Walter Benjamin’s 1935 canonical essay on art in the age of mechanical reproduction, is the argument of “aura”: that the authenticity of a photograph or painting, or any art object entirely, is in its original form, fortified from replication or manipulation. Today, I can use the default photo app on my smartphone to give a photo taken seconds ago, a monochrome filter, bestowing it with nostalgia. Following Benjamin’s essay, I would be altering its originality. This, however, is the democracy of photography today. Benjamin’s essay was “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” (It is a rite of passage for art critics and should be left for the cult. It takes the form of dialectical criticism, written in a painful, long passage. Its lessons abound, nonetheless, to real enthusiasts of visual art.)
My gaze, however, in this short essay are a few photographs by Makurdi-based photographer Luper Aluga: a series of shots taken of a boy in the rain, a young man submerged in water, and the Old Benue Bridge, enhanced with hue editing. It is difficult to entertain the idea of an edited photograph, especially when it aspires to sublimity as seen in Aluga’s photos. The instinct is to dismiss such kitsch, even without studying them; but this isn’t the case with Aluga’s hue edited samples. What we see in our initial gaze at these photographs is their character, inspired by the subject or scenery Aluga captures. We do not think about the manipulation of hue—or that these images have been edited in the first place.
Another photographer whose works present this illusory effect is Kamal Obat, whose project “Nothingness” appeared in Lolwe. (A hard guy to contact.) However, for him, as his profile on Saatchi Art explains, he uses editing to “guide the viewer into his imagination.”
For both photographers, Obat and Aluga, the realm of imagination is their playground for experimentation to yield yet what Theodor Adorno considered as the “will of art” to express itself in its infinite possibilities, opposed to what we may consider in their manipulation technique as departure from originality, especially Obat’s sometimes extreme, overdone works. Obat’s vision is to create “works of art”—as his works suggests—than just photography in rectangular shapes; he answers in a Daily Trust interview that he combines pop elements and manipulation “to result in more visually satisfying images.” And more, his photography is an exercise of his “freedom to think creatively without being governed by the wishes of someone else.” Tag him: the work of the avant-garde in the age of mechanical liberalism.
His contemporary, Aluga, is not far from this school; they both belong in an age where no one knows exactly what photography is anymore. Teju Cole expressed this in the essay “Google Macchia”:
…the art is also in its moment of crisis. There’s never been so much photography on view, and most of it is bad. There is curatorial uncertainty. The kinds of images celebrated by one set of institutions, say the Pulitzer Prize or the World Press Photo, are considered irrelevant and retrograde by the standards of another set of institutions, say the Deutsche Börse Prize or MoMA. Then there are those institutions that are able to contend with photography only in a nostalgic way. The scholarship of photography reflects these confusions.
But with dilemma comes the democracy which photographers like Aluga and Obat get a chance at legitimacy and, by extension, originality, even if the works pass as pop.
In Kamal Obat’s “Nothingness” series, he contends that the work “celebrates the life of a fisherboy, whose power is evident in his mastery of an element as essential but as tricky, as water.” It is exactly what the photographs capture, arousing the emotive. The sleight in Obat’s depiction with hue editing is the probability that without manipulation the photographs appear trite and uninspiring, so that what results in its manipulated exhibition is the semblance of a story, giving the images more meaning.
It is a similar approach with Luper Aluga. With him, however, his hue edited photographs were not a project but a spontaneous experiment. He just took them for himself, he said. He started photography to enhance his writing and because pictures tell stories that mean a lot to him. But unlike Obat, he doesn’t title his works and we have to give them our interpretation. This, albeit, is what is also compelling about them as we try to find the story in each image. I found one of them suitable for a gay-themed story by Ebelenna Tobenna Esomnofu I edited (published in Praxis). Titled as a supplication, “One Day All the People Like Me in this Country Will Be Happy,” the image by Aluga, of a young man submerged in water, his head visible on the surface, a face expressing hope, while we are uncertain about the fate of his water-immersed body—the most visceral sacrament of gay experience, embodied for me a close-enough depiction of the writer’s dream. I find this possibility in the other photographs in Aluga’s untitled series. His long-range shot of the Old Benue Bridge is no longer the old bridge; with hue editing, it is accented and transposed.
The most emotive and evocable of Kamal Obat’s images in the Nothingness series is the fisherboy in a canoe, holding a rope in his hands. The hue is twilight orange, the fisherboy’s image and the canoe are silhouetted. The water, reflecting the sunlight, shimmers like a scattering of diamonds surrounding the boy. He is a king, indeed, as Obat crowns him, but not of nothingness; the water he is surrounded by, his wealth. But you can’t help studying the image a second—and even third or fourth time—to see what the manipulation has done. It erases time: is it dawn, noon, sunset? How do we plot the fisherboy’s story: is he starting his day, in the middle of a sunny day on the river, or trying to rein in his canoe for the day? Or even: where is this place? These are some of Walter Benjamin’s concerns in his argument for aura. But visual art has its wonders: while we ask these questions, the capitalist possibilities of the photograph appreciates even more.
Kamal Obat says his work guides us into his imagination. Luper Aluga says given the time that has passed since he took the photos, he’s not sure he’d apply such hue editing if he took them today. I explain to him their hue editing is what piqued me about them, because of the potency they elicit: they are quite removed from the derivational, enhanced in a form that underscores an artistic vision, however unintentional. Unlike Obat. He answers, it was experimentation; in his words, he wanted them “to look epic and depict what he had in mind. Of which he can’t really tell.” Placelessness: the artist’s eternal conflict. I, however, can’t place what is epic about the images. I assume he didn’t have the right word to explain what he had in mind, too. Aluga’s freedom to actually not really know what he is doing presents us with the problem, as Teju Cole has written, of the art in a moment of crisis.
Luper Aluga has had a stint with fashion photography which trades in heavy Adobe Photoshop editing. This is a factor to his hue editing experiment. Both photographers are still in the beginning of their careers: Kamal Obat quite certain of his vision; Aluga, still finding expression. The appreciative element of their work is the less derivativity of their imagination, and perhaps a lesson of the possibilities of hue editing, and the art of photography in its age of infinite reproducibility.◙
Photographs by Luper Aluga.
1. Benjamin defines the aura of an object of art as, “The authenticity of a thing is the essence of all that is transmissible from its beginning, ranging from its substantive duration to its testimony to the history which it has experienced. Since the historical testimony rests on the authenticity, the former, too, is jeopardized by reproduction when substantive duration ceases to matter. And what is really jeopardized when the historical testimony is affected is the authority of the object. One might subsume the eliminated element in the term ‘aura’…”
Carl Terver is the founding editor of Afapinen. He is the author of the poetry chapbook For Girl at Rubicon.