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Special Features

Pedro Meyer from Zone Zero

In Spanish

Does the Original Matter?

By Pedro Meyer
Special to Camera Works, January 2002

The image above was taken at a wonderful Natural Science Museum in La Plata, Argentina, which I was led to believe housed the world's largest herbivore dinosaur, the Argentinosaurus. It didn't, but a few interesting anecdotes related to that visit are worth mentioning.

This plant eater, weighed in at 100 tons, with 130-140 feet in length (40-42 meters) and dates back some 100 million years ago. A spate of mysterious monster finds has placed Argentina on the paleontology map in recent years. Fossilized discoveries over the past decade include Giganotosaurus, the largest dinosaur carnivore; Argentinosaurus, the largest herbivore; and other bones that suggest an even longer species. Thousands of eggs dating back 80 million years litter the land, a discovery that includes the first known impressions of dinosaur embryo skins. "We already recorded that this egg fossil horizon extends more than 20 kilometers. That is the largest dinosaur-nesting site in the world," said Coria, a native Patagonian and paleontologist at the Carmen Funes Museum.

The dinosaur heritage of Argentina may be richer than that of the United States and Canada combined. But natural history programs in the south lack the financial power of their counterparts in the north. Some Argentinean museums must leave dinosaur bones outside and behind their buildings, lacking the money to display them.

"They (Argentineans) have the bones, the Americans have the money," Flessa (former president of the Paleontology Society) said.

Natural history museums in New York, Los Angeles, Atlanta and Alberta, Canada, have sponsored expeditions throughout Argentina, working together with institutions in Buenos Aires and Patagonia.

As Argentinean law forbids the export of dinosaur fossils, the display uses bone replicas. Flessa said the lack of original parts hardly matters.

"The techniques for making replicas of fossil bones are so good that it almost doesn't matter where the originals are any more," he said. "I don't think that science is hindered by the fact that the Argentinean government won't let dinosaurs outside the country."

The Atlanta museum boasts the first complete display outside of Argentina of a Giganotosaurus, which in the 1990s dethroned T. Rex as the largest known land carnivore.

Hall Train of Dinosaur Productions has lent his skill to reproduce copies of the Argentina dinosaur bones for Fernbank. The dinosaur reconstruction specialist has already produced some impressive works.

Train helped create a $20 million Triceratops for the Jurassic Park display at the new Universal Studios theme park in Orlando, Florida.

"It walks, pees, farts, and breathes. People think it's a real animal," Train said...

The fossil bones have been reproduced in fiberglass and suspended on an iron frame. The finished skeleton weighs several tons.

"We began in a disaster, by casting the largest vertebrae of Argentinousaurus," Lessem (head of the project to reconstruct the two skeletons at the Fernbank Museum in Altanta, Georgia) said. "The first giant (plastic) bone arrived on Halloween 1998 at Logan Airport in my home town of Boston. It had been smashed to pieces by customs agents who thought it was a modern sculpture possibly containing hidden drugs."

Only 10 per cent of the Argentinosaurus' remains were uncovered from a pebbled-filled block of sandstone. Among them, however, was a piece of the largest backbone ever found – a 1.6 meter high and wide vertebrae which weighs 20 tons. In all, paleontologists recovered a dozen backbone vertebrae, a few limb bones and part of the hips from this one dinosaur.

The obvious conclusion to this story is that in Argentina where the real bones remain, there was nothing much to be seen much to the dismay of my 6 year old child who was disappointed not to find the Argentionosaurus for which he had traveled half way across the world, and in Atlanta where they only have an animated replica, a curious public does find the inspiration to satisfy their imagination, by looking at a fiberglass representation that "walks, pees, farts and breathes".

The Victoria and Albert Museum

When you enter the hall of the "fakes" at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, one is confronted not only with Michael Angelo's masterpieces, among many others, but with the following wall label:

Room 46 Fakes and Forgeries

In the 19th century when the Museum was acquiring many of its Medieval and Renaissance masterpieces, it was also purchasing copies, fakes and forgeries in imitation of them. A selection is shown in the central gallery, displayed in cases if about 1870 in a gallery of 1873, redecorated in its original colors.

