February 15, 2010

Nostalgia vs. Modernity

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The history of photography is the history of a technology: the photographic muse is forever embracing, exploiting, or casting off the mimetic availabilities of the mechanical eye. Photographs not only tell us about the images they portray, but also — more invisibly — the relationship between its technology and the creators and consumers who use that technology. Photography as an art form is written both with and against its commercial, documentary, and popular counterparts. “As industrialization provided social uses for the operations of the photographer,” Susan Sontag remarks, “so the reaction against these uses reinforced the self-consciousness of photography-as-art.” If the photograph poses as an eternalized crystal of time, the instant it captures has been broken off from a process that is still evaporating and crystallizing, a mode of production subject to rapid historical change.

While photography may have seemed to undermine the craftsmanship behind earlier artistic media such as painting — replacing meticulous brushstrokes with what can appear like simple exposure to reality — the ’60s and ’70s saw an inversion in such values. Pop silk-screens, conceptual instruction kits, and photorealist canvases made painting more reproducible, less originary; simultaneously, a renewed emphasis on the rituals behind the formal innovations of photographic precursors and bygone camera buffs as well as anti-corporate sentiment fueled movements in photography that rendered it more homegrown and local, a media ironically capable of investing its subject with the aura of materiality. A traditional photograph’s record of light and shadow transposed directly on a chemical surface acted as a trace of, and causal connection to, the thing itself — unlike the pure, unattached simulacrum that could be created through both paint and digital cameras.

The Image Wrought: Historical Photographic Approaches in the Digital Age, a large travelling exhibit from the Harry Ransom Center at University of Texas currently at the Johnson Museum through March 28, consists of two parallel shows in one. Contemporary photographs that appropriate older techniques have been paired with antique photographs that use those techniques, allowing the viewer to participate in the historical dialogue that underlies the framing, production and reproduction of these pieces.

Some of the photographs feel as if the artists behind them are odd luddites, technophobes engaged in a media that is inherently technological. Michael Gray’s reconstructions of vintage imagery by William Talbot, using the calotype process to capture actors in period dress against weatherworn Gothic architecture, is saturated by the backward-looking fondness of an antiquarian: indeed, the dusky calotype burnish, with its faint chocolate overtones, has become the visual mark of Victorian preciousness. Meanwhile “Laszlo and Carole” from Francis Scully Osterman’s Sleep series, showing a bearded young man embracing a girlfriend in bed, seems both naïve in its intent to record an unmediated, un-posed portrait, as well as sentimental in its depiction of the topic. Richard Lewis’s panoramas of unsullied natural landscapes taken with his mammoth, homemade camera harkens back to Bierstadt’s echt romantic vistas.

Other photographers return to older styles in order to achieve a powerful effect impossible with digital processing. Byron Brauchli’s use of the long focal range of palladium prints gives his shot of a zigzagging highway intersected by a grid of power lines a crisp, geometrical finish contrasting with its splotchy border; the same technique offers the silhouette of trees felled by strip logging a fine gloss that captures the phantasmatic residue of smog hovering in the foreground. Adam Lubroth’s checkerboard of snapshots, “30 Passageros,” records the disaffected look of passengers at a stoplight using gum bichromate in differing color pigments that transforms the pinched faces squinting in the glare of sun or bickering with their co-passengers into a humorous, brightly-lit pop montage. Jill Skupin Burkholder’s “Irish Tree” exploits the burmoil process, which allows intervention by the hand of the artist to brush and highlight the photo, so she can change a tree into a wispy, pointilistic play of light dissolving into a fairy-tale mist surrounded by a forbiddingly dark forest.

Many pieces in the exhibit blur the line between techniques that are throwbacks and breakthroughs, utilizing hybrid processes that rely on both up-to-date and outmoded methods. Michael Radin’s “Enchanted Forest” is a stereographic digital print from a scanned negative film, which covertly doubles the image of falling leaves to produce a parallax whereby the leaves stand out in 3-D from their forest background, resembling the trippy depth of stereoscope images popular in the late 19th century. Rita de Witt creates a large patchwork quilt from Xerox color copy heat transfers of black-and-white photos from an anonymous family album she purchased at a yard sale, recycling old materials into new. She thereby renovates the documents that were meant to preserve the commonplace moments of a woman’s life; but she also thereby reframes and re-imagines that unknown life through the multiplication of its remnants in an uncommon way. On the other hand, Dan Burkholder’s homage to Edward Steichen, a platinum print with digitally applied color, does not go far enough beyond its source material. The hauntingly bright windows burning against the bluish hue of the iconic Flatiron building only serve to remind one of the effects that Steichen could get without souped-up assistance.

The antique photos in the selection create an artistic wonderland in their own right. Charles Dodgson’s albumen print with a gaudy application of color, “Xie Kitchen as Chinaman,” dresses up a little girl into an orientalized merchant: a paradoxical conflation of innocence and gaucherie. Likewise the Victorian collages, which situate cutout photographic figures into watercolor landscapes, have a fanciful and slightly disturbing frisson to them. Robert Capa’s damaged print of a lone soldier along the Normandy Coast on D-Day smudges the clarity of the image but enhances its sense of a faceless menace and the murky fatuity of war. The exhibit also offers a rare glimpse of daguerreotypes — the first photographic technology — which have a hologram-like surface, a mirror that reveals hidden imagery against which the past disappears into the mercurial depths of time.

Seeking out the minimal requirements of the photographic media, Rebecca Foley uses a method called photogenic drawing on light-sensitized paper to create blow-ups of sprigs of clover that appear at once surreally neon and scientifically natural. Similarly, the exhibit offers an example of a photo made from a pinhole in a mask that produces an abstract starburst of psychedelic colors reminiscent of the imagery of heat-sensor cameras.

Perhaps most uncanny of all, though, the photograph “Always Curious” exploits the long exposure time required by palladium prints to depict the faces of antsy Vietnamese children as ghostly blurs: the process by which they are frozen in history also acts to erase them from it. The exhibit as a whole tells the story of photography’s tension between being an almost unmediated mirror of reality and a hand-wrought, specialized craft that manipulates images already posed and performed. Though photography relies on the industrialized technology of mass production, what could be more nostalgic than its underlying impetus to rescue a fleeting piece of time?

Original Author: Will Cordeiro