ownership and control of the image's appearance. At the end of the contractually agreed period of one month, we kept the photographic prints in place on the gallery wall, but whitewashed over their glazing so that the images were obscured. Thus A Month in the Country trapped the image within the photograph, transforming the framed prints into abstract conceptual objects.
During the Reformation, whitewash was used to obliterate religious wall paintings in Catholic churches, transforming them into austere places of Protestant worship. Today, an enduring legacy of Modernism is the use of white-painted walls as the defining visual statement of the contemporary art gallery. Within capitalism, the whitewashing out of shop windows has come to denote bankruptcy.
A Month in the Country is the title of the novel by JL Carr, in which a young man attempts to recover from the trauma of the First World War. He spends his summer days in a mediaeval country church, meticulously revealing a biblical scene of damnation painted on the wall, which had been hidden by whitewash since the Reformation.