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The Clear Mirror from 'Civilization' - Read an Extract

Posted on 20 Oct 2018

'Civilization' shows how contemporary photography, notably art photography, is fascinated by — and attempts to decode and communicate — the way we live today.

pg. 48, Edward Burtynsky, 'Manufacturing #17, Deda Chicken Processing Plant, Dehui City, Jilin Province, China', 2005 © Edward Burtynsky, courtesy Metivier Gallery, Toronto / Flowers Gallery, London

Civilization shows how contemporary photography, notably art photography, is fascinated by, and attempts to decode and communicate, the way we live today. This landmark publication is accompanied by an internationally touring exhibition produced by the Foundation for the Exhibition of Photography – a global cultural event for a global subject. The exhibition opened at the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, South Korea, on 18 October 2018.

The Flowers Gallery, London, also held an exhibition to celebrate the launch of the book, running from 7 November to 22 December of 2018.

pg. 104, Wang Qingsong, 'Work, Work, Work', 2012 © Wang Qingsong

The Clear Mirror
By William A. Ewing

The digital revolution (no hyperbole here, as anyone with a smartphone knows) has allowed us to see new things, or old things with more sharpness or clarity (inexorably megapixels are up, apertures and sensors enlarging). Our doctors order us to swallow a pill with a camera in it; we attach a camera to the back of a bird or a bee, we instruct the camera to prettify our features, or change a frown into a smile. Engineers recently built a system that can automatically alter a street photo taken on a summer’s day so that it looks like a snowy winter scene. Researchers at the University of California, Berkeley, have designed another that learns to convert horses into zebras and Monets into Van Goghs. Even Orwell would have to admit he hadn’t foreseen that great cultural leap forward!

Max Aguilera-Hellweg, 'Joey Chaos, Android Head, Rock Star, Extremely Opinionated on Political Issues, Especially Capatalism and What It Means to be Punk. Hanson Robotics, Plano, Texas', from the series 'Humanoid', 2010, © Max Aguilera-Hellweg

In the past century, photography quickly went from being a privilege of an army of professionals and wealthier, first-world amateurs, to a mass medium of almost universal access. Critic Brian Droitcour has described the rise of social media as a rebalancing of image-making power: the ‘aestheticization of everyday life in social media…[that] has leeched the authority
 of image-making from mass media and from art.’

Now, in the 21st century, only a tiny minority of people is cameraless, and 
the steady streaming of pictures – billions each day – increasingly characterizes our lives, even if most of them have the lifespan of 
a mayfly. No one knows where it’s all heading, though we suspect it’s heading somewhere.

p.307, Robert Zhao Renhui, 'Square apple', from the series 'A Guide to the Flora and Fauna of the World', 2013, Sold in a department store in South Korea, these square apples were created as gifts for students taking the College Scholastic Ability Test, with some inscribed with the words ‘pass’ or ‘success’. A similar square watermelon was developed in Japan in the 1980s. The cubic fruits are created by stunting their growth in glass cubes. © Robert Zhao Renhui

Extract from Civilization by William A. Ewing and Holly Roussell, published by Thames & Hudson, 2018.


The Way We Live Now William A Ewing, Holly Roussell