PRINT April 1973

Jan Dibbets: The Photograph and the Photographed

JAN DIBBETS, until 1967, was a painter of essentially Minimalist serial paintings concerned with the illusion of perspective as it operates on simple geometric shapes, and he sees his subsequent work in terms of a progression from these early paintings. Clearly there is a connection between these paintings and the “Perspective Corrections” that followed, but reference to his later work as stemming from his having been a painter seems a retrospective view shaped, perhaps in part, by an orneriness and a desire to separate himself from a Conceptual label. In 1967, Dibbets began transferring what he was doing in painting into physical situations of stacked, unpainted canvases and, eventually, to cutting out squares of turf and stacking them into configurations similar to those of the last paintings. As the story goes, he then went to London and met Richard Long, who was also working in the landscape. It is the kind of story historians seem to like to dwell on: Two young artists striking out in the same new direction, meeting, and giving mutual moral support in their brave adventure. The problem with the story is that their directions differed, the similarity being only their work in the landscape and their use of photographs. When Dibbets was cutting “Perspective Correction” straight lines out of the turf to be seen from a train, Richard Long was cutting the flowers in “X” configurations out of a field of wild flowers. As their work has developed, it is clear that in photographing the landscape Dibbets is more concerned with the photograph, while Long’s concerns remain with the landscape and his personal relation to it.

Dibbets’ concern with formal abstraction in his later work can be tied to his earlier experience as a painter, but whether or not that connection is made is a matter of little consequence. A more significant connection is the relation between Dibbets’ later work and formalist painting in general, and the relation is one of contrast. Crucial to the abstractions of Dibbets’ later work is the fact that it is not painting, the forms not painted; the constituents of Dibbets’ forms are photographs of the world, not photo-collages, not darkroom magic, just simple straightforward photographs of unexotic physical phenomena. One of the leading myths about photography is that it represents unprejudiced truth: “The camera doesn’t lie.” The camera supposedly depicts the world without interpretation. Whether or not this notion is true is not relevant to Dibbets’ work. What is relevant, however, is our habit of accepting this notion as true in reading a photograph; that is, beyond darkroom tricks, we assume that what is depicted in a photograph existed in a certain physical relation to the camera, and corresponds to the relation depicted. According to these assumptions, the photograph is evidence that the things depicted existed in a certain way, and it is Dibbets’ exploitation of these assumptions that distinguishes the formations of his abstractions from the formal abstractions of painting.

Dibbets is probably best known for the “Perspective Corrections” of 1968–69. They roughly proceed from his last paintings and his transference of the concerns of those paintings to turf and grass surfaces, which are also employed in many “Perspective Corrections.” The “Perspective Corrections” are a defiance of normal illusionistic perspective and a reversal of the usual situation of the illusion of perspective. In normal or Renaissance perspective, a square on a flat surface viewed from an angle looks like a trapezoid; in Dibbets’ “Perspective Corrections,” generally speaking, a trapezoid on a flat surface viewed from an angle or, at least from one spot, looks like a square. Because a square viewed from an angle looks trapezoidal, the square in the “Perspective Corrections” does not appear as a square viewed from an angle, it appears as a square parallel to the picture plane. Thus, if the square on a horizontal plane looks trapezoidal, the square of the “Perspective Corrections,” by looking square, also appears in the photograph to be on a vertical plane. There is nothing secret or tricky about the making of “Perspective Corrections”; elaborate calculations are not necessary. The camera is set on a tripod and, as in several of the works, white rope is laid out on the grass in such a way that it forms a square in the viewfinder of the camera. In the photograph, the rope square seems to stand upright off the ground, parallel to the vertical picture plane, and conflicts with the widths of the ropes in the photograph which are subject to Renaissance perspective even if the configuration is not, at least not in the usual sense. The “Perspective Corrections” reverse the usual situation of the illusion of perspective by making a trapezoid appear square instead of the other way around, but other kinds of more complex reversals are apparent. The “Perspective Corrections,” for instance, seem to thwart photography’s automatic illusionism by creating an illusion of flatness in an illusionistic deep space; this is accomplished by exploiting photographic illusion rather than somehow preventing or thwarting it. The “Perspective Corrections” metaphorically turn photographic illusion against itself, but only metaphorically, for an illusion of flatness is an illusion nevertheless.

The use of photography in the “Perspective Corrections” is more than a matter of convenience, or a way of determining and restricting the angle from which the works are viewed. The “Perspective Corrections” only appear in the camera viewfinder and the photograph. Without the mediation of the camera, one cannot, in the physical situation, see a “Perspective Correction” or a trapezoid of rope magically pop up to form a vertical square regardless of where one stands in relation to the rope configuration. Our eyes simply do not work in the same way a camera lens works, though the workings of the two are similar, and the “Perspective Corrections,” in pointing this up, provide an interesting model of the kind of relations that hold between two analogous terms.

