Master of Arts (M.A.)
Degree Granting Department
Allison Moore, Ph.D.
Riccardo Marchi, Ph.D.
Lee Braver, Ph.D.
contemporary art, home décor catalogs, mirrors, photography, advertising, Foucault, Las Meninas, JPEG, compression artifacts, daguerreotype, digital
As the artwork’s title suggests, Penelope Umbrico’s "Mirrors (from Home Décor Catalogs and Websites)" (2001-2011), are photographs of mirrors that Umbrico has appropriated from print and web based home décor advertisements like those from Pottery Barn or West Elm. The mirrors in these advertisements reflect the photo shoot constructed for the ad, often showing plants or light filled windows empty of people. To print the "Mirrors," Umbrico first applies a layer of white-out to everything in the advertisement except for the mirror and then scans the home décor catalog. In the case of the web-based portion of the series, she removes the advertising space digitally through photo editing software. Once the mirror has been singled out and made digital, Umbrico then adjusts the perspective of the mirror so that it faces the viewer. Finally, she scales the photograph of the mirror cut from the advertisement to the size and shape of the actual mirror for sale. By enlarging the photograph, she must increase the file size and subsequent print significantly, which distorts the final printed image thereby causing pixelation, otherwise known as “compression artifacts.” Lastly, she mounts these pixelated prints to non-glare Plexiglas both to remove any incidental reflective surface effects and to create a physical object. What hangs on the wall, then, looks like a mirror in its shape, size and beveled frame: the photograph becomes a one-to-one representation of the object it portrays. When looking at a real mirror, often the viewer is aware of either a reflection of the self or a shifting reflection caused by his or her own movement. However, the image that the "Mirror" ‘reflects’ is not the changing reflection of a real mirror. Nor is it a clear, fixed image of the surface of a mirror. Instead the "Mirrors" present a highly abstract, pixelated surface to meet our eyes. The "Mirrors" are physical objects that merge two forms of representation into one: the mirror and the photograph, thus highlighting similarities between them as surfaces that can potentially represent or reflect almost anything. However, in their physical form, they show us only their pixelation, their digitally constructed nature.
Penelope Umbrico’s "Mirrors" are photographs of mirrors that become simultaneously photograph and mirror: the image reflected on the mirror’s surface becomes a photograph, thus showing an analogy between the two objects. In their self-reflexive nature, I argue that Umbrico’s "Mirrors" point to their status as digital photographs, therefore signaling a technological shift from analog to digital photography. Umbrico’s "Mirrors," in altering both mirrors and photographs simultaneously refer to the long history of photography in relation to mirrors. The history of photography is seen first through these objects by the reflective surface of the daguerreotype which mirrored the viewer when observing the daguerreotype, and because of the extremely high level of detail in the photographic image, which mirrored the photographic subject. The relation to the history of photography is also seen in the phenomenon of the mirror within a photograph and the idea that the mirror’s reflection shows the realistic way that photographs represent reality. Craig Owens calls this "en abyme," or the miniature reproduction of a text that represents the text as a whole. In the case of the mirror, this is because the mirror within the photograph shows how both mediums display highly naturalistic depictions of reality. I contend that as an object that is representative of the photographic medium itself, the shift from analog to digital photography is in part seen through the use of the mirror that ultimately creates an absent referent as understood through a comparison of Diego Velázquez’s "Las Meninas" (1656). As Foucault suggests that "Las Meninas" signals a shift in representation from the Classical age to the Modern period, I suggest that the "Mirrors" signal the shift in representation from analog to digital.
This latter shift spurred debate among photo history scholars related to the ontology of the photographic medium as scholars were anxious that the ease of editing digital images compromised the photograph’s seeming relationship to truth or reality and that it would be impossible to know whether an image had been altered. They were also concerned with the idea that computers could generate images from nothing but code, removing the direct relationship of the photograph to its subject and thereby declaring the “death” of the medium. The "Mirrors" embody the technological phenomenon with visual addition of “compression artifacts,” otherwise known as pixelation, where this representation of digital space appears not directly from our own creation but as a by-product of digital JPEG programming. In this way they are no longer connected to the subject but only to the digital space they represent. As self-reflexive objects, the "Mirrors" show that there has been a technological transformation from the physically made analog photograph to the inherently mutable digital file.
Scholar Commons Citation
Ambrosio, Jeanie, "Mirror Images: Penelope Umbrico’s Mirrors (from Home Décor Catalogs and Websites)" (2018). Graduate Theses and Dissertations.