Dissatisfied with the limitations of photography, Adam Broomberg navigates the medium’s shortcomings with a singular dexterity.
His scepticism of the medium shapes his conceptual enquiries, as too does his discomfort with the intractable dynamics between photographer and subject. This ethical unease has informed not only his own work but much of that made with fellow photographer Oliver Chanarin (b. 1971). Their prolific two-decade collaboration, which began in the late 1990s, shifted from an editorial approach aligned with photojournalism to a more conceptual bent – the pair pursuing a bricolage study of conflict and its images. In 2021 a death notice and ‘posthumous’ retrospective of their shared archive, ‘The Late Estate of Broomberg & Chanarin’, announced the end of their creative partnership.
Striking out alone, Broomberg has since turned his attention to portraiture and its attendant failings. He applies both analogue methods and digital means to the genre and offers an extended understanding of what might constitute the ‘pictured self. His collaborative works made with trans-activist and actress Gérsande ‘Gigi’ Spelsberg as subject consider identity’s plurality across mediums – among them, one hundred near-identical portraits shot in medium format film, Glitter in My Wounds (2021), and an algorithm-generated video notating Gigi’s transition, Going. Full Time. 1 (2021). Such propositions of imaging identity are further explored in the artist’s obscure self-portrait, adam.baby (2021), which bends AI learning to cryptic ends. Fed thirty years of Broomberg’s internet search history and emails, the resulting neural network allows viewers to converse – by way of text – with a machine consciousness fashioned after the artist’s own.
If Broomberg is sceptical of photography, his sentiments regarding collage come closer to dismissal. But such disregard has proven productive. ‘I think collage is to art what sarcasm is to humour. It’s easy, not very smart or critical, the artist said of his ‘Blood in the Cut’ series (2020) in correspondence with the author in 2022. ‘Maybe it’s because I don’t respect the medium that it allowed me to mess around and get dirty and personal for a change. The series recounts a decade-long exchange between Broomberg and publisher Michael Mack, who sent the artist photobooks that were later returned, augmented or wholly undermined (the choice of words, the artist suggests, is a question of allegiance). To their pages, Broomberg applied squid ink, his own blood, the blade of a cutting knife, and images and texts both made and found.
The resulting works – substantially enlarged digital reproductions of these collages – document discrete moments in this performative, time-based redaction – Broomberg working with and against the original photographs. They are, too, portraits after a fashion, however faceless – not of their sitters, rendered anonymous, but of the artist and his discontents. That the only likeness is a death mask, in Blood in the Cut #33, is perhaps telling.
Lucienne Bestall for “Vitamin C+:Collage in contemporary art” by Phaidon, 2023