In contrast to the use of photography in most recent art since the late ’60s, such as the Earthworks of Michael Heizer, Dennis Oppenheim, Robert Smithson, and even Long, as well as more recent Process and performance photographs, which are mostly pictures or documentation of the work or just souvenirs of it, Dibbets’ “Perspective Corrections” literally exist only in photographic form. The photographs are the work.

The “Perspective Corrections” concern and exploit the problem of illusion, presupposing an illusion/reality distinction. They raise illusion/reality questions of the type: Which is real or more real,the trapezoid of turf dug out of the landscape or the square of removed turf in the photograph? Despite some interest, the problem with illusion/reality questions is that they presuppose a distinction which is only the result of semantic ambiguity: Illusion is reality or an aspect of it under one conception, and reality is an illusion or not necessarily more than an illusion under another conception. Either way, the distinction is false and questions presupposing the distinction are pseudo. This is not to deprive illusion/reality questions of interest as, generally, the interest is in the conventional acceptance of the distinction. Dibbets’ work, as well as the work of Larry Bell, Ron Davis, Michael Snow, and other artists who exploit the distinction, cannot be said to presuppose the distinction at all, but to show it as false. A rephrasing of the distinction in terms of reality as a contingency seems more to the point: Illusion is not one thing and reality another, but reality has an infinite set of denotations. In the terms of Dibbets’ work, the distinction is between the reality of the photograph and the known reality of the situation photographed. That the viewer perceives the reality of the physical situation photographed is crucial to Dibbets’ work: to assure this known reality, Dibbets includes drawn diagrams depicting the physical situation, and how it was photographed, with most of the “Perspective Corrections” and his later work.

During 1968–69 Dibbets worked primarily on the “Perspective Corrections” and related works, such as the piece for the Cornell earth art show in which the bases of tree trunks were painted white within the rules of corrected perspective, so that a horizontal line was formed by the white paint on the trees despite their recession into physically deep space. A few not particularly noteworthy works were done during that time that did not relate to the “Perspective Corrections” except, perhaps, as efforts to get away from them. The “Perspective Corrections” were clearly exhaustible, and once exhausted Dibbets seemed to flounder, or, one might say, to experiment. This experimentation amounted to a fragmentation of the Conceptual, formal, and photographic concerns of the “Perspective Corrections,” but which were more or less isolated later. In addition to this experimentation, Dibbets seems to have succumbed to current pressures of being advanced, making art that looked advanced, if only for a short time. It is this work which Kosuth, in part II of Art After Philosophy, referred to in saying, “And certainly some of the work of Jan Dibbets, Eric Orr, Allen Ruppersberg, and Dennis Oppenheim could be considered within a conceptual framework.”

Dibbets’ Conceptual work of 1969, such as Five Islands Trip, Three Lines, and Study for Afsluitdijk-10km, falls within “a conceptual framework” because they consisted essentially of maps, texts, and photographs and followed certain procedures which resulted in a set of lines drawn on a map but existing only conceptually. In these works, Dibbets’ use of photographs resembled that of other current Conceptual artists, i.e., the photographs documented the work and were not to be confused as being the work. While it is possible to consider these works in terms of Dibbets’ other work—such as the reality of the physical situation opposed to the reality of photographs and maps representing the physical situation—they are so similar to work being done by other artists (Douglas Huebler and Dennis Oppenheim to name two) that it is difficult to think of them as distinct from the international, nearly anonymous Conceptual art style. Without worrying about who got there first, the map and mailing pieces of Dibbets and the others amount to declarations of a political position of theoretically not making art objects. Beyond this declaration, the complicated documentation adds up to a conception that I find trite. An exception is Richard Long’s use of maps in some of his walking pieces; in the very personal context of his work the maps are not so much documentation as clarification.

That Dibbets metaphorically trod water after the “Perspective Corrections” is further supported by his move from the documentary Conceptual works to the highly formal “Shadows” works, such as Shadows on the Floor of the Galleria Sperone in which a sequence of photographs records the shifting forms of light and shadow on the gallery floor within a given time period. Though the Galleria Sperone piece was done in 1971, works such as these started in 1969 and continued sporadically through 1971. Generally, the photographs were taken every ten minutes by a camera in a fixed position, and this fact plus the form of the sequence of photographs seems to indicate a concern with time and the relation between light and time photographically equivalent to, but less rigorous than Charles Ross’ Solar Burns. Dibbets, however, insists that his primary concern in the “Shadows” works is with the variation in the light and shadow forms, with time as a necessary condition to change, both allowing and controlling the formal variation. In these terms, the “Shadow” works are simply a set of formal variations, antithetical to the Conceptual works concurrent with them.

