Impressing Upon Time: Photography's Dilemma

by Daniel Smyth

Black Holes: mysterious empty foci weighing on space-time so heavily, a vortex where nothing can escape, not even light. Two especially curious things recently made their presence known to scientists as their collision echoed in the universe: the first recorded sound of time bending, vocal proof of its torque. Before this massive discovery, we have relied on visual documents to observe those elusive bodies lingering out and beyond. The irony is clear: while black holes swallow light and freeze time, our record of remote objects is refracted light’s impression. With this new sound, light rays undulating through a lens become anew, something we have only just begun to understand. 

An imprint cannot help but statically stare, trapped and absorbed onto film or digital sensors like an accused criminal’s ink-stamped thumbprint. People have been capturing appearance through photography since the 1850s, but come Modernism and static black and white blots become exhumed, light tries to escape. But gravity persists. Unlike sculpture, painting, music or literature, where subjective possibility shapes an artwork, photographs are always pressed from refracted light. No matter the manipulation, subjects in a photograph are frozen, a reference to objects in space. The medium is particular in its potential to be both documentary and mythical, and at times, simultaneously. Three artists (coincidentally all from Germany) explore this facet suggesting a captured moment in time is something transcendent.

Thomas Ruff,  Cassini 10

Thomas Ruff, Cassini 10

Thomas Ruff has put a photographic dilemma on display in his Cassini series made of appropriated celestial images. Ruff digitally manipulated satellite photographs, adjusted them like a contemporary Pictorialist looking to the future rather than nostalgic for the past. In some cases, Ruff downloaded images from NASA’s website making his conditions of appropriation a component of the aesthetic form. When satellite images–which lock light waves onto digital nodes–are colored in as something else, something new, scientific document transforms into otherworldly representation. Ruff’s Cassini photographs, if they can be called his or photographs at all, twist against the brute surface of photographic technique and try to resurrect the dormant light back into the present. It is both fantasy as well as veracity.

Where Thomas Ruff worked from the already produced images, Thomas Demand, another alum of the Düsseldorf Academy of Arts, known for his meticulously executed paper models and photographs of them, worked to undermine photographic fact before it even appeared. On display, this spring at Matthew Marks Gallery in New York is Demand’s photograph Atelier where he presents a model image of Henri Matisse’s studio with colored paper strewn about the floor, a glimpse into the painter’s interest later in his career with cutout assemblage moving away from painterly brushstrokes. In actuality, the entire scene is a made of paper, largely modeled from a photograph of the French artist sitting in his studio, playing against both Matisse’s own fascination with the two-dimensional rendering and MoMA’s recent exhibition, Henri Matisse: The Cut-Outs. Atelier is Demand’s finalized depiction of the paper model captured via a large format camera. Rather than affect the existing skin of the image, he crumpled its constructed reality obliterating his model after documenting it photographically. On the one hand, the photo still owes its existence to the paper sculpture. On the other, the paper sculpture itself is an illusion; now destroyed, it is left to hang in space, the evidential impression removed and deconstructed.

Similar to Ruff, Demand’s approach to circumvent photographic time is tangential to the medium’s front-facing issue. While Ruff works through anterior conditions like appropriation and manipulation, Thomas Demand folds away the ground work by discarding the already false paper reference; the whole practice is left to drift in and out of meaning and significance (Demand in particular plays on political motifs to place much of his work). Both perspectives aim towards inner continuity, but in each case, the conditions and contemporary milieu define what the photograph is, rather than the image itself generating unique space. Radiant energy’s inherent gravity onto a surface cannot help but collapse into incoherent fact. Light remains petrified, as locked before a black hole, glued to the fabric of the galaxy.

Thomas Demand,  Atelier , 2014, C-print mounted on plexiglass, 94 1/2 x 134 1/4 inches; 240 x 341 cm © Thomas Demand / Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

Thomas Demand, Atelier, 2014, C-print mounted on plexiglass, 94 1/2 x 134 1/4 inches; 240 x 341 cm
© Thomas Demand / Artists’ Rights Society (ARS), New York / Courtesy Matthew Marks Gallery

To unravel continuity through objective impression seems impossible, but the recent (or very distant) harken cry from colliding black holes has shaken the rug from under our feet; every event weighs on space, and their conglomeration drapes us all into a sense of time. So then, how can an objective impression break free from its inherent finished character?

Like Ruff and Demand, Wolfgang Tillmans’ and the installation for his Book for Architects, shown at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York last year, indirectly addressed photography’s intrinsic restraint, but in a way different from his fellow German contemporaries. The installation involved two video projections perpendicular to each other that cycled through 450 photographs of buildings, corners of rooms, angular patterns, alleyways, staircases, and other ordinary scenes. Viewers watched from bleacher-esque seating facing the screens, which looped through Tillmans sequence of photographs captured over the span of ten years. Because of his standard lens, each architectural view showed like the naked eye, straightforward and simple; however, the web of associations between the photos, their screens, and viewers was remarkable.

A humanless construction site from Madrid in 2009 becomes related to a skyscraper in 2013, New York City. Tillmans maintained a consistent composition–a suitable and appealing characteristic–through repetitive banality. Sequential events flowed into a stream of resemblance, and museumgoers drifted in and out of the installation not knowing whether they were witnessing the beginning or the end of the project. There was neither, and that ambiguity was the point. Tillmans’ photography was not supplemental to a living reflection, a reference or experiential model. After a time sitting in the dark room, consecutive images stopped being consecutive, and the semblance of continuity invoked its shadowy presence.

Wolfgang Tillmans, installation view,  Book for Architects , 2014

Wolfgang Tillmans, installation view, Book for Architects, 2014

And now comes the question: is this sense of fluidity created by the photographs themselves, or the relations in the installation? In other words, does Tillmans exceed photography’s dispassionate nature, or does he exploit it, as Ruff and Demand? Time will tell.

Something to note: all three artists above mentioned continually blend photographic practice with other disciplines. Thomas Demand began his career as a sculptor, Ruff’s technique often blurs into computer graphics, and Tillmans’ Book of Architects incorporates video. Now, the question can become: does contemporary photography deal in impartial impression as it once perhaps did? In other words, is a photograph an impression at all? Technology and techniques for expression have been colliding for some time; perhaps our notion of separate artistic fields is also falling into muddy waters. Just as light was discovered to be a wavelength on the electromagnetic spectrum, just as black holes revealed their existence illustrating that space-time stretches and contracts, maybe formal definitions between artistic practice, too, is something associative and built through dynamic interactions. Maybe what we can glean from colliding black holes is the universe as a whole; photographic impressions, in light, are a part of the drapery as it disturbs gravitation pull. Who knows? We cannot help but amble forward in time, and see what comes.