Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft: Voynich Botanical Studies at Friends Indeed Gallery, San Francisco

Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft, Voynich Botanical Studies, Specimen 55r Podzim, 2014. Courtesy Friends Indeed Gallery

Diane Arbus described a photograph as a “secret about a secret.” That quote aptly describes these pictures by the artist-duo Miljohn Ruperto and Ulrik Heltoft. Even when the duo’s process is revealed, the images in their Voynich Botanical Studies remain mysterious, like the manuscript to which they refer: a 16th-century codex that contains text written in an unknown language, as well as drawings of plants, zodiac symbols, and nudes. The cryptic text has fascinated codebreakers for centuries but has never been definitively deciphered. Even the subjects of its botanical drawings remain unidentified, and some scholars believe that the manuscript is, in fact, an elaborate deception.

Ruperto and Heltoft create 3D renderings of the plants depicted in the manuscript, borrowing textures from scans of real plants, then digitally grafting them into unrecognizable conglomerates. Like Arbus’s secret, their only referent is the enigmatic manuscript. The images are transferred to 4×5-inch negatives and printed on fiber paper in a darkroom. While the plants in the original manuscript are drawn with opaque washes of vibrant color, these monochrome prints point to our expectations for naturalistic representations. Like feathered, rainbow-hued dinosaurs or pearlescent pictures of outer space, vivid colors read as fantasy, while black-and-white images possess the aura of truth. This predilection derives from a 20th-century faith in photographic reportage, which the artists mine in other ways, too. We don’t trust these pictures only because they are photographs, but because they look like a specific genre of photographic art. With dramatic high-contrast lighting and dark backgrounds, they resemble prints by Albert Renger-Patzsch or Edward Weston. Their frontal presentations and balanced compositions recall Karl Blossfeldt pictures.

Ruperto and Heltoft’s series is brilliant for its ability to point out the assumptions that underlie the conventions of “objective” or “straight” photography. Although viewers have been aware of photography’s potential for duplicity since the 19th century, attention to fakes – fake news, phony Facebook accounts, and even edited photographic documents appearing in the National Archives – still elicit public outcry when they appear in places where we expect photographs to be impartial documents. Ruperto and Heltoft’s pictures rhyme with these contemporary issues, asking: Is a photograph real if its referent is not? And, if not, is it a photograph at all?