Long exposures have always intrigued me. Photography often purports to show the moment that happened in front of a camera during the exposure. When your exposure is five hours, as in the image above, does that accumulation of moments give us more knowledge or less knowledge about what is going on in the photo?
Knight’s Sleepless series is both concrete and abstracted, a unique achievement that I think you can only get with long exposures. On a basic level, Knight has left a camera pointed at a sleeping person for five hours. As there’s no trickery involved, the camera is recording exactly what it sees for those five hours. You couldn’t have a more concrete, “straight” photo than that.
The result doesn’t feel concrete at all, though. The images are wonderfully mysterious: the images should be able to answer the question “what happened while I was sleeping?” but the answer is elusive. Even with careful documentation, what happens while you are sleeping is just as mysterious as ever. With only a few exceptions, we can tell there are people sleeping in these beds but they are little more than enigmatic blurs. If the sleeper managed to not move for a while we may get some traces of detail, but even they are semi-transparent and unfixed (think of long exposures as a percentage game: if the object is static 100% of the time they will be 100% opaque; 50% static will be 50% opaque; constantly moving will be a blur, a figment).
What we are left with, then, is a documentary series that perfectly captures the feeling of sleeping — all of its mystery and restlessness.
(c) Noah Vaughn, “WTS, 2007” from his series dead space
Part of me wants to reach out to Noah Vaughn to meet up sometime. Part of me is holding out, though, in the hopes that we’ll run into each other randomly one day, cameras on tripods photographing who knows what who knows where in the city.
(c) Noah Vaughn, from 30 photos, 2012
I’ve lived in Chicago almost exactly five years. I’m not sure when I discovered Noah’s work, but he’s provided a wonderful window onto the city through his work. Between he and David Schalliol I feel like I’ve had a Eugene Atget-like coverage of Chicago’s architectural comings and goings. Vaughn has done a wonderful job of documenting the city’s transformations — all the small battles between the new and the old.
(c) Noah Vaughn, from 30 photos, 2012
More than anything else, I think, you can really tell that Vaughn truly loves and cares about Chicago and its expansive landscape, sitting there ready to be explored with a camera.
In addition to Vaughn’s site you can follow his excellent tumblr, Rubbish Goes Here and find him on flickr. He also spends what I assume to be countless hours finding wonderful Chicago Screenshots, grabbed from movies set in Chicago.
The lights are still on and fires are still burning, but we can’t tell if the inhabitants of Jörn Vanhöfen’s landscapes just left and will be back in a moment or if they’ve left for good, never to return. If you look hard enough at the series you might spy a few souls, blurred by a long exposure into a fleeting glimpse of a person, but that’s about it. The cumulative effect of this absence charges the photographs with mystery: “What happened?”
The images lack any hints to a narrative either as singular images or as a series. They are so uniform in this respect that they seem as if they were all taken on the same, seemingly momentous day. Some buildings are rising, others are decaying. Immaculate and broken infrastructure alike go unused. The only hint we are given is the title: Aftermath. Something happened, maybe just a few minutes ago, but what? As I worked through the series an unease settled in, but I never found a resolution to the mystery.
I can only imagine how much more ominous the images are in the flesh. You can see ten of Vanhöfen’s images at the Hamburger Kunsthalle, showing amongst Jeff Wall, Joel Sternfield, Andreas Gursky, et. al in the show LOST PLACES. Sites of Photography, which is on display in their contemporary gallery through September.
(c) Melanie Willhide “T and V, Mesa Elks, 2008”, 2011
So the story goes something like this: A man named Adrian Rodriguez breaks into Willhide’s apartment, steals stuff, police recover stuff including Willhide’s wiped-clean computer, Willhide tries to recover her work only to find a lot of corrupted files.
(c) Melanie Willhide “Untitled (the Steve McQueen house)”, 2011
I don’t know if a lot of crying ensued (it would have if it were me), but we do know that Melanie Willhide found an awesome visual vocabulary. She used this new-found aesthetic to create her series To Adrian Rodriguez, with Love, a mixture of the corrupted jpegs and new work she made to pursue this new theme.
I love the series. I’d love to know which are the original “collaborations” and which are the new work, but I think not knowing is part of the charm.
(c) Melanie Willhide, “Larry’s Lips”, 2011
They remind in a weird way of Lars von Trier and Jørgen Leth’s The Five Obstructions, which explores how creative a film maker — Leth — can be within the confines of absurd limitations — set by Von Trier (this analogy works really well in my head, too, because it equates von Trier with a burglar and I’m cool with that). There’s something to be said for working within set bounds, I think, and Willhide deserves credit as an artist overcoming such an unfortunate obstruction.
(c) Tom Kavanagh, from his series Dwelling
Let me start by saying that Tom Kavanagh has a lot of very good portraits of (what to me look like) very British people. You should check them out: I feel like I’m doing a small disservice by not featuring them, but I’ve been intrigued by abstraction lately, and it is Kavanagh’s quiet abstractions that made me want to write about his work.
