BERLIN — At first glance, it’s an image we all know: the pale column of a World Trade Center tower against a bright blue sky, with a billow of mottled smoke in a floating plume. On the right, a tiny plane hovers like a buzzing fly, foretelling the tragedy that would follow.
But, look a little closer, and you’ll see that, this time, the plane is held up by strings. The noxious cloud is made of cotton wool, and the grid of windows isn’t quite straight. And is that antenna made of … paper?
As the eye travels outward, a glue stick, aerosol can and lighting rig all come into view, giving away the real story of how this image came about.
Jojakim Cortis and Adrian Sonderegger’s series “Icons,” a selection of which is currently showing at the C/O Berlin photography gallery, restages famous photographs, using precise model-making techniques. Each of their photos includes the tools involved and detritus accumulated in making these 3-D dioramas, some of which take months to complete.
“From the beginning of our collaboration, we were interested in fiction and reality,” said Mr. Sonderegger, on a tour of the exhibition, titled “Double Take” and running through June 1, ahead of its opening. The Swiss duo said they were particularly interested in historically significant shots, like the one taken from a helicopter flying over Lower Manhattan as American Airlines Flight 11 flew directly into the North Tower of the World Trade Center.
“A lot of images are really like a symbol for a change of something,” Mr. Sonderegger said. “If you look at the history, you see that this image stands for this period, or for the end of this period.”
The pair’s choice of photographs reflects this focus. For example, one recreates a shot of the tsunami that hit Southeast Asia in 2004, using epoxy resin, plastic wrap and feathers; another the shallow crater made by a boot on the moon, the artists’ own Converse footprints marking the border of the mock-up. Each of these images had a momentous effect on the international audiences that saw them. The first one, on our understanding of natural disasters and their impact on human settlements; the second, for our awareness of our place in the universe.
Mr. Cortis and Mr. Sonderegger’s images fascinate partly because of the interplay between what we see in front of us and how we remember the original. At the same time, the lighting rigs, paint cans and dirty paintbrushes remind us that it’s all an illusion.
At a time when digital photographic manipulation is a fact of life, these images remind us that a photograph is not an objective representation of the events it depicts. And perhaps, sometimes, seeing shouldn’t be believing.
Here are edited excerpts from a conversation with Mr. Cortis and Mr. Sonderegger, discussing a selection of original photos they chose, along with their recreations.
“Making of AS11-40-5878” (2014)
Based on a photograph by Edwin Aldrin, 1969
JOJAKIM CORTIS We have chosen that image because it’s a reduced image: You only have the sand and the footprint.
ADRIAN SONDEREGGER I think the boundary’s very important because it’s the transition from reality to fiction, and you don’t know which one is which.
CORTIS We tried out different kinds of materials. If you use normal sand, it’s too big. So in the end we used cement, which is really fine. And the footprint was hard — we had to do it in one movement. I don’t know how many times.
SONDEREGGER Over 100 times! The Converse footprints weren't planned, it just happened. But we thought it might be good — it’s an iconic shoe.
CORTIS For us the work is not about conspiracy theories, but people love this discussion. It’s probably also the reason why the work is successful, because it’s a theme that’s so contemporary.
“Making of Abu Ghraib” (2014)
Based on a photograph by Sabrina Harman, 2003
CORTIS We had to choose one, because there’s more than one image from these events. But for us, because of this connection to the original definition of “iconic,” from religion, it was clear we should use this one.
This is a doll. We had to modify it, to break the arms and legs, which sounds a little bit brutal.
SONDEREGGER At the beginning we just work on the image, but at the end we check everything. We're photographers — if there's something that's not working for us, then we move it.
“Making of Death of a Loyalist Militiaman, Córdoba Front, Spain” (2016)
Based on a photograph by Robert Capa, 1936
SONDEREGGER That’s probably one of the iconic photographs of our time. Also, there is always the discussion of if it’s a fake or not.
Robert Capa hadn’t taken a lot of photographs on the film and it was missing for a long time. A lot of people have researched this. On the other hand, you don’t have proof that it’s a fake. I think this always gets the discussion rolling.
It’s just a very good image. It stands for Robert Capa, who said something like, “If you don’t have a good image, you haven’t been close enough.”
CORTIS Actually it’s funny because we had it in landscape orientation at the beginning. We were further away. So we thought about what Capa said: You have to go closer.
At the beginning, our earlier images, there were no people in them. Figures are always hard.
SONDEREGGER This one is made from plasteline, which is baked to make it hard. You can see, it’s not perfect. We are perfectionists, but on the other hand, we know it’s good that it’s not perfect.
CORTIS If it’s perfect then you don’t have the connection to the tools.
“Making of Black Power Salute” (2017)
Based on a photograph by John Dominis, 1968
SONDEREGGER For a book we published last summer, we thought about time periods and different fields in the history of photography, and we found we didn’t have anything from sports. This image is political, and at the same time you don’t see any action.
CORTIS Also there’s a story behind the image. The reason they only have one glove each is because one, [John Carlos, who won the silver medal silver in the race], forgot his, so they shared a pair. I read that the photographer wasn’t aware of what was really happening when he took the image.
SONDEREGGER You see how they are made — but that’s only from one side.
CORTIS I also like this emptiness you have above the fist. A lot of images we do, there’s a little bit of humor in it: The other shoe has to be somewhere!
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