Penelope Umbrico

Penelope Umbrico’s photo-based installations, video, and digital media works explore the ever-increasing production and consumption of images on the Internet. She has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship and Smithsonian Artist Research Fellowship among other awards, and her monograph, Penelope Umbrico (photographs), was published by Aperture in 2011.

Penelope UmbricoThere are so many ways one could address your questions, but one thing that is important to this kind of artistic practice is the distinction between personal images and collective images and an understanding of how the subject in images shifts from the personal to collective depending on the context of their use. The specificity of an individual in an image, as well as the subject of that image, can change once the image crosses the threshold between personal digital space and the World Wide Web. Seen in the context of, say, a Google Image search, any image, no matter how personal or intimate, is unassignable and anonymous.

Issues of projection and reception are hard to pin down, but if the subject of the photograph is a result of social or cultural phenomenon that hundreds of individuals are participating in, I think it’s fair to say that the photographs themselves become a phenomenon, and the individuals depicted in them become symbolic and quite anonymous in this regard, no matter how individually representative they are.

An artist (Adelman, for example) using these images is not interested in singular representations of an individual but in the multiple representations of a phenomenon that is a result of a set of cultural and social circumstances. This is one of the things artists do. We engage in cultural conversations and make work out of often difficult material and issues that we are struggling with.

If the subject of an artist’s work is the collective phenomenon he or she has discovered, then the artist is the author of the expression of this collective phenomenon. While the individuals who took the photographs may be authors of their individual images, they do not author the expression that represents the phenomenon their images are a part of.

When individuals, for whatever reason, stake a claim in authorship/ownership of these images, they transform these images from being anonymous symbols representing a social phenomenon back into individual representations of their personal selves. Not a bad thing unless you don’t want personal representation online to begin with. In this case, this act—simply staking this claim—creates the problem. The question to ask, really, is why we put images online that are too personal to share. But we’ve done it.

I wonder if there’s a disconnect between how we perceive public space in the material world and how we perceive equally public spaces online—a disconnect perhaps stemming from the fact that we can access these online public spaces from the privacy of our own homes. Or is there some underlying existential need, in the face of anonymity, to assert our individual subjective presence online, despite our better judgment.


What are the ethical concerns for artists who appropriate images from the Internet? To what extent should artists consider privacy, the personal safety of their subjects, and First Amendment rights?

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