Barbara Kruger was born in Newark New Jersey in 1945 into a lower middle class, Jewish family. Her father was the first Jew hired by the Shell Oil in Union, New Jersey, and the family was harassed by anti-Semitic phone calls during the year he was hired. She grew up in a black neighborhood, graduated from a competitive high school, and graduated from Syracuse University.
“Surveillance” 1983 the excerpt below is from Terry Barrett’s book “Criticizing Photographs: An Introduction to Understanding Images”
“A man is peering at us through a photographer’s lupe, a magnifying device for closely examining negatives, contact prints, slides, and phtographs. The lupe is a fixed-focus device, a cube, and he has it and his other hand against something, perhaps a pane of glass, a window, or a light table used for viewing negatives and transparencies. One of his eyes is closed, the other open. The light source is directly in front of his face, and it is harsh, revealing pores of skin and stubbles of whiskers. He looks to be in his fifties. He is intent and, on the basis of the photograph, would be difficult to identify.
The photograph looks dated, out of style, but vaguely familiar. It is dramatically lit and shot from a dramatic angle and distance-reminiscent of black and white Hollywood movies on late-night television, tough-guy cops-and-robbers movies.
Halftone dots are apparent-it is a halftone reproduction rather than a silver print made directly from the negative.
The word Surveillance is larger than the other words, in black type on a white strip, pasted at a slight diagnol above the mans eyes. The phrase “is your busy work” is at the bottom of the image, in white type on a black strip. The words are a declaratory sentence. They are accusatory. “Surveillance” is associated with spying, sneakiness, furtiveness, unwholesome activities. “Busywork” is not something we want to be accused of doing-we have more important things to do with our lives. Someone is being accused by someone of something, and there is an urgency about the image.”
Barbara Kruger started taking her own photographs and super imposing text onto them, but later (1980’s) “she stopped making her own photographs and instead selected photographs from magazines and cropped and enlarged them. Most of the photographs she selects are posed or set up “she does not work with snapshots, in which the camera itself suspends animation, but with studio shots in which the camera records an animation performed only to be suspended.”
“All the photographs Barbara Kruger uses are somehow familiar. They are “appropirated” images, taken from mass culture. Kruger is working in the 1980s and 1990s, when postmodernism practice abounds, when many artists are using other images rather than making all images anew. Postmodernism questions the possibility and desirability of originality in art.”
Kruger says of her work “I grew up looking not at art but at pictures. I’m not saying it’s wrong to read art-history books. But the spectators who view my work dont have to understand that language. They just have to consider the pictures that bombard their lives and tell them who they are to some extent. That’s all they have to understand.”
“The phrases she writes, like the photograph she selects, also have a familiar ring to them. They sound like advertising, but are more terse and biting. Kruger says her work is a ‘series of attempts to ruin certain representations’ in language and images by her use of photographs and text. She wants her work to expose and condemn stereotypes and cliches in advertising and throughout culture.”
This image shows six men in tuxedos, with boutonniers, laughing, as they pull at another man in a tuxedo. He appears to be laughing too. Where they are, cannot be determined definitely, but it is probably a wedding reception, and he is probably the groom.
“You construct intricate rituals which allow you to touch the skin of other men.”
Untitled 1981: Your manias become science
“Your” and “science” are black on white and larger than “manias become” which are white on black. The succinntness of the phrase, and the black and white pattern, are reminiscent of a blinking neon sign. We can read it as “your science/manias become” or “manias become/your science” as well as “your manias/become science”
“The phrase ‘your manias become science’ over the image of a mushroom cloud is overtly political, resonant with controversial social issues in the 1980’s concerning atomic energy, nuclear warfare, and global nuclear disarmament.”