The “Shutterspeed” pieces of 1971 replace time as the cause and control of variation with the photographic mechanism of variable shutterspeed. Of course, shutterspeed is also a function of time, but not in the same way as in the “Shadow” pieces, the difference being the amount of time the shutter is open allowing light to hit the film rather than when the shutter is open. The “Shutterspeed” pieces consist of sequences of photographs made from a fixed position in which the only variation within the sequence is the result of a systematic change to progressively faster shutterspeeds from one photograph to the next. Thus reading from left to right, the progression goes from an overexposed whiteness, through a range of grays to underexposed blackness regardless of what was photographed. What I find most interesting in the “Shutterspeed” pieces is the comparison with the “Shadow” pieces, since the results from the different procedures used in each kind of work are remarkably similar. Shadows in the Galerie Konrad Fischer, Düsseldorf, 1969, and Shutterspeed piece—Konrad Fischer’s Gallery differ essentially only in the heightened variation in detail of the “Shadow” work in the middle range of both sequences of photographs. There is almost no perceivable difference in the louverdrape “Shutterspeed” pieces and Louverdrape Horizontal made from color prints of the film Louverdrape. The latter relates to the “Shadow” works by having a fixed shutterspeed and by recording the change in light coming through a window covered by a louver-drape that opens and closes during the film. In the “Shutterspeed” piece the louverdrape appears to open and close throughout; in Louverdrape Horizontal though, the louverdrape opens and closes, but also appears to be the result of a varied shutterspeed. Both the “Shadow” and “Shutterspeed” works can be thought of as photographic metaphors, but outside of the contrast formed between these two kinds of work, they explore what for me is a rather thin, severely limited conception.

The most interesting of Dibbets’ fairly scattered works of this time (1969–71) are those generally called “Numbers On Wall.” Dibbets marked off segments of the gallery walls in vertical pencil lines conforming roughly to the area that would be taken in by a single photograph of the wall with the camera positioned at a given, constant distance from it. Each wall segment was then numbered in sequence and photographed, and each photograph placed on the appropriate wall segment. My interest in these works is not in matching the photograph and the situation photographed, but in considering the break in the continuity of the walls by the camera. When each drugstoresize print is placed on the appropriate wall segment, there is a conflict between the continuity of the walls forming the room, and the isolation of each print on the wall segments at a certain physical distance from each other. Copies of these prints were then made into a composite photograph, in a sense reconstituting the gallery walls photographically, which in Levi-Strauss’ terms comes to the “detotalization and retotalization” of the gallery. In the broader context of Dibbets’ development, these “Numbers On Wall” are prototypical of the later “Panoramas,” and are the only pieces of his period of fragmentation that have a direct relation to his later work.

The fragmented aspects, generally isolated in Dibbets’ work between 1969–1971, were recombined in the “Panoramas” of 1971 and in the work that followed. These works are, for me, Dibbets’ most interesting. To speak of the concepts in the later work is to speak of formal abstraction and the nature of the photograph as well. It is somehow ironic that the later works which seem, from a certain perspective, to be conceptually regressive by giving the visual, formal aspects a greater importance, seem from another more interesting. They also assume greater risks than his Conceptual works, which seem ambitious to be advanced; the risks are in not looking like advanced art and, instead, looking visually attractive and intellectually unaggressive.

