Monday, February 17, 2014

A deep connection to materials at ICP

Breuer, Untitled (C-1189), 2012

(The following is a guest post by Eva Nikolova)

Currently on view at the International Center of Photography under the title "What is a Photograph?", a selection of the work of 21 contemporary artists purports to challenge our very notions of photography.  A provocative title, and while we may not be able to put the answer into words given the range of photographic experimentation from the last four decades that are the focus here, we still assume: we’ll know it when we see it.  But an ostensive definition can no longer encompass the works of those artists who are engaged in stripping bare the very basis of that recognition.  So what must be still present for a work to constitute a photograph?  Clearly not the camera: fully a third of the artists in “What is a Photograph?” have abandoned the iconic device, and some have gone much further, casting aside almost everything assumed indispensably photographic.
Breuer, Study for (Metal/Day), 2000

Dispensing even with the action of light or chemistry, here are some of the highly tactile, deliberately modest-in-size works of Marco Breuer.  Dazzling in the inexhaustible inventiveness of his methods, Breuer scrapes, scratches, sands, folds, burns, drills, and otherwise mutilates his photo paper creating unsettling tension between image and surface violation.  “Deliberate misuse” is his own phrase for the way he treats his materials, but plain "abuse" seems more apt: how else to describe scorching the paper with red hot coals, dynamite or a frying pan, or shooting - with a gun not a camera - a box of photo paper?  In fact, shooting with a camera is what Breuer has done the least of, even when starting out – his introduction to photography was through photograms.

Rossiter, Defender Velour Black, expired Jan 1946, processed 2011 (C), 2011

Rossiter, Fuji Gaslight, expired date unknown, ca. 1920s, processed 2009 (D), 2009

And then, there are the works of Alison Rossiter, which she describes as “found-photograms”. Rossiter seeks out gelatin silver papers that have expired many decades ago, and as if out of veneration for these relics of the photographic past, keeps her interventions minimal: she simply develops the entire sheet of paper, or else applies a little developer to a part of it.  For all the evocative shapes, planes and shadows that materialize onto the papers as a result, the subtly colored monochrome abstractions represent nothing external, just their own particular histories – ghostly traces of time made visible through darkroom chemistry.  In a one piece on view, the photographer withdraws almost completely: she presents to us a small rectangle of Eastman Kodak Solio, presumed to have expired around 1910, that she has left unprocessed.  Perhaps she felt the one hundred-year-old paper had endured enough - its incredibly rich, copper-like surface certainly suggests as much.  Like commemorative markers, Rossiter’s works simply bear the names of the paper, the year of expiration and that of processing.  If this elegy for darkroom photography seems merely nostalgic instead of poignant, and the concerns hermetic instead of urgent, it may be that to fully take in the impact of the work, you’d have to feel a deep connection to such materials and a personal stake in the continued existence of analog photography.  But even if you are not similarly moved, the works’ sheer visual presence - at once sumptuous and spare, sensuous and severe – may feel like a revelation.

Although working at seemingly different ends of a spectrum, Rossiter’s principled withdrawal and Breuer’s intensely physical engagements both share in the creation of objects that operate at the very edge of our assumptions of what a photograph is.  And where exactly is that elusive edge?  Perhaps it has become so razor-thin, so exquisitely whetted by the attempts to penetrate the obdurate essence of the medium in the last forty years, that it’s invisible until touched by the right hands, and then, suddenly, we see the mystery and beauty embedded in the materials we have taken for granted, laid bare before us.

Eva Nikolova