PRINT April 1976

A Note on Composite Imagery: The Photographs of Barbara Jo Revelle

A CRUCIAL DIFFERENCE BETWEEN EARLIER 20th-century photography and modernist painting has been the unusual degree of formal and iconographic simplification insisted upon by the photographers, all the way from Atget to Adams. Since the whole seductive world was out there, waiting to be captured, the strategies employed from documentary to high-art photography had in common the method of distillation and an accompanying horror of the extraneous. As if to assert their powers of control and to grant themselves ethical and artistic credentials, photographers chose to cultivate narrow, somewhat puritanical territories: The decisive moment. No darkroom tricks. Available light. The object, isolated and examined. Many of our finest earlier photographers were as laden with self-inflicted lists of the proscribed as Ad Reinhardt. At a time when Picasso and Miró were dominant figures in painting, Weston, Strand and Cartier-Bresson were central, exemplary photographers. The experimental openness of the painters contrasts sharply with the latter group’s pursuit of the straight and narrow.

Modernist painting, based on the premises of collage, accepts easily cubist fragmentation, surrealist disjunctions and cavalier attitudes toward medium and technique. Composite imagery, so natural to painters, was generally shunned by photographers. Even such a rare early exception as O. G. Rejlander was careful to unify his double-printed images so that a clear sentiment dominates, and the result is a special kind of illustration. Recent practitioners of the genre, like Jerry Uelsmann, often seem under distinct pressure to achieve a seamless joining of the parts, in a mode reminiscent of painters like Magritte.

The breakthrough from earlier purist notions has occurred gradually over the last decade. Lee Friedlander, by seeking out disjunctive imagery, such as his own reflection across one-third of a print depicting a roadside shrine, used “accident” and impurity to underline the arbitrary nature of his medium. He is as concerned about suggesting the complexity of life outside his landscape fragment as Weston was with demonstrating the richness of life within his isolated,closely examined artichoke or pepper. Friedlander is only one of a number of photographers whose methods stress the mechanical yet erratic processes of photography, but his influence has been large.

Barbara Jo Revelle, a one-time Friedlander student, begins at her teacher’s outer limits. She is a formidable artist, as could be seen in the 50-odd photographs she showed recently at the Midtown YMHA. Her work is based on two principles which seem, on the face of it, contradictory. First, her work is totally autobiographical, even occasionally diaristic or nostalgic. Unlike Friedlander, she never seems to be a formalist, or in any way “cool.” Second, she employs such a rich variety of techniques, and allows such radical disjunctions as to drive straight photographers up the wall. Though some of her photographs are normal, single-image works, others are large black and white prints onto which she glues flanking rows of small color prints depicting a different kind of subject. Certain prints combine two contrasting images, which are then “explained” by hand-written texts, written directly on the photographs themselves. Revelle frequently employs captions, contained within the frame as collage elements. Ed says being honest ain’t the same as making art is one of her titles, operating with and against its images, adding a degree of literary irony. A few works include partially hand tinted areas within black and white prints. In one work she added a nonphotographic collage element, a bit of Victorian valentine on a blurred, casually erotic black and white photograph. A standard device for Revelle is her use of contact strips, sprocket holes and all, printed below and on the same sheet with one of its images in enlargement—a Renaissance predella under the central altarpiece panel. And to increase the violation of traditional photographic verities, she often prints from old family snapshots and from negatives taken by friends when she wishes to include images of herself. She believes, with all collagists, that it is the putting together that is important, not the origin of the fragments.

Her photographic and darkroom techniques are just as varied as the final composite image. She crops arbitrarily to reduce the number of complete objects in each negative, a practice which turns images into a priori collage fragments. A group of combined negatives showing, for instance, a landscape space will not contain a consistent horizon line. She insists on the work reading as the sum of disparate parts. Though there are other young photographers using collage and extremely disjunctive imagery—John Benson and Tricia Sample come to mind—she is, for me, the most inventive and moving.

For ultimately all of this complexity of image comes together under the pressure of Revelle’s strong autobiographical content. It is deeply obsessive. She grew up in a house filled with examples of the taxidermist’s dubious art, souvenirs of her father’s various big game hunts. She cares deeply for animals, so, dead and alive, they turn up frequently. (One photo shows a live animal, so labeled in the print, sniffing a dead one, also labeled.) She sees herself as a version of her father, and photography as a quasi-violent activity. Photographers hunt for a subject; they shoot; they crop and cut.

Most all her photographs have about them a peculiar, attenuated sense of danger. A man, cropped below his neck, reclines on dark sand. His head bends back as he gestures toward a fleeing dog. He is smiling, but the downward camera angle turns his exposed teeth, his black hair and mustache into something animallike and menacing. A sand castle like a giant convex footprint is half lost in shadows at the right. In the same work is a second image showing the same beach, but from an off-balance, more horizontal viewpoint so that we see the tilted line of the dunes and the dark sky. Dead center stands a young boy holding a (toy) rifle. Below him, in the foreground and cropped at the legs, is the black dog of the first photograph. The juxtaposition appears to place the child’s foot atop the dog’s back; the strobe lighting causes him to cast impossible shadows on the horizon. The third photo—the three are of identical size and together form a wide, thin horizontal—reintroduces the man from the first shot, again reclining, pressing the dog against his chest, his hands folded over its back like a dead man grasping flowers. One feels the presence, not of a narrative, but of an event, with the three photos representing different, nonsequential views. It is narrative photography in the same way that a de Chirico is narrative painting. The unknown whole in each case is greater than the sum of the parts. Revelle’s involvements with a Cape Cod beach, her friend and her dog, filtered through childhood memories, bind the images with hidden obsessional threads.

Another work combines four photographs; an image of a young couple kissing, the view straight downward of a dead fish lying on the sand, and two shots of a small, unoccupied outdoor cafe. The work seems redolent of summer and of a specific place. The aridity of the old stone cafe walls reads against the wet sand and its still damp victim. Life and desire flow from the blurred image of an embrace. One feels the four disjunctive images as a kind of diagram, a chart of contrasts and inevitable sequences. Each of the three basic images has its own sharpness of focus and its own proper camera angle. The death image is the most closed, hierarchically centered, and claustrophobic. Revelle, discussing influences, mentions Proust and Alain Resnais, as if the fluidity and resonance of her work belongs as much to the novel and the film as it does to photography. Indeed, this last four-part work, with its almost identical, mysteriously vacant cafe images, seems as much Antonioni as it does Walker Evans.

These are extraordinarily complex works. The specific organizing decisions she makes—which images work together and which do not, which should be marginal and which central, which at the left and which at the right—these are both indexes of meaning and precisely tuned formal decisions. She remains carefully attentive to internal composition, relationships of darks and lights, print tone, surface and the other traditional photographic concerns. Revelle’s assembled images present new ways for photographers to handle rich, self-reflexive content. By rejecting as insufficient the simple, closed unit, and opening her art to the complex and the coexistent, she brings her medium many steps closer to the freedom and range of expressive possibilities long enjoyed by modernist painters, for whom the collage esthetic is the basic creative principle.

Budd Hopkins is a painter who shows at the William Zierler Gallery.