WHAT IS A PHOTOGRAPH?
by Autumn Jordan
Living in New York City this winter has been the ultimate contemporary art fan-girl dream. On days off I was able to zigzag between 10th and 11th Avenues in Chelsea. Weekend afternoons I spent getting lost in the dozens of galleries at The Met, MoMA, and the Guggenheim (though it would be pretty difficult to get lost at the Guggenheim). And Thursday nights I attended gallery opening and closing parties.
Although the New York art scene is so vast, there are several artists (particularly photographers) whose work I’ve had the delight of following all winter: Eileen Quinlan, Mariah Robertson, and Liz Deschenes; all three were featured in MoMA’s XL: 19 New Acquisitions in Photography, Eileen wrapped up a solo show at Miguel Abreu in December. To say the least, I was delighted at the opportunity to attend both the opening and press preview for the International Center of Photography’s (ICP) new exhibition, What Is a Photograph? which included Liz Deschenes.
As a fresh-faced Midwestern girl who only thought to bring a suitcase of clothing to NYC, I’ve felt out of place on several occasions (like at the opening at The Met or the time I spent a half-hour loitering in the lobby of the Roosevelt Hotel), but nothing prepared me for the hoard of DSLR toting media personnel constantly whispering “shush” (all too loudly) at one another at the What Is a Photograph? media event. In the half-hour preceding opening remarks and a gallery walk-through with curator, Carol Squiers, media personnel gathered around the various photographs, sculptures, collages, and the occasional speaker. Murmurs and even exclamations of, “how is that a photograph?” echoed through ICP’s subterranean level. The previous statement is the crux of photography in 2014: how do photographers differentiate themselves from the mass of individuals who possess the most advanced DSLRs? How do they create work dependent on depleting resources and decaying analog processes? And when will the art world hold photography—a medium which continues to celebrate the amateur as much as the experienced artist—to the same revere as other art media?
During opening remarks, Carol stated, “[the] digital revolution has made evident that the field of photography is changing”. The 21 emerging and established artists (several of which would not consider themselves photographers) are included in What Is a Photograph? participate in artistic practices highly sensitive to where photography has been and where it is going. The range of featured artists (from Christopher Williams to Mariah Robertson) exemplifies the array of approaches and decades of time devoted to subverting and defying the capacity of the photographic medium. The non-hierarchical approach in which Carol has curated the work presents an opportunity for the art world to consider photography in a new light.
Upon descending the staircase into the gallery space, viewers are confronted by Mariah Robertson’s, “154”, an entire Fujicolor Crystal Archive color paper roll suspended in “waves” between the ceiling and floor: an energetic interaction between the artist and material. The result of Robertson’s very physical darkroom process is ethereally vivid color abstractions and dreamy traces of exposed negatives collaged together in a photogram spanning over 100 feet. Other artists working with nearly obsolete materials include Allison Rossiter, Lucas Samaras, and Eileen Quinlan. Relying on a stockpile of extinct large format Polaroid film, Quinlan purposefully manipulates her work with both physical and artistic elements to render sublime abstractions. Rossiter engages in time and history of light sensitive paper by purchasing expired boxes of paper and developing them in the darkroom, allowing the work to reveal itself in markings, stains, and the occasional image.
Other camera-less artists included in the exhibition include Kate Steciw, Travess Smalley, and Liz Deschenes. In a tribute to the history of photography and image, Deschenes’ “Untitled [zoetrope]” is presented as 13 vertical concave narrow photograms, reminiscent of the slits within a nineteenth-century zoetrope a viewer would look through in order to engage with the image (the effect would be a moving image similar to that of a flipbook and reminiscent of work like that of Eadward Muybridge). The prototype for the piece at ICP appeared in the Usdan Faculty Show this past fall. Though the 13 completed photograms at ICP are void of the effects of daylight, which allowed the prototype to take on a wider variety of texture and reflections of blue, silver, and black, Deschenes’ “Untitled [zoetrope]” facilitates an incredible sense of space within the gallery. The mediating effect her piece at the opening was extremely profound, as it requires viewers to step back in order to take in the 13 photograms (and their total effect) in secession.
As explored flawlessly by Liz, Mariah Robertson, and all of the artists participating in What Is a Photograph? photography is not confined to the two-dimensional machine-dependent realm we so ignorantly continue to associate it as. Whether it is a large-scale traditional landscape photograph left to rest in water from the nature which the photograph documents or using the internet as means for bringing together “found objects”, the systems for art-making are developed to reflect the evolving landscape of photography, art, and technology. Works produced on light-sensitive paper or with Polaroid film are becoming more precious as these resources are depleted. The opportunity to be aware and participate in an era where artists are confronting the history of photography and refocusing it to include a broader definition is incredibly exciting. Squier’s exhibition and the artists work is paving the way for a new dialogue on where photography has been and where it is heading.