News from the Sun: Shaun Waugh

J.G. Ballard was exasperated by David Hockney’s ‘joiner’ photo collages. ‘There is no sense of when the separate photographs were taken’, he wrote. ‘The collages could equally have been shuffled together from cut-up copies of the same snapshot’. Seeing only an affront to perception and photography itself, Ballard insisted that ‘the human eye is not faceted … Gazing at these jittery panoramas one sees the world through the eyes of a concussed bumblebee’[1].

Ballard’s words could easily be promotional copy for Shaun Waugh’s digital Still Lifes. Every element Ballard criticises in Hockney is amplified in Waugh’s series, which is part of an ongoing investigation into the conceptual boundaries of photography. Waugh cycles through photography’s old ideas, motifs, forms, and contexts, often employing advanced technologies that bypass the camera and the image-making histories it is bound to. Here, Waugh lands on the still life, a genre dating right back to the origins of photography that hasn’t aged well. Ballard’s concession that the joiners ‘work, if at all, only as still lifes’ characterises the genre as redundant and lifeless—exactly the reasons Waugh is drawn to it.[2]

Waugh works digitally as part of an inquiry into the possibilities and problems that new technologies pose for photography as we once knew it, think we know it, and will come to know it. He looks back to the medium’s analogue past and always forward to its digital future. The supposed current ‘crisis’ of the medium—which many blame on technological change—is a question rather than a problem for his work, and is its ultimate subject. Waugh is, however, a double agent—suspicious of the new and the old, and keen to preserve the best elements of both. While using new technologies to reinvigorate photography, he also turns photography loose on new technologies.

Waugh’s still lifes push the traditional genre into the digital realm and push traditional elements out of the genre. The glass bottles of the classic still life are substituted with the objects that replaced them in the contemporary world—single-use, injection-moulded plastic bottles. Waugh assembles bottles of various shapes, sizes, and brands on a studio table—the studio set up being the most conventional element of the project. He takes up to fifty photographs of the assemblage at different focal planes, against both black and white backgrounds. The frames are fed into Photoshop’s composite processor which uses focus-stacking software to produce a single digital file. The exhibited photographs are crops from this master file, presented as single works, multiples, long friezes (or perhaps image flows) that could potentially extend indefinitely. The output possibilities are endless. The old genre is given a new functional and aesthetic logic.

Waugh lets the computer rather than the camera do the work. His deferral to new technological processes is a challenge to old photographic mythologies. He especially turns on Henri Cartier-Bresson’s notion of ‘the decisive moment’, which promotes photography as an instantaneous record in ‘real’ time and space. Waugh proposes a new model for a time when technology’s processing power has far exceeded that of the eye, and our sense of reality has fundamentally shifted. He cannot see the results of his work until the computer has finished rendering the image. Depending on its processing power, this can take up to an hour. Waugh’s decisive moment comes when the ‘wait’ icon stops spinning to announce that the computer has completed its assigned task. In another way, this wait returns the still life to its origins. Pioneer photographer Henry Fox Talbot used still-life arrangements to demonstrate the veracity of the burgeoning medium, its processing power. Collections of inanimate, motionless objects suited the lengthy exposure times that his far more primitive technology required. His images were harder won.

Waugh sets the computer and the camera against each other to test the possibilities and limitations of both technologies—and, in turn, of the subject. These images cannot be made with conventional camera equipment. He uses focus stacking to produce a composite image that blends multiple focal points, and flattens the picture plane by promoting everything to the foreground. The bottles become disorientated, disembodied abstractions. They float, stretch, and are pulled across the surface of the picture plane, untethered from the rules of one-point perspective and traditional image making which the still life traditionally affirmed.

There are moments when the still life fights back and refuses to be mastered by the technologies that were never built for this purpose. Focus stacking is more commonly used in microscopy or macro-photography than in art (though these future applications were seen from photography’s beginnings—Fox Talbot’s images were valued in their own time as exercises in microscopic fidelity). The image-stitching algorithms struggle to read and process the figure/ground relationships that Waugh sets up between the cylindrical forms of the bottles and their blank backgrounds, heightened by his filling some of the bottles with water while leaving others empty. The ability to pick out individual objects within a larger arrangement was the bread and butter of the traditional still-life artist, along with the capturing of material transparency through the reflection and refraction of light across different surfaces. The glass bottle was the perfect vehicle for these explorations. Waugh deploys these genre tropes and plastic bottles to confuse the software. This confusion registers as ghostly light halos around some forms, out-of-focus bands, and areas where the software has clumsily filled in what it reads as missing data. Most users would clean up these artefacts, but Waugh prizes them as signs of the struggle between old photographic forms and new technologies. They also challenge our faith in the infallibility of digital technologies—a new take on the old myth that ‘the camera never lies’.

