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Institution I, 2017
Part 1: Simultaneous compression.
When we pick up a camera and frame a composition in the viewfinder, we do so with a number of key assumptions about what happens when we press the shutter button and capture an exposure. A skilled photographer manipulates the exposure, lighting, and point of view to address the fact that the three-dimensional reality in front of them is being translated on to a two-dimensional plane. There are many factors wrapped up into that simple action and when we look at the results, whether it is on the miniature LCD display panel on the back of the camera or as a finely crafted print hanging on the wall in the museum, we suspend our disbelief about the reality of that image. The Michael Snow Photo-Centric exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a retrospective collection of work that examines the structure of the photographic…
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Amy Ritchie Johnson has curated Peripheral Vision which opens tonight at Candela Books + Gallery from 5 – 9pm. The exhibition essay describes the exhibition and her interest in exploring:
“a trend in contemporary [straight] photography growing in the long shadow of the traditional ‘view of reality as an exotic prize to be tracked down and captured by the diligent hunter-with-a-camera,’ a subtler approach to be postulated in this essay, as well as exemplified in the exhibition, Peripheral Vision. This trend could also be considered a way for photography—photography that calls itself art most especially—to transcend the longstanding exploitation aesthetic, the reigning conceptualist modes of conceiving art, and to transcend the entrenched notions of image- and art-making that succumb to the idea of art or life as spectacle to be consumed. This fresh use of the photograph goes beyond seeing to perceiving, goes beyond concept to perception.”
Ritchie Johnson has chosen three artists, William W Douglas III, Justin James Reed, and Burt Ritchie, “each approaching their creative practice very differently, but presented together their artwork expertly exemplifies a perceptual photography as they engage a more contemplative approach to image-making and image-dissemination.”
A preview reception and curator talk will take place Thursday, March 5th, 5-8pm.
The exhibition will open to the public Friday, March 6th, 5-9pm.
Friends and anyone following my blog on photography,
I have been taking a little break since Spring 2014 in order to finish my EdD dissertation. I expect to be back posting in December, 2014. Thanks for your patience and I hope my past posts are of some use to you. – Douglas
The Michael Snow Photo-Centric exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art (available for viewing until April 27, 2014) is a retrospective collection of many of his images that explore the meaning of sequence and time. This post continues an essay on the Snow’s photographs I wrote earlier that explored the spatial compression of three-dimensional space in the two-dimensional plane of the photographic print.
In “Authorization”, Snow has created a self-portrait as a sculptural relief by pasting Polaroid self-portraits on the mirror used as the reflective surface to produce the portraits. The mirror combines the deeper space visible in the reflected image at this moment in time (as the viewer looks at the work) and at the moment of exposure. The camera is not focused on the surface of the mirror, rather the lens is focused sharply on the image of the photographer making the exposure. He placed a Polaroid print of each subsequent exposure in a grid of four, one at a time, thereby eventually obscuring his own face and camera with out-of-focus images of his reflection. The final image, placed in the upper left corner of the mirror shows the four images as exposed, out of focus, with only the thin area of the background around the tape framing the grid as the only sharply focused element.
Time in this photographic sculpture is re-recorded over and over as it is captured in the moments of each exposure in the sequence and the moment that it is viewed in the gallery.
This is a mixed-media sculpture, not simply a photograph. To complicate matters further, the sculptural object that is the subject of the photographs is being created by the images of itself that are taped to it’s mirror surface. Overlaid are the other images that are being reflected in the mirror at this live moment in time – the photographer brings the viewer of his portrait into his portrait and photographic sequence. The viewer is also being invited to view the production process, since they can see the process of the self-portrait in the sequence taped to the mirror.
In this sequence we see the artist erasing himself from the image. In the final photograph, which is shoved into the corner of the actual mirror on exhibit, the photographer has vanished into a generic gray blur. The title, “Authorization” is a reference to the process of authorship in art – in this case the author obliterates himself from what began as a self-portrait and is replaced by the faces of whoever is viewing the work. In addition, if others make a photograph of themselves in the mirror sculpture, then they are continuing the process started by the author and have themselves become authors.
In some ways, Michael Snow’s work is like a visual lecture on the characteristics of photography and are often presented in a format that mimics a scientific poster minus the text. In “Field” we can observe two large photographs, a positive and a negative, of the same section of a grassy meadow and above a series of what appear to be abstract photographs of organic shapes laid out in a scientifically exact grid. The appearance is that of a number of different photographs, exposed at different times and places, but actually all the images in presented in the work were made at the exact same moment in time.
Snow placed photographic paper randomly in the field of grass (clearly at night) then made an exposure with camera and flash of the photographic paper strewn across the field (these can be identified if you look closely at the large pair of images).
