Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Andrew Hefter and Katie Maish -- One: One Thousand for May

The work on view for May at One: One Thousand, the online magazine of Southern photography, is evidence that Southern fine art photography is not just about moonlight and magnolias, or personal wrestling with history and family, but can be conceptual, like so much of the work being done these days in photography MFA programs around the country.

Conceptual photography is photography that is informed by an idea or a question or a conundrum; a body of work may be very disparate in subject matter, but finds cohesiveness or unity, or displays relationships among its visual elements when the viewer is aware of the concept proposed for the work by the photographer.

In my view, the challenge for conceptual photography projects is whether the images that result are engaging and arresting on their own, or whether they are interesting only in relationship to the concept, or idea, that informs their significance.

The question is, does the strength of the image depend on the concept that informs it, or does the concept deepen the impact of an already-strong visual experience?

Andrew Hefter's portfolio In Search of Life consists of 14 images, eleven of which are landscapes like the one above, and the rest are enigmatic close-ups like the one below, of Savannah night life.

According to Hefter, the origin of this body of work was his discovery that at the Savannah River nuclear research facility near Augusta, Georgia a "white, string or cobweb-like material" had been found in spent nuclear fuel tanks, raising the possibility that "the substance was biological in nature—a previously unknown life form created through nuclear abiogenesis."

He goes on: "I set out in search of this life and the place it came from, traversing the southern landscape and observing how it has transformed in the presence of nuclear energy and research facilities. Through my own scientific experiments, I attempted to mimic a comparative substance, seeking to understand the nuclear equivalent. The new life remained secret and elusive, with answers to questions kept hidden inside a laboratory shrouded by forest.

"With the continued trepidations about nuclear energy in world affairs, uncertainties about the science only grow. While science is openly traded and spoken with perceived transparency, the places where it occurs remain closed off, and only serve to foster distrust among the public.

"These pursuits are presented as noble and honorable, yet are apparently too dangerous for the laymen to bear witness to. We are told nuclear energy is safe, but given both these secretive practices, and events reported in the media, it becomes difficult to decipher this conjecture.

"Should this new life be biological after all, it may still be thought as either science fiction or abomination—because truth so strange is often the most difficult to trust."

So, in a sense, what Hefter offers us in this body of photographic images are landscapes that may or may not show how "the southern landscape . . . has transformed in the presence of nuclear energy," and perhaps also show us how traces of strange new materials may be seen in flashes of light or the most ordinary of flying bugs.

In other words, Hefter is playing with our minds, making images of the ordinary into something creepy or sinister through their association with nuclear research, creating in images of bones by a riverbank or overexposed images of trailer parks or images of buzzards having lunch on a feast of carrion a mimicry of the way the secrecy of discussion about nuclear power fosters "distrust among the public." 

Katie Maish's portfolio Curio, like Hefter's work, is as much about the act of seeing as it is about showing us something.

Rather than use the concept to change our perception of the images, as Hefter does, however, Maish asks us to consider the consequences of how things are depicted in her photographs for our understanding of the things on display.

Maish shows -- on 1:1000 -- 14 images of hard things (see image above) and squishy things (see image below) and fluffy things and dead pieces of formerly living things (see image even further below). There is a fuller display of this body of work on her website, here.

What's important here, beyond the careful composition of these images, is that they are all images of objects that have been taken out of any context and displayed on their black backgrounds as things-in-themselves, as objects to be contemplated for themselves in all their strikingness or ickiness or however one might wish to describe one's response to them.

Maish makes clear in her statement is that the point here is in the display, that her depiction of these objects echoes ways in which eighteenth century treasure hunters "ripped priceless objects" from the ruins of Pompeii, organized them into curio cabinets, displaying the fragments against a black background and "selling them for a tidy profit to wealthy collectors."

These cabinets of "precious and exotic objects" these "little museums" of  fragments from the past apparently made their owners feel cultivated and powerful, for they provided "an illusory sense of control and containment of the world.

"Categories were social constructions but viewed as naturally determined and intrinsic to the physical world. These collections established a canon, a standard by which all was evaluated, offering a single, authoritative interpretation of the world and all things in it."

Maish then wonders, "since we are constantly inundated with images of the other via the television and the Internet, does that encourage us to connect and relate? Or is my computer just a digital curio cabinet, a vehicle through which I categorize the world that repeats the act of the 18th century collector?"

Thus, the "digital destructuring and intentional immersion of scanned organic forms in this work visually provokes this question and subverts the practice. By using the "spare aesthetic" of eighteenth-century curio collections to display fragments of our word," Maish poses "questions about the importance of context."

But she ends with questions, not with answers: "By washing it away and universalizing these digital objects, does it make the appropriation of culture more comfortable?"

Thus Maish ends her Artist's Statement, not with answers to the meaning of her stylized display of enigmatic  objects, but with questions about the act of display, the meaning of styles of display, the consequences for us of our ways of viewing the world around us as well as the world we see when we look at photographic images.

Maish's work thus sets up at least two phases of viewing, the time of viewing before one reads her Artist's Statement, and the time afterwards. If news or documentary photography is primarily about showing us what happened or what was there, in front of the camera when the photographer pushed the button. this kind of photography is about raising questions about the act of making images, the act of display, the act of framing.  

There's certainly a lot to consider about how the South is photographed, about the consequences for how we see it of how it is framed, displayed, presented to us. That conversation is certainly encouraged by the work on offer this month on One:One Thousand.

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