PRINT October 1979

Eve Sonneman’s Progressions in Time

EVE SONNEMAN’S PHOTOGRAPHS ARE NATURALISTIC, quick pictures of people, still lifes, or landscapes that the artist has come across in the “real” world. Certain aspects of her work bring to mind, most readily, that of Atget, Robert Frank and Diane Arbus. Sonneman approaches what is on the other side of the camera lens (which I will refer to as the real world, time or place unless otherwise specified) as an arena of activity in which the camera can be used, like an instrument, to isolate an event; that, in turn, allows the photograph to be a presentation of the situation or subject as though it were within a theatre set.1

However, in no sense is Sonneman recording an event, as in documentary photography, because she changes the context in which one might perceive a specific situation. Her July 4, 1976, for example, is two photographs, taken on top of the World Trade Center during the bicentennial celebrations. The real time and place are incidental elements providing the backdrop for the subject of the work, which is found in the implications of the juxtaposed photographs. For the two pictures to be formally aligned suggests a continuity of time and space between them, yet there is a change in perspective from one to the other that alters the positions of the people in relation to each other, as well as with regard to the frame and the angle at which they stand compared to it. One’s attention is drawn not to the spectacle of the Fourth of July festivities, but to the relationship between the two pictures, which is built on a perception of the passing of time, the formal alignment of the photographs and a knowledge of the characteristics of the medium of photography.

A photograph is an object just as any other work of art is. Yet the very existence of a photograph depends on the fact that it is of something.2 It is impossible to make a photograph—as is conceivable in painting—that makes reference only to itself. One, therefore, cannot separate the photograph as object from that to which it refers. Moreover, the acceptance of this referential characteristic implicitly necessitates a dealing with that which is referred to, which, in turn, demands a consideration of very complicated connotations for the viewer. Most obviously, there is the sense that in looking at a photograph one is seeing an instant of a situation that was real. Correspondingly, there is the implication that one is removed from that point in time and place and thus has an incomplete understanding of the situation. It becomes a difficult task, then, for the photographer to suggest an understanding of the subject, while also establishing an immediacy between the viewer and the picture.

One way of suggesting a more complete understanding of an event is to present more than one image, as Eadweard Muybridge did in his studies of animal and human locomotion. As series of photographs taken in succession, such works provide an understanding of a kind of movement that has taken place in a passage of time. The event can be visually re-created (to a point) from beginning to end in the mind of the viewer without making further reference to that which is in the real world because the subject of the series is movement itself. As such, these photographs exist as straightforward statements on the nature of a particular kind of movement. Ironically, Muybridge’s attempt to discover the correct movement of a horse galloping did so in a way that presented a dilemma for the realist artist, by presenting a still image in which all sense of motion was lost. Thus, despite the narrative offered, which explains the movement and passage of time, the series only exaggerates that characteristic of the medium of photography which limits it to still images, unlike, by comparison, the cinema.

A notable characteristic of Eve Sonneman’s work, which is comparable to that of Muybridge’s series, is her typical format in which two photographs are placed next to each other. Sonneman recalls that she first thought of the idea of juxtaposing two photographs in 1968, when she was studying contact sheets and became interested in the suggestion in their juxtaposed frames of the passage of time and of “how things are put together.” Placing two photographs next to each other within the same mat, just as with a series of photographs in the case of Muybridge’s work, releases, to a certain extent, the photograph’s dependence on that in the real world to which it refers. In being presented with two pictures, the observer becomes interested in drawing relations between them rather than in the relations between the picture and the thing it is of. As in July 4, 1976, the actual time and situation in which the photographs were taken become the backdrop for a set of relationships that exists and can be experienced again in any place and time on looking at the photographs.

Originally Sonneman’s work took the form of short narratives, with the two pictures suggesting the necessary information for bringing two situations together in time. In the book of her work, Real Time (1976), which includes photographs taken between 1968 and 1974, the artist, assuming the role of observer, has presented short sequences that sometimes actually took place in a time not much longer than the few seconds taken to look from one picture to the next. The Smoker, Chinatown, New York, 1972, for example, is a photograph, taken at night, of a man on a sidewalk in Chinatown holding a cigarette to his mouth, next to a picture of the same man holding the cigarette in his hand. Sonneman has enlarged the photographs in such a way as to allow the sprocket holes of the negative to show, suggesting a continuity that implies a passage of time only as long as it took the man to inhale and exhale, and the photographer to snap one picture, move a few inches to the side and take the other. The artist’s intention seems to have been to adopt a system that would allow the recreation of the scene as it most obviously happened, without giving a great deal of attention to focus and other technical aspects of the medium.

Unlike Muybridge’s photographs, the subject is neither movement nor the matter-of-fact rendering of an event. The passage of time is, of course, important, as is the re-creation of that passage in the viewer’s own “Real Time.” But, in addition, the symmetry of the formal arrangement suggests interesting comparisons between such contrasting aspects as the presence of something in one view and its absence in the second, or a change in perspective or attitude. The photographs, however, are, like Muybridge’s, paradoxical, in that they do suggest movement in still images.3

Abandoning her strict format in a slightly later group of works, Sonneman’s emphasis seems to have changed from an interest in time to one in “how things are put together.” Taken of people on the beach at Coney Island in the summer of 1974, these pieces consist of four photographs, two in black and white and two in color, that correspond almost exactly in subject and composition. The arrangements of the photographs vary. Although a narrative is provided, in color as well as black and white, attention is drawn more to the formal differences between the two sequences and to the perception of the scene, which alters from black and white to color. This was the artist’s first use of color.

