Photographic Alphabet: P is for Penelope Umbrico
Written by Erica McGrath
I first came across Penelope Umbrico’s work in person at the gallery The Center for Photography at Woodstock. One whole wall in the gallery was covered with a grid of multiple 4x6 pictures of people posing in front of sunsets. However, the images of the people were just silhouettes against the bright and vivid colors of the sunsets. I became quite taken by Umbrico’s concept behind the installation, taking the most photographed subject in the world and collecting it into one archive.
Penelope Umbrico appears not only to be a photographer but a collector, an archivist, and a historian. It was interesting for me to experience her work in person rather than first on the Internet because the internet is her main source for work. She gathers the images she uses in her work from the largest archive in the world, the Internet. Searching on sites such as Craigslist, Flickr, and other image-based catalogs, she finds thousands of similar objects and appropriates and re-appropriates the images of them until it is difficult to conclude if ownership of an image can exist anymore. Some of her subjects include old TV’s sold online, universal remotes, cameras, sunset pictures, books, furniture and any other daily used subjects and objects.
In her ongoing series Suns from Sunsets from Flickr and Sunset Portraits Umbrico is constantly updating her work to reflect the archive of sunsets on Flickr. In 2006 when she first began the series it was titled 541,795 Suns (from Sunsets) from Flickr (Partial) 01/23/06 and now in 2016 it has been renamed 30,240,577 Suns (from Sunsets) from Flickr (Partial) 03/04/16. These titles can be changed in an instant as every second a new picture of a sunset is uploaded to the Internet. The collective practice of photographing sunsets appears to be something that will continue on for as long as we have both sunsets and a means to record them. It is a collective practice and yet to each individual participating it is unique. Different people capturing a different moment every day, yet it remains repetitive, consistent, and the same.
During Penelope Umbrico’s installations of these sunsets she realized people would often pose for their picture to be taken in front of the images of sunsets. This further complicates the claim of ownership of an image. How can these sunset images belong to any one person when they are constantly being appropriated again and again? Umbrico has stated she is acutely aware of “the anxiety around authorship in photography”, it’s important, even crucial, for people to feel ownership of an image they believe is theirs. Yet here they have no problem taking an image in front of someone else’s image and making it their own. The only thing we can find certainty in is that for as long as the sun will continue to set people will continue to photograph, and this archive will continue to grow.