the imitation game

lessons from the exercise (and art) of reproduction (?)

I wouldn’t call myself an artist. I have made “art” before, I have taken VISA classes, and I have a lot of opinions about what good art looks like, but, though I might be willing to try, I couldn’t confidently tell you what art even is or what an artist is supposed to do. It was a relief, then, to hear what my final assignment would be for Issues & Images, a RISD seminar in the photography department. We were instructed to choose a contemporary photographer, research their technique and influences, and produce 10 images that either copied their compositions directly or encapsulated their approach to the medium. I had the sense that the mechanical process of photo making would make this easy. I wasn’t being asked to layer oil paint, or to deliver the perfectly proportioned human features of Renaissance paintings. I just had to point and shoot, maybe adjust the lens a bit, maybe move a few lights. It would be time consuming and technically demanding, but at least I wasn’t being asked to produce that evasive thing, “art.”


Whatever art is, one thing is clear: it values originality. The rebellion of artists against precedent makes for the constant expansion of the artistic canon and the redefinition of its standards. When the Impressionists decided that visible brushstrokes and ordinary subjects were equally worthy of canvas space as epic religious scenes, the standards for art embraced it … eventually. In 1914, when Marcel Duchamp presented his collection of “readymade” art (a bottle rack, a snow shovel, a urinal) in a gallery space, its defiance of traditional interpretations of the term stretched our already edited and re-edited understanding of art. Painting things that don’t physically exist? Making art out of splattered paint? What is this? I guess we’ll call it art! Revolutionary movements and artists that challenged their precedent are the basis for art history curricula everywhere. With such expectations for subversion, there was no way my pursuits of imitation could be considered art.


For my assignment, I chose to impersonate David Hilliard. I was fascinated by his use of multi-paneled panoramic photographs to construct subjective spaces. As you move from one image to the next, the changing focal points force you into a particular way of seeing. His portraits applied cinematic techniques, but without the extended narratives of film. I was eager to try them. Each one of his pictures added to a checklist of things to keep in mind and replicate: 1. Shift perspective between images. 2. Match lines and colors across photos. 3. Use low and alternating depth of field. 4. Show the state of relationships through their physical distancing on the frames. These were specific visual concerns that I knew I could master by spending some quality time with my DSLR.


The more I researched Hilliard, the more I learned about his influences and his intentions, the more loaded each image seemed and the harder to replicate. His style and thus the characteristic elements in his photos, for one, were explained by his biography. He had originally considered studying film, for example, because he wasn’t satisfied with the temporal limits of photography. Hence the editing together of close-ups across the panels. Makes sense. Other information, though, posed more problematic limits to my attempted forgery. My checklist of things to imitate grew almost impossible: 5. Represent ideals of masculinity through juxtaposition. 6. Negotiate between identities and their representations. 7. Reflect on generational gaps and familial relationships. The images Hilliard was producing were not objective, but reflections on his youth and a direct product of lived experience. Something happened between the pointing and shooting, something specific to the photographer and something I could not access or copy with my own machine.


Picking the closest thing to Hilliard’s subject matter that I could execute, I decided to photograph my dad. I would keep the variables the same, work with the items on the list that were concrete, and see if the outcome was different. Many of David Hilliard’s pictures show relatively casual, domestic routines. While I was home for Thanksgiving, I photographed my dad in the supermarket, my dad in our backyard, my dad building his model airplanes. It demanded a different way of seeing, I realized: in that moment, our dynamics were different, suspended. I was simultaneously a detached observer and completely subject to my own point of view. Later, sitting in the lab for hours staring at overlapping Photoshop windows, I combined images into panels and constructed what became a fairly accurate portrait of my dad. Or at least of the way I know him, around the house and surrounded by his plans and tools.


Something happens between the pressing of the button and the light bouncing to the lenses and sensors inside a camera, something more than the physics. It’s easy to dismiss photography as documentation or as easily replicated, as I did, or as an easy way of faking artistry (see: Instagram filters). Its slow acceptance into the art chronology reveals that. But it’s more than that. Photography as art demands the mediation of reality through more than technological means. It doesn’t have to be intentional, I don’t think, because whether you mean it to or not, it happens. In capturing a scene or building an image, you assert not only its having existed or happened but your presence before it. Photos can, and maybe always do, absorb their context and the photographer’s accumulated self.


I didn’t mean to make art, to “express myself” or to affirm my perspective through record. I meant only to imitate and forge and learn about the process of photo-making. However, these attempts only emphasized the infinite differences between Hilliard’s life and mine. The limits and technical conditions Hilliard used express his life and perspective, and when I tried to use them myself they expressed mine. The art is in the context, in the infinitely precise conditions that went into producing it, and that’s not something you can falsify or recreate—though I might try.