As its title implies, Max de Esteban’s new series Heads Will Roll isn’t wildly optimistic about the future of humanity. His densely layered and atmospheric photomontages instead envision a collapsed non-time, where recirculated imagery from past and present loses any sense of its original context and becomes open ended fodder for recombination and reinterpretation. His future is a place where dark urges, ungrounded paranoia, and snatched memories are visually woven together, steeping in their own dream-like juices and intermingling into something that is neither entirely fact nor fiction. In many ways, it’s a desolate view, as it implies a complete loss of photographic grounding, a stripping down of images to husks, like conveniently malleable scrims.
De Esteban’s pictures are constructed from multiple layers of mostly monochrome imagery, interleaved with tinted geometric blocks and circles, creating overlapped transparencies that tussle and wrestle with each other. His source files draw from all over the Internet, spanning cultures and time periods with scouring impunity – film stills of noir starlets and Italian/French cinema cool, marching military and Chinese propaganda shots, pornography and bondage imagery, car crashes and chrysanthemums, factory workers and bandage diagrams. All of these pictures come with their own embedded associations and connections, and de Esteban’s anxiety-inducing concoctions simultaneously leverage these reactions, undermine them, and take them in new directions.
While Robert Rauschenberg’s image reuse led to compositions that could be followed and decoded like a map, de Esteban’s montages effectively occur in one collapsed space – not only are they not legible in a linear way, the transparent pictures are smashed together, creating unexpected juxtapositions and see-through combinations. While many of the works feature a prominent face or subject, it’s a mistake to assume that the larger image deserves some kind of precedence; in fact, de Esteban’s images consciously break down that kind of logic. Everything in these montages is happening at once (regardless of when it actually took place), everything is on the surface, and everything is mediating the experience of everything else.
Part of what de Esteban is doing here is unpacking the structural foundations of what a photograph has historically been and how it has functioned, and rebuilding those assumptions from the ground up with a different kind of digital existence in mind. Instead of photography being rooted in documentation, or inspiration, or some definition of “truth”, de Esteban is putting re-interpretation and re-translation at the forefront of the digital now, with a distinct and deliberate emphasis on the re-. What the source files meant in their original or archival context isn’t important – it’s how they have been reassembled to generate an evolved harmony (or dissonance) of new allusions, references, hints, and perceived memories.
While de Esteban’s chosen mood is full of ominous foreboding edging toward catastrophe (there’s even some last ditch sex as the bombs are falling from the sky), that personal cultural pessimism isn’t the important analytical vector here. What’s more telling is de Esteban’s crisp definitional argument about what digital photography is now, what tasks it employs and requires, and what outcomes it can generate. He’s staked out the ground for a different kind of photographer/artist – not one who uses a camera to see the world, but one who reinterprets digital imagery from a thousand sources and synthesizes it into a new kind of visual expression that resonates with our current image saturated existence. Others have done and continue to do this too of course, but de Esteban’s mind set seems particularly structured toward consciously breaking with the past.
A decade from now, I expect we will regard this omnivorous photographic scavenging and reinterpreting approach as routine. But at this specific moment, it feels a little like crossing to the opposite shore and burning the boats (or smashing the camera in this case), committing to an emergent kind of photographic mixtape mashup form that is built on context fluidity, innovative sampling, and iterative recycling.