The objects on display range from straightforward "modern" copies of 16th century pieces, acquired by the Museum purposely as copies, and examples that were deliberately made to deceive and evidently did so. Between these two extremes lie works that were produced as modern pastiches of earlier styles –some of which were sold by later owners as authentic examples– and objects that are in part of early data but which have been adapted, redecorated or otherwise "improved".

In some cases scientific investigations of materials and techniques or historical and documentary evidence have revealed that the object is not authentic. In other cases uncertainty remains and a few such examples are included here. Often, however, both the choice of the sources used by the faker and the intrusion of stylistic features of his own period show a work to be of later data. Like the casts in the courts on either side, the objects shown here reflect the taste of the 19th century, offering us a Victorian vision of the middle Ages and the Renaissance.

We can glean from this information that reproductions have always been part and parcel of Museums, that the issues regarding a Dinosaur are not that separate and distant from having the statue of David before our very eyes. During the modern era when quality color reproduction in a printed medium became off age, the reproduction of paintings became how most of the world stood to gain access to the works that remained beyond our immediate reach.

Books became a medium of choice to have the work of photographers become known around the world. It was 30 years before I ever got to see an original print by Henri-Cartier Bresson. But then wasn't the "original" print, also a reproduction? Didn't we always call such prints original-reproductions?

The photograph

Aside from the obvious issues of representation that the previous little story enthralls, let us explore now the picture on the cover at ZoneZero. It was taken with a small digital camera (Epson 3000z) set at its widest angle, however, the wide angle lens distorted the angles towards the back of the room, giving it the effect of almost falling over towards the left as can be seen in the image below. When I took the picture, I was careful to align at least one area parallel to the sides of the image ( the cabinet windows), I settled on the left side and let the rest fall wherever it might, knowing that I could fix it later on.

Such a picture in pre-digital times would have required a view camera to correct such a distortion. Today we have the benefit of being able to put the image back to the correct angle such as it was in reality, but we do it using a computer. The benefits are obvious, greater ease of operation with less stuff to carry around and a more modest camera and lens can be used. The results?, you judge yourself. (Click here to bring up the new image so you can compare). Those who have a long history and attachment to a view camera will find such a solution unacceptable.

Conclusion

As I see it, we have been caught in a web of our own making, discussing endlessly the issues of representation. On the one hand are all the debates around the veracity of the image for the sake of factual representation, crisscrossed by all the emotional and moral considerations related to being or not, deliberately mislead in what we think we are looking at.

On the other are all the art market issues related to the original as a way of placing value on objects and their rarity. If we all own the same identical piece, what is to give it a significant variance and therefore premium? if at all. My earliest now fading digital prints, which no one wanted because they were fading due to the inherent limitations of the prevailing inks at the time, have now acquired the distinction of being "vintage" prints, even though faded. What originally was a defect became over time a source to differentiate the work from more recent and better reproductions. Such are the workings of the art market.

Our notions of representation with respect to digital photographs have also been beset with misunderstandings borne out of misinformation. The idea that all digital pictures have to be altered is to not understand the medium at all. The notion that all alterations have to be seen alike is again a lack of understanding that not all alterations are born the same.

I would argue that the original matters only when certain conditions are met. It matters to the art market for reasons explained earlier, it matters to someone who is using the original as proof of something; it does not matter, however, when the information derived from the work is understood for it's subjective nature, or for the purpose of educating, or entertainment.

Share with us your points of view in the forums, tell us how you see these matters and how our world is being transformed in it's formal representation.

Pedro Meyer's photographs are found in the collections of more than 40 major museums throughout the world. He's also authored several books, including Los Cohetes Duraron Todo el Dia; Tempii di America; and Espejo de Espinas. His column appears each month in Camera Works.


© Pedro Meyer

 About Pedro Meyer

Pedro Meyer Archive:

What was that about originals?

The Icons of This War

The Rush to New Technology

Does Size Matter

Vanishing Evidences: Photographing at night in Mexico City

In defense of a photographer Patrick Schneider