The small prints are also in pairs of positive and negative prints of the same image. The process he used usually takes place in the darkroom: “photograms” are shadow prints of objects laid on the light sensitive photographic paper and exposed to an enlarger light in a darkroom and then processed in chemicals. Photograms are “lensless” since they are created by the shadow cast on the paper. In “Field”, Snow combines a photograph made with a lens and a number of images made simultaneously of the same location through direct contact with the photographic paper.
It is a pretty fascinating image in the conceptual and visual sense, because it captures in one instant a photograph made from the level of the ground up through the light projected on to the paper from the flash of the camera and the image as captured by the film in camera. The pair of prints are enlarged from a very small negative, but the field photograms are the size as exposed, so there is an interesting comparison of scale in the work. Like the image of the mirror in “Authorization”, the process of making the image, becomes the image. He presents multiple perspectives of the same space and time made simultaneously.
A momentin time isolated on to a piece of film or digital sensor has been a unique attribute of photography since its invention. This unique characteristic not only stops action faster than our eye can perceive, but it also can freeze a meaningful moment in human history. In both cases, the image is uniquely photographic but is only a partial representation of the truth of the moment. The historical image is given meaning by the social and cultural context in which it was made; it’s process of “authorization” begins at the moment of exposure and continues as others add on layers of interpretation and meaning. When action is “stopped” in an action photograph, that is an illusion since the movement at that time was fluid and seamless; our natural vision is not capable of isolating a fraction of a second. In “Authorization” and “Field”, Michael Snow reminds us that photography is a shadow of time.
© Douglas Barkey, 2014
Candela Gallery currently features a pair of exhibitions of portraits that explore two different communities. Lisa Elmaleh used a large format tintype camera to make studied portraits of folk musicians in the Appalachian Mountains, while Brandon Thibodeaux photographed individuals in five rural communities in the northern Mississippi delta. Both photographers have created nostalgic images of the enduring human spirit responding to life’s difficult circumstances.
The alternative and ancient process used by Elmaleh slows down the process of making the portrait into a day long venture as she prepares, exposes, and develops the tintype. The technical and chemical process is arduous and time-consuming, but the exhibit itself is not of the tintypes, rather these have been scanned and transformed into archival pigment prints. The tintype itself is a actually a positive image on a metal plate.
There is a cause and effect impact with these portraits, since the process of long exposure and the rustic nature of the development process requires a portrait in which the subject stands or sits very still and the camera must be placed on a tripod. In addition, the sepia toned quality from the metal plate, which is very prominent in the scanned images, situates these portraits in a bygone era. The photographer has taken a contemporary musician playing a heritage of folk music and overlaid the mystique and romance of the past. These images are quite simply composed, usually with a symmetrical structure, which adds further to their visual stability and general lack of dynamic energy. It is an interesting contradiction given the rapid toe-tapping rhythms of the actual folk music played by the same musicians being depicted. This is a collection of richly toned prints that convey the quiet peace and solitude of a mountain community with none of the challenges that living there might entail. The tintype process is like a color wash that permeates these portraits and pulls them out of this time and pushes them back into a time when we can only remember the good parts.
The black and white rich tonal range and square format of Brandon Thibodeaux’s sensitive portraits of the African American community in the Mississippi delta convey a similar nostalgic quality as Elmaleh portraits, but there is a emotional tension that lies just under the surface.
There is a melancholic quality in many of Thibodeaux’s portraits, as well as expressions of wariness and the subjects seem uneasy.
Even though the composition and framing devices used by the photographer are very stable with centered subject combined with vertical and horizontal lines, the expressions and gestures of the individuals create a psychological tension.
Thibodeaux captures the tension of hard living, of perseverance, and the apprehension of survivors. While they are simple and straightforward images with little pretension or use of photographic devices, the primary expressive tools they employ of person and place, gesture and gaze, are very effective. In contrast to Elmaleh’s community portraits which reveal one perspective, Thibodeaux has created equally timeless portraits with simmering racial and economic tension that aren’t preachy, forced, or blatantly obvious.
More information is available at candelabooks.com and the exhibit will be up through April 17, 2014.
© Douglas Barkey 2014
Part 1: Simultaneous compression.
When we pick up a camera and frame a composition in the viewfinder, we do so with a number of key assumptions about what happens when we press the shutter button and capture an exposure. A skilled photographer manipulates the exposure, lighting, and point of view to address the fact that the three-dimensional reality in front of them is being translated on to a two-dimensional plane. There are many factors wrapped up into that simple action and when we look at the results, whether it is on the miniature LCD display panel on the back of the camera or as a finely crafted print hanging on the wall in the museum, we suspend our disbelief about the reality of that image. The Michael Snow Photo-Centric exhibit at the Philadelphia Museum of Art is a retrospective collection of work that examines the structure of the photographic medium and what we assume to be true about it. It is an exhibit that every photographer should see, because it artfully and cleverly disassembles the medium in a provocative manner that inspires reflection on contemporary photographic practice.