(c) Tom Kavanagh, from his series Portfolio I
I’m really enjoying photography that tries to see how much it can do with how little. Or maybe the better way to put this is: how much can a photograph say with how small a vocabulary? The first photo here, up above, is one of the most minimal minimalist photos I’ve seen in quite a while, barely — but definitely — evoking a feeling of a physical space.
(c) Tom Kavanagh, from his series Portfolio III
These minimal abstractions from Kavanagh manage to express several layers of meaning despite their exceedingly small vocabularies, which is probably why I’m having so much fun parsing their nuances.
I remember an NPR piece a few years ago about bad jokes. Turns out the typical reaction to a bad joke is anger: when a joke begins our brains expect a positive payout, a brief endorphin kick of pleasure. When the payout never comes we will deprived of this expectation so we become angry (even, though, really, we’re just back where we began).
“NTSC Color Bars”, Digital Gelatin Silver Print, 2010, (c) Matthew Gamber from his series Any Color You Like
I don’t mean that Matthew Gamber’s wonderful series Any Color You Like makes me angry by any means, but I do think a similar process is going on. The magic of these images comes from the incredibly strong desire for there to be color, but the repeated thwarting of the desire by the photographs themselves. The colors associated with each image are so indelible that we can’t not see them, yet they aren’t there.
“Bengal Cat on Gone With The Wind Poster”, Digital Silver Gelatin Print, 2010 (c) Matthew Gamber, from his series Any Color You Like
I mean, look at this photo and tell me you don’t see the orange sunset! It is impossible for me to not see it. My brain automatically starts imposing color onto the scene, a flighty patch of orange that I want to will into being but Gamber’s image repels with a black and white shield.
Maybe I was wrong to say that these photos don’t make me angry. They certainly frustrate me. But that, really, is why I love them so much. When was the last time a photo frustrated you so much that you wanted to stare at it longer, to try to impose your will upon its proposed reality?
I’m pretty sure but not entirely sure Georg Aerni’s photographs are documents of real landscapes and not constructions of his imagination assembled into collages. Pretty sure. Not entirely sure. I’ve spent a good part of my afternoon looking at Aerni’s wonderful images and I’m still not entirely sure either way.
Aerni does a wonderful job in his landscapes of confusing us. So monumental are the scenes but so tightly composed are the shots that it is hard to read them. What is near? What is far? In many of the photos, especially the Slopes and Houses series, the scene is cropped enough that we’ve lost all context of setting and the surrounding landscape.
I’m curious as to how and why this works. How our brains fail to comprehend these images. Intuitively, it would seem that by focusing on our part of a scene we would be able to better understand that aspect of the landscape, yet the opposite is happening here. I think the problem is that these photos are of places so large that even when we focus in on a particular aspect they are still just on the edge of comprehension. The scenes are so complex that they refuse simplification.
Nothing punches you in the gut with artificiality quite as profoundly as the white glare of a lone gas station at a desolate highway exit. 24/7 convenience in the most remote of locations, these fluorescent wonders stand as way-stations to consumerism, a reassurance that no matter where our pilgrimage may take us our souls will always be nourished by fountain sodas and Pringles.
Adam Frelin has made two iterations of his “White Line”, one in Tokyo in 2007 and one in the middle of nowhere (Wyoming, rather) in 2005. The 2005 version in Wyoming, in particular, captures my imagination. Nature is predominantly the realm of hard points of light — the sun and the moon are defined points of light. Part of the oppressiveness of gas stations, or really most urban environments, comes from the omnipresence of the light. You can’t hide from it. (Which is the point, probably: to deter crime). But, just like so much of our consumerism, we’ve grown so used to its oppressive omnipresence that we actually do find solace and comfort in the glowing light and reliable repetitiveness of the experience.
And so “White Line” comes at us like a tear in the night, a sky torn asunder, with such contrast against its setting that it demands our attention. But, in aggregate, this incredibly hard beam of light actually creates a comfortable, soft, diffused bath of light, almost shadowless. By setting all of this on a quiet hill in Wyoming Frelin has summed up so much about the world we’ve created for ourselves: even in a dark and remote wilderness, one of the basic building blocks of modern life — the fluorescent bulb — manages to provide us with a modicum of solace, even when the more rational reaction might be to take offense at the urban intrusion in a natural space.
Walker Pickering’s Nearly West hovers somewhere amongst Robert Frank, Walker Evans, and Stephen Shore. He seems to be channeling several eras of Shore all at once: the tight, sharp interiors feel like they could be in American Surfaces and the carefully composed exteriors could be right out of Uncommon Places.
Pickering uses Frank’s repeated symbols, with vintage cars and worn out store fronts showing up throughout the series just as Frank honed in on jukeboxes and the flag. The road trip is there, too, but full of places that feel empty and without a human presence.