The “Panoramas of Dutch Mountains” are simply composites of photographs taken by rotating the camera on its tripod horizontally 30 degrees for each photograph 12 times. Twelve photographs describe a complete circle around the tripod: Placing the 12 photographs in sequence end to end yields the complete panorama, a composite photograph which is, in a sense, 360 degrees long and 30 degrees high. However, Dibbets’ are not normal panoramic composite photographs, and it is obvious that in the “Dutch Mountains” he has done something more: but the difference between Dibbets’ “Panoramas” and the normal panorama photographed from the same site is an extremely simple one. In the normal panorama, the axis of rotation is vertical and the plane on which the camera rotates is horizontal. In Dibbets’ “Panoramas” the axis and plane of rotation are on a tilt off the vertical and horizontal; this means the horizon line, instead of remaining horizontal and a constant distance from the top and bottom of each photograph, is on a diagonal across some photographs in the sequence, and altogether missing from those depicting only horizonlineless sky or ground. Thus the “Dutch Mountains” and mountains of sea result simply from a tilt. Once a mountain is formed in this way, looming in the center of the composite and swooping down on either side, a valley is obviously formed by the same process, depending only on whether the end photographs of the composite depict high points or low ones. So long as the panorama represents a 360 degree circle and the sequence of photographs remains constant and corresponds to the sequence in which they were photographed, any photograph can occupy any one of the 12 positions in the composite and that choice determines the form of the depicted panorama. This is made clear in Panorama Bloemendaal: 12 sets of prints of the same panorama are arranged in a 12 x 12 photographic grid and each photograph occupies each of the 12 possible positions in the composite as they rotate left to right, top to bottom, covering all the possible forms. The difference between Panorama Bloemendaal and Dibbets’ other “Panoramas” is that 12 prints are made from each of the 12 photographs so that the photographs of one panorama are shown to be the photographs for 12 different panoramas. There is, however, some confusion. The problem is not in deciding whether to count Panorama Bloemendaal as one or 12 panoramas, but in the linguistic confusion of whether “panorama” refers to the physical situation photographed or the photographs. The real confusion presented in the “Panoramas,” for me their primary interest, is the result of the difference between the circle described by the rotation of the camera in photographing the physical situation and the horizontal line formed by laying the photographs end to end in the composite. We simply do not read the horizontal line of butted photographs as a circle, which is most obvious in the more dramatic “Dutch Mountains” and their valley counterparts. The valley is formed by the two halves of the mountain joining, in a sense, at the ends of the horizontal row of photographs; but instead of appearing to join, forming a mountain, they appear at opposite ends of the composite and therefore, seemingly, at opposite ends of the landscape photographed. It is difficult not to read the ends of the panorama composites as one reads the edges of a regular single photograph if one assumes that were the picture longer, more of the physical landscape photographed would be included in it. But because the composites represent full circles, this is clearly not the case: To lengthen the composite would only be to duplicate what is already depicted within it.

As a consequence of the conflict between the circle and the horizontal line combined with the tilt in the plane of rotation, only certain sets of elements depicted in a panorama can be aligned within a single composite. If the horizon line through all the photographs is perfectly aligned, the foreground incidents in the lower portions of the composite are out of line. The converse is true as well. Panorama Beach A and Panorama Beach B show panoramic photographs of the same site aligned in three different ways: uncropped photographs aligned in terms of their edges; photographs for foreground incident which causes the composite to form an eccentric uneven curve; and photographs aligned for the horizon line or background incident in which the form of the composite is a smooth curve or arc. However, these works are exceptions for there is no horizon line in any of the photographs, which means the camera faced downward while rotating, resulting in the arc form. Generally, in the “Dutch Mountains,” which are aligned for the horizon line, no such curve is formed by the composite; the form is rather a jagged horizontal line. Essentially what these different formations and alignment problems indicate is the same difference between the operation of camera lenses and eyes presented in the “Perspective Corrections.” This difference can also be seen as the difference between the circle of rotation and the horizontal line of the composite: The camera reduces a three-dimensional world to two dimensions, the eyes don’t.

Dibbets’ more recent “Horizon” works also involve a tilt. It takes three basic forms and can be described in terms of the camera movement in photographing a simple land or sea horizon line: A sequence of photographs describes an up or down camera movement; a progressive tilting of the camera 15 degrees for each photograph of the same horizon; and a synthesis of setting the camera at a 45 degree tilt, and the movement of the camera up or down. In all the “Horizon” works, land and sea are used interchangeably as the land photographed is polderland or land reclaimed from the sea, which like the mountains, involves a Dutch joke. The creation of formal abstractions is more blatant in the “Horizons” than in most of Dibbets’ work, but they are the product of camera movements. More importantly, they are abstract only in the same way all photographs are abstract. There is no getting beyond the fact that the elements which constitute these works are not simply units divided into two parts, which in combination with similar units form an abstract pattern; they are photographs of land and sky or sea and sky, of physical phenomena which in reading the photographs are assumed to have existed in a certain way before the camera. The “Horizons,” like the “Panoramas,” undermine and underline the conventionality of constructing the horizon as being horizontal, and the term “horizon” meaning the apparent line formed by meeting of land and sky, not a line that is necessarily horizontal. As the photographs describing a circle form a horizontal line in the composites of the “Panoramas,” so also what appears as a horizontal horizon line in the physical landscape is but a segment of a curve which is the curve of the earth. In terms of the physical existence of the globe, horizontal and vertical are purely mental constructions for ordering what we sense to be the world and our relative position in it.

––Bruce Boice

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