Since photography was first invented nearly 200 years ago, humans have gained an unprecedented visual understanding of their past. You don’t have to have lived through either of the 20th century’s world wars to know what they looked like. Most people have seen the stark terror of the trenches in Ernest Brooks’s photographs or seen the atom bomb mushroom over Nagasaki in Charles Levy’s unforgettable 1945 image.
But photographs, like the people who create them, are not always honest; they can be manipulated and staged. Consider Marmaduke Wetherell’s faked 1934 image of the Loch Ness monster, or all the conspiracy theories surrounding astronaut Buzz Aldrin’s snapshot of his footprint on the moon. And, as the recent controversy over digital manipulation in this year’s World Press Photo completion reveals, Photoshop and other digital tools have made it freakishly easy to do so.
Questions surrounding the photograph’s authenticity provide the conceptual fodder for Icons, a series by Swiss photographers Adrian Sonderegger and Jojakim Cortis. The playful series takes famous photographs — from Stuart Franklin’s well-known “Tiananmen” (1989) to Andreas Gursky’s auction record-setting “Rhein II” (1999) — and reconstructs them in miniature. The final picture is a pulled-back, behind-the-scenes glimpse of each image’s making. Here, even “true” images are theatrical, both in the way they’re presented to us and in the way we consume them. In a world where photographs have become sacrosanct, Sonderegger and Cortis remind us of the medium’s presumptions and limits, empowering believers with a healthy dose of doubt.