Science of Sight

"Science of Sight: Alternative Photography"
Haines Gallery

ABELARDO MORELL,  CAMERA OBSCURA: VIEW OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN BEDROOM, 2009,  COURTESY HAINES GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO

ABELARDO MORELL, 
CAMERA OBSCURA: VIEW OF THE BROOKLYN BRIDGE IN BEDROOM, 2009, 
COURTESY HAINES GALLERY, SAN FRANCISCO

 

ESOTERIC PHOTOGRAPHIC techniques, from the antique to the highly experimental and conceptual, came to the fore as Haines Gallery recently sidestepped the medium's increasingly ubiquitous digital interface, giving exposure to the work of 13 artists who approach the photograph as an intersection of light and materials.

Artist Binh Danh uses a daguerreotype process to present flickering images, faces of those documented by the Khmer Rouge prior to their execution in the Killing Fields of Cambodia. Ghost of Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum (2008) portrays the image of a young man; as his solemn face stares back at us, we may be disconcerted by the sight of our reflection in the fragile silver medium. Danh, originally from Vietnam, captured this image at the genocide museum in Phnom Penh.

The photogram is one of the earliest photographic processes — created by placing actual objects atop photosensitive paper. Beijing-based Shi Guorui, primarily known for large-scale camera obscura works of spectacular sights in China, presented photograms created during a residency at the de Young Museum. Untitled (chair from de Young archives) (2007) offers a haunting reinterpretation of a traditional object as a hazy, cream-colored absence. Wendy Small's photogram A plane, 2 dragons, 5 dollars (2004) uses mysterious small objects to create engaging, lacy images. In her Barrel of Monkeys (2004), simians and tiny mermaids come into focus. Small's initial impulse — to de-clutter a drawer — blossomed, resulting in these formal yet whimsical compositions.

Klea McKenna's Paper Airplane Project (2011) is comprised of a large wall installation of partially unfolded paper planes; exposure to the sun "from dawn until dusk" resulted in warm shades of orange, yellow, red and brown, glowing across the angular geometry of surfaces. These were inspired by the military in WWII watching round the clock for enemy planes along the Western coast of the United States. McKenna exposed the paper planes at Tennessee Cove in Marin county, one of the outposts where the wartime vigil took place.

Abelardo Morell uses a camera obscura to project panoramic landscapes — the Brooklyn Bridge, a view of Florence — onto intimate interior settings. Setting up temporary residence in a space near a site, Morell would temporarily cover the windows with black plastic to create the pinhole camera. The reversed documentary image, falling across the furniture and decorations within the room, produces an unsettling, hallucinatory effect. John Chiara's 15th at Noriega (2011) uses a dye destruction process to create a cityscape, the sun reflecting off a flat, indeterminate, surface, in a smoggy-looking haze of a San Francisco sunrise or dusk. Chiara actually climbs inside his hand-built, large-format camera mounted on a flatbed trailer, manipulating the exposure from within.

Refreshingly low-tech, Jo Babcock creates sculptural tableaux, such as Gasoline Can & Abandoned Gas Station (1997), incorporating a photograph with the humble, three-dimensional object transformed into a pinhole camera — here, a rusty gas can — that produced it. Internal and external space, often turned inside-out, along with a subliminal sense of the ephemeral, subjective nature of the world, give us much to consider in the work of these accomplished artists.

Barbara Morris