February 5, 2013

Pictures of Images

by Jessica Santone

In Robert Chase Heishman’s _IMG series (2012), neon orange or green masking tape is used to designate the space of the image of his photographs. At first glance, the photographs look as though they have been doctored, with the trendy colored tape added as an effect. But on closer examination, it turns out that the artist has Robert Chase Heishman, _IMG #2 (2012) covered the scenes themselves with tape, which is brusquely attached to the walls and other surfaces. These starkly white architectural spaces and still life arrangements are designated as “images” by the edges of the masking tape covering and/or outlining them. If in some places the tape warps or dangles slightly, this is a necessary byproduct of creating a frame for a two-dimensional picture of three-dimensional space. These frames are rectangular, nearly matching the actual frame of the photograph, but in order to produce such outlines, the artist must string the tape around corners, along the orthogonals of the single-point perspective that defines photographic picture space, and occasionally over objects. In framing his images this way, Heishman draws attention to the flattening of space that photography accomplishes. And he points out the tension between images and pictures when we photograph (or otherwise represent) space.

How to distinguish these two terms: image and picture? Simply, an image is a visual or verbal representation of a form or idea, while a picture refers to a material object often featuring one or more representations. Image connotes imitation, copying, or likeness; picture meanwhile indicates a material surface, and typically alludes to art. So why make a series of _IMGs, as Heishman has done here? By outlining or masking the deep space out of which we capture images, the artist highlights the idea contained within the borders of the frame. But as the meandering masking tape recedes and advances in the space of the picture, it sticks closely to the frame of the printed photograph and we are faced with the photograph as surface. Another definition of image is helpful here. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, definition 3c of image states:

“A physical or digital representation of something, originally captured using a camera from visible light, and typically reproduced on paper, displayed on a screen, or stored as a computer file.”1

In this way, the problem of photography’s material presence is voided by the circumstances in which the image was produced: from visible light. This type of image might appear in any form, on paper, screen, or file; only the idea of a copied reality matters. This title refers to a generic file name in fact, perhaps the one assigned automatically by the digital camera’s software. Upon closer inspection, the masking tape in Heishman’s _IMG series shows the idea of the image at the point where it becomes a picture.

Jessica Labatte, The Alignment (2010)

Other works in the Fractal Semblance exhibit at Roots & Culture do the same: they show us pictures of depth and images of surface, taking advantage of the unique properties of photography subjected to physical manipulations in front of the lens.This is the case in Alistair Matthews’s Gretta Garbo (2012) and especially in Jessica Labatte’s The Alignment (2010). In Labatte’s work, the patient and attentive viewer will detect the process of making the abstract composition entirely from a clever arrangement of props and mirrors. I must confess that I only discovered this point of view from another visitor at the opening. Once again, the material picture shows the considerable depth of the image. So much so that this time we see what’s behind the camera. In each of these artworks, the artist presents a skilled awareness of three-dimensional spatial relationships – and subjects these intriguing tableaus to the crushing reality of taking a picture.


1 “image, n.” OED Online. December 2012. Oxford University Press. www.oed.com.emils.lib.colum.edu/view/Entry/91618. (link requires institutional login)

February 5, 2013

truth to image materials

by Whitney Huber

Fractal Semblance, on view at Roots and Culture from January 18 until February 16, brings together photographic works by Robert Chase Heishman, Jessica Labatte, Alistair Matthews, and Liz Nielsen. As the curatorial statement informs us, all of the works are “untouched by digital processes,” a fact that, once known, comes to bear differently upon the experience of each work. Beyond emphasis on how these photographs are made, the exhibition’s title invokes fragmentation and experimentation with illusion and representation. The curatorial statement suggests that the redefining of illusionistic space is a significant trend in 21st century American conceptual photography. I remain unconvinced of these larger claims, but they’re not needed to enjoy the work. Ultimately, it’s an engagement with the idea of contemporary photography that rejects digital manipulation that best holds the show together, and that I find most intriguing.

How is it that refusing to use some of the newest of photographic technologies could be significantly contemporary and not simply reactionary or even traditionalist? What does the foregrounded use or non-use of digital processes bring to considerations of contemporary photography? In a world where a member of Congress openly altered photographs for posterity, what can we make of the assertion that direct photographic processes still matter in the realm of conceptual photography? How do processes impact the experience of a casual art viewer (and not just art photographers’ photographers)? Asking these questions might begin to illuminate works in this show.

