Penelope Umbrico is a hunter-gatherer-aggregator whose works are based on the repetition inherent in our collective practices of image-making. In perhaps her best-known piece, Suns (from Sunsets), ongoing from 2006, she arrays hundreds of thousands of sunset pictures from Flickr as traditional 4-by-6-inch snapshots in wall-size grids. The work points to the banality of the subject (everyone photographs sunsets) and also to the shared humanity underlying the subject (everyone photographs sunsets).
Flickr is likewise the source for a more recent project involving images of the full moon. On view in the main gallery for her exhibition at Bruce Silverstein, Everyone’s Photos Any License (654 of 1,146,034 Full Moons on Flickr, November 2015) consists of more than 650 photographs, ranging from one to 23 inches per side. They were affixed with black tape to a large expanse of wall, forming an irregular grid in which the variously sized lunar disks—appearing silvery, bluish, pinkish or gold—served as recurring compositional elements. Thousands of the moon images that Umbrico found on Flickr were copyrighted, most likely because it requires more sophisticated technology and know-how to take a good picture of the moon than to snap a sunset. Umbrico used both copyrighted pictures, for which she sought and received permission, and openly available ones. All of these details wouldn’t matter, though, if the installation were not mesmerizing in its own right. Umbrico asks us to contemplate the way images are circulated, appropriated and viewed in today’s digitized world, but she also alludes to the reasons people are compelled to photograph the moon to begin with: it is a familiar and yet mysterious presence—always there but always out of reach.
Other works treated the full moon in different configurations. In two framed compositions, the moons were assembled by color: one was a loose grid of blue and silver moons, the other of gold and orange moons, the hues achieved by Umbrico through filters. A video loop on the wall showed screenshots of moon images passing by as if being swiped by an invisible viewer on a tablet screen.
At the back of the gallery, meanwhile, a long sheet of paper unfurled from the wall onto the floor, featuring every image (1,146,034) tagged “full moon” on Flickr. Everyone’s Photos Any License: Screenshot 2015-11-04 14.22.59, like the other works in the show, called into question the preciousness of the individual photograph and brought to mind long-standing debates in the history of photography about mechanical reproduction versus individual authorship. It also lent transparency to Umbrico’s process of selecting and editing from the massive archive of images on the Internet.
A similar dynamic was at play in the first room of the gallery, where Umbrico showed 15 prints of sunlight streaming through the tall windows of New York’s Grand Central Terminal. A wall-size silent video of those same images played in an alcove. Like the moon photographs, the Grand Central images are slightly different views of a subject we collectively find awe-inspiring. They were taken by various photographers (John Collier, Edward Hulton, Underwood & Underwood, etc.), beginning in the early 1900s, and Umbrico sourced the images from different websites, as the visible watermarks indicate.
With its focus on light—emitted by the sun, the moon or a computer screen—and its reflective properties, Umbrico’s work approaches the Internet as a kind of mirror, in which we gaze at what she calls on her website “a collective archive that represents us.”
Penelope Umbrico scours eBay, Craigslist and other online shopping sites for pictures of goods broken, flawed and outmoded to capture and print. Her fascination is with the kind of sub-rosa, generic photography—nearly invisible as a genre—that has evolved in service to the late capitalist trend toward “goods and services . . . exchanged at a prodigious rate” (as Jean-François Lyotard wrote 30 years ago). In the marketplace’s process of natural selection, Umbrico’s subjects are on their way out.
In “Broken Sets (eBay),” 2009-10, a series of digital C-prints, Umbrico transforms images of damaged LCD monitors into dreamy color abstractions. Vendors of these busted TVs advertise them switched on so that buyers will know they “work.” Light leaks through cracks and holes in striated spectrums, drippy horizons and clouded pools. Since Umbrico uses metallic paper, the prints also have a sheen. In an earlier body of work, she collected images of intact TVs for sale, always with the monitors mirroring both the camera flash and strangely intimate, shadowy reflections of the sellers. You can’t help but wonder what private drama produced the destruction in “Broken Sets”—the five holes in one set look as if shot out by bullets. In another, diabolically fractured images of wide-eyed Power Puff Girls materialize in the ruins as witnesses to whatever event did them in.
Umbrico’s prints are varied in format and technology; she chooses her matrix with a thoughtful sense of what fits the subject. For “Desk Trajectories (As Is 20 Desks),” 2010, 20 black-and-white images (all 8½ by 11 inches) are produced in a medium called Risography, which generates digital prints in great number from a drum-shaped apparatus. (This is an edition of just five.) Umbrico wanted her pictures velvety and dark because they show built-in cubicle desks for sale “as is” on the Internet, and she liked the idea of pairing desks and inkiness. (In conjunction with the show, she also produced a handsome little black-on-black Troy Brauntuch-like artist’s book of the desks, in which the pages actually smudge your fingers as you turn them.) Whoever was selling the goods cropped the initial images close so that the furniture barely fits inside the frame, let alone into its architectural niche. The series presents a suggestive obsolescence reminiscent of that of the Bechers’ towers and silos.
More humorous is Zenith Replacement Parts—eBay (2009), a 13-square-inch grid of 20 powdery-looking digital C-prints showing sealed, dusty boxes presumably containing components for sale. Hard to tell, though, what’s on offer, since all we see is the closed boxes. Why anyone would want to take a risk on parts for obsolescent TVs is a mystery, to be sure, but Umbrico forces us to recognize our desire to see and understand, itself a kind of consumption, as something deep and essential, and equally impenetrable. We are all too willing to jettison common sense in order to indulge.
Photo: Penelope Umbrico: From the series “Broken Sets (eBay),” 2009-10, digital C-print on metallic paper, 30 by 40 inches; at LMAK Projects.