Pickering seems to be following Evans in a geographic and aesthetic sense. Many of the images feel like he’s revisited the same places as Evans, to give us an update, or to show us that there’s no need for an update, everything is still the same. Nothing seems new or even young in Pickering’s images. They almost seem like static monuments to themselves, a testament to a past that has been fading away since before it was built.
46°52’31.2038”N 9°52’28.331”E from his series “Big Black Nothing”
41°26’33.0479”N 2°8’26.1067”E from the series “Big Black Nothing”
With “Big Black Nothing” Kozak says he’s exploring boundaries by following one simple rule: walk until you get scared, then take a photo of that point. I love this series, partly because it totally captures the vibe of walking around alone at night. Areas that seem safe by day — and are almost surely safe by night — become terrifying as soon as you’ve heard one too many strange noises. Or, really, for me, as soon as my mind has had enough time to run through the terrifying possibilities that the night contains. That’s when it is time to turn around.
38°49’50.1085”N 0°8’54.7465”E from the series “Big Black Nothing”
I’d like to see the map of the boundaries Kozak is exploring, with little fingers for each path he has taken out into the darkness before turning around. Or perhaps the boundaries are purely psychological as Kozak tests his own limits of comfort.
“Dazed, Confused (Chongqing) （重庆)”
Three things immediately struck me about Chen Jiagang’s “Smog City”.
“Chemcial Plant in Changshou （长寿)”
The blurriness of the figures does several things for me. It makes them seem all the more fragile — people are the delicate inhabitants in these landscapes full of hard edges and decaying infrastructure. In “Dazed, Confused” up above the blurriness reiterates the uneasiness of the title: the figures seem to want to leave the image but are nonetheless anchored there, unable to escape.
“On The Other Side Of The Water (Chongqing) （重庆)”
More than anything else, though, I read the blurriness as a passage of time, as if even within these monumental landscapes everything is actually in a period of transition. People are come and going. Infrastructure is being torn down and rebuilt. It’s as if, somewhere in the haziness that permeates the images, the past and future are in conflict and everyone is unsure to react until there is a clear winner.
“Smog City” is but one of many great series of work from Chen Jiagang. I recommend exploring them all.
All images (c) Paul Yem, from his series Surrogate World
By now you’ve all probably gathered that I have a thing for night photography. Lately I’ve been intrigued by the idea of “magical images”, the power within an image to surpass the sum of its pieces, and for whatever reason I find photos taken at night especially magical.
Maybe it is the elongation of time in long exposures, as with smoke and water in the image above. Maybe it is the mysteries that reach out from the negative space of a dark sky, I’m not sure.
My guess is that there are lot of implications we are able to read from photos like this: lights left on imply a presence, blurriness implies a passage of time, a light in the sky tells us something is just over the horizon, but what?
I really like Yem’s work here. Of late I’ve realized that good work raises as many questions as it answers, if not more, and Surrogate World definitely fits that bill.
Yem ends this series with a poem:
It’s impossible to find
All you can see is black
You sit and stare
You inhale and exhale
Your mind is as far as the horizon
And as your eyes adjust
The light beyond begins to take over
It reveals the foreground
As your thoughts fade into the background
You have escaped into the land
And what you’re left with
Is a photograph
Yem’s site has another great series, The Modern World, that is also definitely worth checking out.
A week or two ago I quoted Sontag’s speculation about the knowingness or non-knowingness with which photographers approach their subjects. Angela Strassheim’s series Evidence nicely straddles this divide, revealing to us not only what we cannot see ourselves but also what the camera cannot see without the aid of the photographer (a novel concept, in some senses). Photographs can be authoritative, but if I took photos of these same scenes without the same process Strassheim uses I would get a false, banal impression of a scene that is actually quite charged with history.
“Evidence No. 8” from Angela Strassheim’s series Evidence
In the evidence series Strassheim uses a chemical compound to temporarily make bloodstains glow, revealing what has been deliberately hidden with painstaking scrubbing. Looking at the photos feels like looking at a portrait of Lady Macbeth: the Lady knows the blood is there even if we cannot see it.
“Evidence No. 2” from Angela Strassheim’s series Evidence
Some photographers, like Edward Weston, maybe Stephen Shore, sometimes Cartier-Bresson, believe that by looking at something intently enough with a camera they can reveal something to the viewer that we wouldn’t have seen otherwise. The camera is a tool that records, but the skilled photographer can impart something to the process to reveal the unknownable to us. I find Strassheim’s images particular intriguing on a conceptual level because she is visually revealing to us (and the camera) a visual trace of something we may know, may remember, may have heard about but would never be able to see without her efforts beyond her interactions with a camera.
You can see more of her work at http://www.angelastrassheim.com/. The Minneapolis Institute of Arts has a nice interview with her as well: