Review: Pandora's Camera, by Joan Fontcuberta

Joan Fontcuberta claims to owe his life to photography. For this prolific photographer, one might think that he is suggesting that his livelihood or creative satisfaction is indebted to the medium. That may be true, but in the opening essay of Pandora’s Camera: Photogr@phy After Photography (published by MACK), Fontcuberta playfully recounts the story of the photograph that brought his parents together. It is this sort of cheekiness that Fontcuberta brings to both his writing as well as his photography. In his own photography he “tries to implement a pedagogy for critical doubt.” With amusement and insight, Fontcuberta crafts essays that breathe new life into photography debates that have been so widely rehashed over the past decade. Engaging and humorous, Fontcuberta’s ideas are not buried beneath a too-clever writing style, and they are also not written as gospel. He takes his ideas seriously and his tone lightly to offer opportunities for discussion.

Fontcuberta began his career in advertising, a genre that he continues to incorporate into his work. In “Ode to a King With No Legs,” he addresses the qualms of post-production with humor and a touch of sarcasm. We live in a world where it is not uncommon to first assume that an image has been altered after the fact, without stopping to consider that the camera has always been capable of manipulation. In the throws of the digital revolution, Fontcuberta’s thoughts and observations about digital technology and photography’s relationship with reality ring true. By using the story of Pandora’s Box as a metaphor, Fontcuberta cleverly addresses concerns that digital technology will be the end of photography’s truth-telling days. Truth and technology are some of the most important and basic elements of the medium, and often some of the most difficult to make sense of. Incorporating anecdotal stories, conversations with other photographers, and personal history, Fontcuberta reminds us that photography's battle with perception and truth has raged since the inception of the medium, and shows no signs of abating. In “Documentary Fictions,” he claims that, in some ways, digital technology has the ability enhance truth.

Without discussing his own predilections, the essays in Pandora's Camera explore the technological shift in photography with both reverence for the silver gelatin photograph and optimism for the possibilities that digital technologies will bring. This unbiased presentation of ideas is incredibly refreshing. Fontcuberta makes a point of addressing the photographic medium as it exists now, rather than ruminate on what it should or should not be. Photographers often get caught up in their ideas of an idyllic photographic community and their own ethical standards. Fontcuberta argues that resisting technological progress is as futile as altering one’s work to adjust to every new product. The general conversation he constructs is both one of loss for craftsmanship and hope for its future. Through his ironic style, Fontcuberta manages to take both sides into account. Like his photography, this book is a respectful nod to the past with a curious and hopeful look towards the future.