New Artists Old Techniques
at Schneider, through February 13
Homage/The Vintage Photograph
at Yello, through January 31
By Mark Swartz
The 11 artists in these two shows have all found something useful in photography's warehouse of obsolete technology. It's as if they'd discovered old cameras and other equipment on a shelf in the corner, dusted them off, and realized they were actually time machines. Pinholes, cyanotypes, tintypes, Vandykes, and stereographs all recall the past, promising some relief from the cyber this, digital that of modern times.
Time travel can be seductive, but there are two dangers to be negotiated if the time traveler intends to make a return trip. One is aesthetic: old photographs have a certain prettiness inextricably associated with antique fairs and grandma's attic. Rummaging around such places might turn up a charming or endearingly retro item, but it's very difficult to find anything that says something fresh. The other danger is political: using old techniques suggests an alliance with the society that originally employed them, and that can mean an apparently reactionary position on any number of social issues--civil rights, indoor plumbing, you name it.
These 11 photographers, as well as the galleries presenting them, acknowledge the allure of nostalgia and maybe even indulge our liking for it a bit, but they know when to slam on the brakes of their time machines, spin the wheel around, and speed safely home. We end up in the present, our heads spinning but our eyes refocused on the world around us.
The artists at Schneider take more straightforward journeys than those at Yello through the history of photographic technology: each artist uses a single technique. Jayne Hinds Bidaut makes tintypes of insects and nudes and mounts them in antique velvet-lined cases made expressly for tintypes. So the method and the presentation are borrowed from another era, but the subjects are neither ancient nor modern, and as a result her photographs hover uncomfortably between the past and the present. Jerry Spagnoli makes daguerreotypes of modern cities and subtly colorizes them, but when you first look at them you're sure they were done a hundred years ago, they look so much like Eugene Atget's pictures of Paris. Critics have often debated whether Atget's purpose was aesthetic or documentary; one wonders whether Spagnoli intends merely to demonstrate the visual potential of an abandoned technique or to say something about the impermanence of the cities he documents.
Pinhole technique, used long before the invention of photography to project images on a surface, requires only the most primitive of materials. Because of its long history, and perhaps because it works the same way an eye does, this technique has a way of calling attention to the act of looking. Jesseca Ferguson and Carlos Jurado both use pinhole cameras, and they've exhibited together in the past, but their work is very different. Ferguson's microcosmic still lifes come complete with symbolic apparatus (a doll's head, a skull, a cracked picture frame), and she ponders rather melancholically the passage of time--a contemplation suited to the technique's long exposures. Jurado's pictures are both simpler and more mischievous. An untitled picture of a miniature skeleton, a spoon, and a drinking glass--the glass distorted by the pinhole technique--is at once a starkly beautiful image and a joke played on our expectations of scale.
John Metoyer's specialty is the cyanotype, a technique that uses a chemical that turns blue when exposed to light. In Self-Portrait, Resurrection he grafts his own head, haloed in light, onto what looks like a corpse or doll's body. This grotesque image is the most modern in the Schneider show--and its strangeness is enhanced by the use of an old, little-known process. Metoyer's photos contrast sharply with the small sampling of antique photographs, mostly portraits, that the gallery is presenting alongside the artist-photographers' works.
Curator Aron Packer also presents antique photographs alongside artists' work at Yello, but his "vernacular" photos are a more integral part of the show, not only accentuating the artistic intent of the other photos but evincing a sweet but screwy poetry of their own. Consider Ethel Brown--Girl Wrestler in a swimsuit and heels, an image probably from the 50s, resting her elbow on a freestanding fluted column. We'll never know who took this kitschy photograph, and maybe we don't want to. Same with the artlessly titled L.P. Garner and V.A. Sonabria With the Largest Glow Lamp Ever Built, showing two men in lab coats each holding one end of what looks like a fluorescent tube.
The vernacular photographs deflate any pretensions to profundity the other photographers in the show might have had. And if titles are any indication, Kellie Murphy Klein certainly came on board with her share of pretensions. Still, the impulse behind Limbo, Turmoil, and Revelation links Klein to one of the earliest and most fascinating strains in photographic history, the ambition to capture supernatural and psychological phenomena, and her gently surreal juxtapositions deflate her works' pretensions even without the girl wrestlers posed a few feet away. Moreover, Klein blends techniques seamlessly: Revelation is a cyanotype and Vandyke brown print on watercolor paper, and Turmoil is a cyanotype, Vandyke, and gum bichromate print on printmaking paper.
Dan Cochrane alters found photographs with decals, hair, and drawings. In Gusher--a large, horizontal black-and-white shot of an Oklahoma oil field--he's drawn in a thick fountain of oil. It's either a gag or wishful thinking, but either way it harks back to the photographer's goal of capturing a moment in time.
Todd Hochberg's stereographs embody another long-standing goal of photography, to move from two dimensions to three. Each of his ten pairs of side-by-side images comes with a stereoscope, making for an impressive if not entirely convincing three-dimensional effect. As his subjects, Hochberg has chosen family rituals, including a wedding and a circumcision. Dad's Recovery shows a disembodied hand shaving a man in a hospital bed, while a woman (mom?) looks directly into the camera, applying lipstick. One of photography's shortcomings is that, despite its claims to realism, it can never really take you there; Hochberg seems to want to highlight this shortcoming by documenting a personal moment using a gimmicky technique that actually distances us from the event.
Like all the techniques used in both these shows, stereography was abandoned for a reason. But fortunately artists can raid the photography warehouse, rediscovering the potential and shortcomings of antiquated techniques and ways of seeing.