In search of the essence
Photography has frequently been characterized in the past as ‘objective’: a scientific process that allows a snapshot of reality to be captured by means of a cunning combination of paper, light, and chemicals. The truth, however, is that a photograph has no meaning in the absence of additional, subjective information. Without this context the viewer seldom genuinely sees what is being depicted. In her famous essay In Plato’s Cave (1977) the American philosopher and writer Susan Sontag (1933-2004) puts it thus: ‘The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: “There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way.” Photographs, which cannot themselves explain anything, are inexhaustible invitations to deduction, speculation and fantasy.’ However, this cryptic attribute can actually be an advantage: it allows us not merely to admire a photograph for its visual qualities, but also to construct our own accompanying narrative. These are the very qualities of the photographic image – our uncertainty whether it concerns fact or fiction, and the endless possibilities of deduction and speculation this provides – that Popel Coumou plays with in her work. Her subtle interventions into the photographic image shake our confidence in our own observational powers.
In fact, Popel’s entire oeuvre can be seen as a tireless analysis of perception itself: how do we organize the sensory information we are given by a photographic image, and what kind of effect does this ordering have on us? Popel plays with our perceptions in the spaces she creates – or, more precisely, in objects that we perceive as spaces. For none of the spaces she depicts actually exist in the real world: she constructs collages that combine found or self-made images with materials such as paper and clay. She then adds an extra dimension by carefully illuminating the scene. The resulting creation is then photographed again, and enlarged. The result is a dreamlike, almost romantic image with a beautiful, grainy overlay. Tiny details alone, such as a fingerprint on a clay still life or the sliver of shadow cast by the edge of a piece of paper, betray the fact that it was made by human hand.
There are almost never any figures in Popel’s work, but there are signs of their recent presence, such as an empty chair or an unmade bed. This sometimes evokes a shock of recognition, or the memory of an intimate moment. Popel gives her two-dimensional works a tangible energy, but she prefers to leave their meaning open so that the viewer can construct it for themselves. We gaze at a universe she constructed, somewhere between reality and fantasy, and in which we can lose ourselves.
Over the course of her research into the perception of space and reality, Popel Coumou’s images have increasingly evolved towards abstraction and simplicity. It is as if she is seeking to get ever closer to the essence of her work – and of photography itself. She is pushing her processes to the limit, the references to reality are becoming ever more ambiguous, and her collages have become increasingly austere. Popel is also experimenting with the interaction between her work and the space in which it is shown, thereby pulling the viewer even more deeply into her work. For instance, she has made three-dimensional objects whose source of illumination is in constant movement. The result is work in a state of continuous change. A patient, concentrated observer is rewarded with a rich, almost meditative, viewing experience.
Popel Coumou’s unique approach to the medium of photography has enabled her to build up an entirely individual oeuvre. A photograph is conventionally regarded as an end product, but for Popel it is a starting point from which she goes on to dissect the very idea that an image might represent reality. It is artists like Popel, constantly probing the very core of photography, who lift the medium to unforeseen and exhilarating heights.
 Sontag, Susan: ‘In Plato’s Cave’, in: On Photography, New York: Penguin Group, 1977, p.23
Willemijn van der Zwaan, 2020
Translated from the Dutch by Ralph de Rijke