One of Michael Snow’s strategies is to physically take the viewer through the act of the creation of the photograph by forcing them to literally adopt the point of view taken by the photographer. In “Crouch, Leap, Land” it appears that what is on view is a minimalist sculpture consisting of three thin black rectangles suspended from the ceiling, which is the case, except that each rectangle is actually a large transparency of a model in three states of movement: crouching, leaping and landing as shot from below.
To see the images completely the viewer has to lie on their back like the photographer who made the images, or at least crouch low as did the depicted model. Some viewers may be shocked to find themselves going from first experiencing a rather straightforward presentation of three black slabs to looking up the underside of a female model. The only way these photographs could have been made would have been with the model standing on a transparent stage, with the photographer positioned below.
There are a multitude of components to this work that are uniquely photographic. The most obvious is that of point of view (POV) – cameras are easily raised, lowered, tilted or otherwise placed in unique vantage points that would be difficult to replicate with other media. Beginning photography students are often told to vary their POV and explore the subject from many angles, because that factor can compress the presentation of spatial dimension, expand it or simply make it more interesting. An on-camera flash has clearly been used to freeze the figure in motion – another unique photographic attribute. But Snow goes another layer deeper into the meaning of the medium by getting the image off the wall in a not-so-subtle effort to force the viewer into viewing the scene as the camera viewed it. In addition, the optical limitations of the lens emphasizes just the surface of the glass that the model is standing on, as does the lighting of the model from below, so the effect resembles that of a three dimensional object that has been placed on a copier. The viewer sees a great amount of detail in the feet, but this detail diminishes in the distance. Snow’s approach to making the image seems reminiscent of Eadweard Muybridge’s sequential studies of human movement, such as “Untitled (Woman lying down)”, except that he offers the viewer an unexpected viewpoint that seems like it could be a tongue-in-cheek reference.
This work also illustrates the compression of 3D space to a two dimensional plane, which occurs each time an exposure is made. By using the glass as the physical support for the model, Snow has created a surface within the photographic dimension that presses up against the reality of spatial dimensions. For example, the model’s feet flatten out on the glass – the viewer sees this in great detail – and the lighting and focus seem to force the rest of the model’s body to collapse onto the picture plane. This idea of photography carving out slabs of space and compressing it into two-dimensions is a common theme in Snow’s work and is even more dramatically applied in “Press”.
The analogy is further reinforced in the presentation of the images, since Snow took the 16 prints and used thick polyester resin as backing to sandwich them between two large sheets of plexiglass, again using clamps to reveal the mechanics of the image creation process.
The use of the clamps are a clear reference to the mechanical nature of the photographic process, which is dependent on a rather simple machine that holds the light sensitive media inside a dark box with a small frame that can be opened and closed to let in the light. The “C” clamps likewise create an image by “capturing” some objects and applying enough pressure to flatten them into an image within a rectangle. The look of these images is also reminiscent of a technique that goes back to the earliest photographs created by Fox Talbot…
….when he sandwiched a plant in between a sheet of light sensitized paper and glass, essentially recording a very detailed shadow of the specimen. This practice is still used creatively today by many photographers to create “lensless” images called photograms.
As Vlas (2014) states in her introduction to the exhibit, “There is a sense of playfulness in Snow’s protracted gesture of literalizing an intangible process, and his visible reflection behind the camera openly declares the artist’s participation – not just as a signature, but also as an invitation to the viewer to indulge in his visual pun” (p. 10). For his part, Snow declares that his intent was to “two-dimensionalize” the objects (Vlas, 2014, p. 54) and he succeeded in doing so in more ways than one.
When we look at photographs whether it is in print, website, or in a frame, we suspend disbelief in the sense that we accept that the spatial reality as presented by the photograph represents the real – we are willing to believe that we are looking at a landscape and accept the validity of the image. Yet the photographic process does painfully “two-dimensionalize” space and important information (visual data) is lost in that translation. Perspective, focus, shadow, depth, and detail are all components that are inevitably changed and can be selectively used or hidden based on the photographer’s skill and will. We should keep this factor in mind as we create and interpret photographs.
© Douglas Barkey, 2014
Next upcoming post: Part II – Sequence and Time
Vlas, Adelina. (2014). Michael Snow Photo-Centric. In P. M. o. Art (Ed.), (pp. 60). Philadelphia: Philadelphia Museum of Art Publishing Department.
Today I visited the Philadelphia Museum of Art to see the photography exhibit by Michael Snow, which I will review soon. Afterwards I sat down in front of van Gogh’s painting of sunflowers, but the funny thing was that everyone seemed to be more interested in getting a photograph of the painting on their smart phone or having a quick portrait taken of themselves next to it. Nobody looked, and I mean really looked, at the painting itself. It’s value as a commodity and celebrity status seem to have overtaken it’s life as a remarkable painting…