Mike Mandel & Larry Sultan

all images:  Untitled, from Evidence, 1977

In the mid 1970s MIKE MANDEL and LARRY SULTAN, who had met as students at the San Francisco Art Institute, somehow managed to persuade several large companies, agencies and research institutions like the Bechtel Corporation, the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the San Jose Police Department and the United States Department of the Interior to let them rummage through their documentary photo files.

The criterion was simply, “how could the picture perhaps make a different kind of meaning if it were looked at on its own?” Or beyond that—not just on it’s own, but in relationship with other pictures. And it was clear that the subjects were hi-tech agencies, so the subject matter was going to be about this kind of new scientific, progressive world of building a future. We were looking at pictures that might question that and might even subvert that positivist attitude about the future. It seemed clear to us that we were looking at these hi-tech engineering firms that were building missiles and building new cities but really what was going on front of us was not that, but more of an alienation that was going on in the culture. We could use the images that were supposed to be documents about this bright future, and could be manipulated to express the poetic opposite of that idea.

I think that’s the power of the project, that the pictures are documents. They’re just what they are, we didn’t make them ourselves. But, on the other hand, because we took them out of context they become malleable. They become reinvested with meaning because of the new context of the book form and of the sequence. And they seem to be ironic or they stand on their heads because they’re supposed to be one thing but really mean another. – MIKE MANDEL in conversation with SHANE LAVALETTE

The result is a book widely recognized as a landmark photographic book and made
up by 85 photographs culled from the two million they examined. Moreover, by
omitting all textual explanation, the project directs attention to the structure and
poetry of the images. It is up to us as viewers to imbue these wondrous and curious
artefacts, these context-free pictures, with meaning.
The careful articulation of the project is really as a book. The exhibition is more of
a general sequence. (…) But I think the show is valuable so the viewer has the
opportunity to see the artifact. They see that the photographs are not turned into
something else, they’re not 20 x 24 or 60 x 80. They’re little 8 x 10s and they are not
made by us. They can see that the quality of the images, the quality of the artifact,
of the surface, changes from one picture to another. All of the pictures were made
by the agencies, except for maybe a half-a-dozen of the agencies that gave us the
negatives, which we then made prints from. But most of the time we just took
what they gave us and, as I said, most of them were from 4 x 5 negatives so they have
a lot of clarity and sharpness to them, which gives them a little bit more “importance”
as an artifactMIKE MANDEL in conversation with SHANE LAVALETTE
Originally published in 1977, Evidence was reprinted in 2003. And good news: a part of
the project is currently on view at Museum für Moderne Kunst, Frankfurt am Main
in the group exhibition Fotografie Total (until Januar 13, 2013).

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