Visual Arts

Photographer mines the Internet to make her own images

Sunset Portraits shows 8,462,359 Flickr sunset images.
Sunset Portraits shows 8,462,359 Flickr sunset images.

When artist Penelope Umbrico was a kid growing up in Toronto, she would make dolls out of bobby pins or construct a bed out of a matchbox. In hindsight, given her current work, it was a telling creative habit.

"I found myself making things out of things I found, not making things from scratch," Unbrico said.

Now, what Umbrico assembles in her art isn't random tiny objects from her parents' house. It's often a barrage of common photographs and images that saturate the Internet and are given new perspective through Umbrico's conceptual vision.

Umbrico first began working in collage when she attended art college at the Ontario College of Art as an undergraduate and earning a master's of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts in New York. Soon, she found herself drawn toward photography. While Umbrico is a photographer herself, she began to be inspired by pictures other people had taken and found something meaningful when she collected and displayed multiple versions of a similar image.

It occurred to me that photography is the most expediate and economical medium to work with. That's the medium of image sharing," she said. "Even though my medium is photography, my subject is also photography."

Some of Umbrico's more popular works include the utilization of images from two common social media sites. Suns from Flickr is a collection of one of the most popular image searches on the photo sharing website. There is a number in front of the title that changes based on how many image hits she gets on the site when she types in "sun" the day she makes her prints (when she started in 2006, the number was just over 500,000. At her latest exhibition of the piece, it was more than 13 million). Meanwhile, TVs on Craigslist is a collection of broken TVs being sold for parts that Umbrico turns into a collection of intimate yet unintentional seller self-portraits due to the reflection in the television's screen.

Umbrico takes a similar approach to other subjects, but the connective tissue of these collages is the fine line we all walk between being ourselves and being part of a group through the very nature of photography itself

"We all use the same tools, and at some point, we all take the same pictures," she said. "We participate in culture collectively while we try to participate as an individual."

Umbrico's work will be on display at The Art Museum at the University of Kentucky Friday through Nov. 10, and she will speak as part of the Robert C. May Photography Endowment Lecture Series at 4 p.m. Friday at UK Student Center's Worsham Theater. The two pieces on display will include 136 Mini Film Cameras in the Smithsonian Institution History of Photography Collection With Old Style Photoshop Filter, where Umbrico uses digital photographic tools to capture these obsolete analog instruments in a unique way. This will be accompanied by Mountains, Moving — Slide Show, in which she takes a classic Ansel Adams photograph of a mountain, snaps a picture of it on her iPhone and runs it through 526 photo filters and camera effects, which are then displayed in rotation on a projector.

"It's almost like Andy Warhol with the screen prints and different colors," said Janie Welker, curator of exhibitions and collections at the museum. "At the same time, she's paying tribute to (the original image) because the mountain hangs in there."

Welker said the focus of this year's Robert C. May Lecture Series and the artists the museum is bringing in will all have a focus on "photography as document." In this way, Welker thinks Umbrico's artistic approach to photography is one that allows for some self-reflection.

"It's this collective portrait of who we are and how we function today," she said.


Penelope Umbrico

What: Exhibit and lecture by the photographic artist.

Exhibit: Through Nov. 10 at the Art Museum at the University of Kentucky in the Singletary Center for the Arts, 405 Rose St. Museum hours are noon-5 p.m. Tues.-Thurs., Sat., Sun.; noon-8 p.m. Fri. Admission is free.

Lecture: 4 p.m. Oct. 18, Worsham Theatre, UK Student Center, Avenue of Champions at Limestone. Free.

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