March 18, 2007

More than the Eye Can See

Explaining why she shoots in 4x5 negatives, photographer Taryn Simon says that those large, now antiquated, light-sensitive membranes capture more than the eye can see. Light passes onto the film only to be pushed back through in the dark room. This breathing of light births a "reality" beyond that which was apprehended at the time of the shutter's release. Thus we encounter more than could have otherwise been seen and Simon explains that such luminous expressions ideally lead to large prints on a museum's white walls (her new work is currently at the Whitney). Removed from the political and purposeful, she says, the images are, as art.

Given the meticulous preparation required while working with a bellows camera, as a matter of ethos Simon eschews the contemporary digital habit of preserving all manner of shapes, textures, and moments. I've never stolen an image, she says. She is referring not only to the kind of pictures that are flooding onto Flickr (almost always some 2,000 a minute) but also to the long tradition of the street photographer whose lightweight (Leica) apparatus is always at the ready, poised for the quick-click gesture that seizes a moment's composition.

Simon's subjects are therefore not seized, but co-authors in her work (like the men who at long last were proven innocent of crimes wrongly attributed to them by the force of surveillance and photographic evidence).

If the spaces of her current project (An American Index to the Hidden and Unfamiliar) are remote, obscure, and otherwise unseen realms, this is no Farm Security Administration documentary project intent on bringing facts to light. Her entries into zones that are out of sight are always accommodations. She works her way in and creates. And yet there is an abundance of vision to be found through her large negatives--rendering something beyond the reality she thought she finds, the art of the image breathed into being.

While she claims that craft and removal from ideological "use" constitute her work as art, the fragile excess of the negative surely suggests something of the archive's spirit for interested knowing. Here art feeds history. Traces of the imperceptible forge the tentative alliance between past and present as meaning waits to be discovered. The images are thus proximate as images, bringing their subject matter close and imbued with affect, but also moving away, as if holding their essence in reserve.

Unlike Simon's precise compositions, the Flickr phenomenon suggests something monstrous with its vast excesses. There, instead of the fine (artistic) vision of the discerning look, we enter an accumulating archive: images in an ever-heaping presentation. They come in a constant wave: cats and babies, post-industrial settings and graffiti, self-portraits, proms, party poses, and the odd, forgotten objects. Trolling through this proliferation, it is easy to think of Susan Sontag's On Photography and her call therein for an economy of the image. She wanted to slow down the desperate need to mark experience with its banal, touristy traces.

But what is striking in much of the current photography circulating is the degree to which it announces the experience itself. It is not a placeholder of some "time," but it is. And what it is, at the same moment, is deeply formulaic. The pictures posted and shared, whether in the irrepressible smooth clarity of the those using Canon cameras or the muted, aged quality of the Polaroid compositions--often coupled in evocative diptychs--is evidence that we are drawn to seeing the world in a particular way; our sight, like some expression of collective memory, moving along well worn lines, waiting for the history to emerge from the abundance and grant a glimpse of the excessive and elusive meaning.