These algorithmic glitches and technology fails confirm the digital status of the photographs. They also mimic the scratches and blemishes of hand-printed, analogue photographs, which are often marshalled or even faked to testify to the alchemical mysteries of the darkroom and the labour of the artist—the very things Waugh cedes to the computer. These black and white still lifes are binary in more ways than one. They set out a series of exchanges that speak to current debates around the nature of photography: analogue and digital, hardware and software, positive and negative, image and object, past and future, even the light and the dark sides of the force.

Waugh’s real inquiry is into the nature of vision itself, and how it can be translated through and into art. He combines the older, decidedly analogue form of seeing embodied in the traditional still life with contemporary modes of vision mediated through technology and the screen. The traditional still life sought to naturalise the camera and downplay its role as a technological apparatus that forces us to see in certain ways. Denaturalising vision, Waugh’s still lifes emphasise that what and how we see is entirely dependent on technology. Vision is presented as the act of processing raw data. The effects of colour, light, and depth shift according to the technologies we use to facilitate and reshape sight. His still lifes should be seen alongside, or perhaps even through, the combination lens used in new digital eye glasses that constantly switch the viewing focus to facilitate the type of vision necessitated by an increasingly digital environment.

The still lifes also look back to futurism’s call for a modern art that would fuse human consciousness and the machine by embodying new technologically-mediated ways of seeing the world. Waugh’s use of focus stacking follows the futurists’ embrace of the advanced scientific photography of their day to extend beyond the banal representations of reality the camera was typically bound to. The software he uses updates the darkroom techniques the futurists developed to break through outdated modes of representation, such as multiple exposures, image superimposition, and montage. Like the futurists, Waugh resists the linear-perspectival system with work made to be scanned rather than entered.

Waugh’s still lifes loop back to futurist photography via Hockney’s cut-and-paste joiners (anticipators of Photoshop, which both artists now use), and via Andreas Gursky’s digital manipulations of the photographic image. All point back further—to cubism’s fracturing of the picture plane and conventional ways of seeing. Waugh reminds us that cubist experiments were often worked out through the still-life genre, and also through photography. Picasso’s cubist breakthrough followed an attempt to recreate in painting the jarring effects of an underexposed landscape photograph.[3] It provides another example of new artistic possibilities arising from the technological glitch or failure which Waugh seeks in his own work. In this case, the glitch led to a painter seeing the world differently through photography, and subsequently upending the rules of representation and the history of art.

While rich in genre plays and art-historical references, these photographs also tap into the classic vanitas theme of the still life to point out that there are far bigger issues facing humanity than photographic seeing. Waugh uses the still life to address the environmental crisis facing the contemporary world (and to deflate the techno-utopianism of the futurists). This is a problem that the traditional still life was never set up to address yet seems to anticipate in its amassing of objects and materials as signs of wealth, consumption, and of the ways humanity looks at and collects the world. Waugh makes contemporary/futuristic still lifes out of single-use plastic bottles—the environmental scourge of our age—to fill an old genre with new meanings and messages, to up-cycle it.

Yet, as always, everything in Waugh’s work seems to point back to photography. The series asks us to see digital photographs as themselves analogous to plastic bottles in ways that complicate the environmental message. Both are often maligned as disposable and wasteful, serving instant gratification and ultra-convenience. They exist as billions of images and objects that we don’t know what to do with and can never seem to dispose of. Waugh’s digital image-making tools linger on and make fetishistic, seductive abstractions out plastic bottles, suggesting a complicity between two ubiquitous products of our technological-consumerist environment. This gives the series its rogue product-shot feel, which is another use that consumerism has found for the traditional still life, and, ironically, for focus stacking.

Waugh presents photography as one of the ‘plastic’ arts, and the still-life genre as alive to the needs and anxieties of the contemporary moment. Yet the series also seems to float the difficult question of whether photography is part of the solution or part of the problem. Contemporary art photography has leapt to address the environmental crisis. But is it possible to ever offset the huge amount of plastic used in the making, presentation, transport, selling, conservation, and display of analogue and digital cameras and photographs? The ‘best before’ date stamps on the bottles float across the surfaces of Waugh’s images. It is as if the photographs themselves are aware of their own impending obsolescence, knowing that the tools that brought them to life will quickly be superseded. Linking photography to waste, consumption, and destruction, Waugh offers a sly and unexpected take on the vanitas theme of the still life. His photographs of containers explore photography as container, and ultimately link the very real environmental crisis with photography’s theoretical one.

Published in News from the Sun (Wellington: City Gallery Wellington and Bad News Books, 2020), 11-14.

[1] J.G. Ballard, ‘Escape into the Seraglio’, in A User’s Guide to the Millennium: Essays and Reviews (London: Picador, 1997), 62–4.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Paul Hayes Tucker, ‘Picasso, Photography, and the Development of Cubism’, in John Richardson (ed.), Picasso and the Camera, (New York: Gagosian Gallery and Rizzoli, 2014), 13.