In the first gallery, two works by Heishman, _IMG #3 (2012) and ­_IMG #9, captured my attention briefly – they seem a HEISHMAN_IMG#3little obvious at first – but stuck with me. These two works appear to have been made fairly simply, straight photography of an ordinary space in which colorful electrical or craft tape has been arranged in such a way as to anticipate the presence of the camera and the eventual photograph that is taken, an ultra-simplified Sandy Skoglund. But rather than painting and modeling a fantastical world meant only for a photographic life, Heishman is mapping out his elementary ideas about images with extraneous but tangible line and color, like a gaffer’s assistant after hours, discovering the mysteries of framing, camera angle, depth of field, focus, and perspective, once he’s gotten a hold of the camera. While not digitally manipulated (although provocatively titled with “digital” file names), these are staged works, but they’re humble, playful and quiet. Their surfaces are muted with details of the mundane: the


surface of drywall, old hinges, dust and dirt, torn and uneven strips of tape, objects and corners of everyday life. The quality of the tape lines acting in anticipation of a photo or even as documents of compositional play for the camera is interesting in a sweet way. It’s more evident in _IMG #3, because the singular rectangle of tape conforms to the framing of the camera, as if marking off the image in space through multiple movements and sitings, in advance of the quick, camera click. In _IMG #4 (2012), found toward the back of the exhibition space, we encounter aRobert Chase Heishman, _IMG #2 (2012) photographic image of the same subject as _IMG #3, a simple architectural space, perhaps a studio, with a bench and pot of flowers. We infer that this was taken earlier in time than _IMG #3, because we can see that the initial framing of the scene with tape has just been made. I appreciate the literalness and simplicity, here and elsewhere in Heishman’s work, that demonstrates the camera’s ability to flatten space while somehow preserving it – a Georges Méliès-esque reminder of just how these image-capturing devices work.

At the back of the gallery hangs Jessica Labatte’s The Alignment (2010), the largest work in the exhibition and the most visually striking. With this work, consideration of the process of its making Jessica Labatte, The Alignment (2010)strongly impacts the pleasure and interest that I take in it (the story of its making was delightfully conveyed to me by two of Labatte’s adoring students). This photograph, made in a single shot, shows us a carefully staged assemblage of visible objects and pieces of mirror that reflect objects and surfaces that are out of our sight. A near antithesis to Heishman’s work in regard to the effects of process, The Alignment is an almost virtuosic display of the photographer’s in-studio compositional and lighting skills. Part of a series titled Lazy Shadows, there is certainly no laziness in craft or care to be seen. Nothing seems to be left chance, which is perhaps why one’s first impression is that this must be a photo-shopped image. Imagining this construction of reflections as it stood in the photographer’s studio is a large part of the wonder of getting lost in the work. The precision of placement needed to make such an image without digital manipulation urges viewers to untangle possibilities for the positions of lights, angles of reflection, distances of objects placed beside or behind the camera in order to appear as fragmented subjects within the dramatic and somewhat baroque array. This is an interesting visual pursuit that gives a sense of vertigo, and one that undoubtedly points us back to the photographer’s patience and skill. As for subject matter, I am at a loss in the way that I am with works by Jessica Stockholder. I want to combine references, draw associations, infer theme or concept beyond that of craft, reflection, color, light and composition, but I’m left unsure. Why are we looking at spray-painted Styrofoam, a cinder block, a bedpan, an air filter, a cup carrier, some yucky food? These items are maybe drawn from the life of the artist – home, studio, or alley? – and seem to be treated largely as formal elements.

Bringing together the curatorial suggestion that contemporary American conceptual photography is redefining illusionistic space, along with the insistence that these fragments and visual experiments be composed without digital processes, I become intrigued by what is most contemporary about these works. I don’t find it in the play of figure/ground, reflection and opticality. While highly enjoyable, these challenges to pictorialism are, after all, the familiar concerns of the Cubists, Futurists, collage artists, of Steiglitz, of Kertesz, of modernism. They are somewhat “shattered remnants of art history” from the early twentieth-century, but I don’t see them washing up on shores so much as retelling the continued cognitive struggles we have with our tools for producing realism. The abstinence from digital processes is not contemporary, per se, and not necessarily conceptual. Most importantly, these art photographers enjoy making and exploring image structure in its material interface with the concrete world. I’m guessing that they (rightly) believe this is a quality of images that is being lost in the sea of Photoshop and Google images. In this sense, they are poetically stubborn luddites with a truth to materials ethos. No, it’s not the formal interests or the non-digital processes that seem to make these contemporary, but the quotidian materials and surfaces (craft tape, drywalled spaces, pink Styrofoam, fast food trash, bad floral fabric) that place these images in a culture and in time. In this sense, they represent and document a contemporary moment in a long-standing modernist tradition of conceptualizing spatial/pictorial conundrums.