From this series Sonneman’s concern with eliciting a specific understanding in each of her images took two directions. In her first group of portraits, taken in 1977 for an exhibition to be held at P.S.1, Sonneman photographed random passers-by in Long Island City, then followed each to his/her destination in order to photograph the art on the walls there. Instead of describing an event, this presents a portrait with two levels of description. The nature of the juxtaposition was determined by the type of project the photographs were for and by the people themselves. This seems to be a significant body of Eve Sonneman’s work, not only for being the first time she did portraits, but because it was also the first time she was forced to interact with her subjects, thus making the pictures more individualized, and calling attention to the presence of the photographer, in a way not seen in her prior work.

More in line with her earlier art, the group of photographs taken on top of the World Trade Center in 1976 consists of sequences that more obviously follow in time. The difference here is that the artist gives more attention to the technical aspects of the medium and the formal arrangement of the photographs next to each other, as with July 4, 1976.

In more recent works, photographs taken while she was traveling through Europe in the summer of 1977, Sonneman has incorporated ideas worked through earlier with an obvious proficiency in the Cibachrome processing. There is an evident loosening of her earlier format, paralleling a similar transition from the process-oriented art of the late 1960s and early ’70s to a more recent tendency to put an emphasis on the artist’s personal control throughout the making of a work. In this group, there are portraits, similar to those of the P.S. 1 projects, short sequences of action involving people, still lifes and, for the first time, landscapes.

There is now no sense that the nature of the juxtaposition has been determined by any pre-set concept. The presence of the artist is strongly sensed by the knowledge that there was a great deal of choice involved in determining the subjects as well as the two juxtaposed photographs. For example, The Instant and the Moment consists of a view of the Acropolis next to that of a Greek railway station. The connection on which the viewer builds is in the formal line-up of the buildings, both of which are seen in a similar perspective. The photographs are only connected in time in the most general ways, since they both exist in the real world and because one knows that the same photographer took both pictures.

In a sense, then, the artist’s approach to time and narrative has changed in these works. The relationship between the two photographs is no longer necessarily built on a connection through time. In fact, rather than attempting to describe the passage of time, as in earlier works, that passage is made in many of these photographs. The Sky in Florence, for example, is two photographs, taken at night, of clouds against a rich blue sky, seen through silhouetted vines growing on wire. The second photograph was obviously taken soon after the first, but instead of presenting the viewer with identically framed pictures—in which case one could perceive the movement of the clouds in relation to a kind of grid set-up by the wiring—the artist has changed her position, making the clouds appear to be in the same place with relation to the grid and showing more of the vines. By making what one would normally consider to be moving stationary, the artist disorients one’s perception of that passage of time.

The fact that Sonneman has chosen to do landscapes, alone, implies less concern for describing a specific passage because change in a landscape is hardly as noticeable as movement in a person. Thus the two photographs are informative at different levels, much as the P.S. 1 portraits are. More than transposing a few instants in time to the present (the viewer’s “Real Time”), these photographs suggest a combining of two instances in the extension of a moment, in order to inform one about the whole. Still-lifes seen at two angles, one looking down, one across to the horizon, instantaneously set the scene for an evaluation of what is photographed. No longer is there an explanation offered as to how or why a passage occurred; the two photographs deepen one’s sense of a situation that just is. The juxtaposition offers a formal structure, much like the grid of wiring in Sky in Florence, within and against which the relationships and connections—or rather, the real subject—can be understood.

As such, Sonneman is still providing the viewer with a kind of drama that is complete within the context of the two photographs and thus transposable to the “Real Time” of the viewer. Yet these new pieces are not about describing a segment in time; instead they bring the viewer in as a participant in the action: rather than showing, they merely suggest. Furthermore, these photographs appear to be about stopping time, or about extending a moment rather than describing its progression. Boat Building is two photographs taken a month apart in the same location, the first late in the afternoon, the second, early in the morning. Formally, the pictures are aligned so that they could almost be seen as continuous. The horizon appears at approximately the same level in both, and there is a simple progression from the positive form of a white wall to the “negative” form of the sky and water, which continues across both pictures, each being divided in half between the two areas. The most noticeable change is the structure of the boat that is in the process of being built. Rather than suggesting a gap in time, these two pictures seem to bring the two instances together, or to act together, to inform the viewer of a whole—a kind of presence that includes the subject’s existence from day to night as well as its development through time (a Cubism of time, as it were, instead of space). In a sense, the work relates to an individual’s own perception of his or her presence. In trying to define it, an immediacy is felt: I am here, now. Yet, the individual cannot stop time by this statement, nor can one even say such a thing without a sense of his or her passage through time to that point. Inherent in the medium of photography, however, is that characteristic which allows the photographer to hold a particular instant in abeyance. The problem, then, for the artist, is in making the photograph as independent as possible from the moment in which it was taken, in order that it have significance in its own right. Eve Sonneman has developed a style and sensibility that enables her to do this.

Her most successful pieces, Boat Building being an example, are structured in a way that removes from them direct references to what they are of. The viewer’s attention is held within his/her immediate time and space by the stability, and yet also a visual play, in the formal arrangement. This, in turn, allows one to draw a meaning out of the images that has little to do with the recognition of the moment in real time from which it was taken, but that depends, rather, on the dialectic exchange within the visual structure—for example, positive as opposed to negative spaces or, between the two images, the presence of something in one and its absence in the other. As such, Sonneman presents pictures that suggest connections at various levels. Then it is up to the viewer, relying on his/her perceptions and knowledge, to come to an understanding of the various relationships, which include those between passed time and real time, the photographer and the subject, and the viewer and the object.

Tiffany Bell



1. Cf. Eve Sonneman’s statement in Mademoiselle, February 1977, p. 146: “I work with differences in light and time, and present people in a kind of theater set. Color draws specificity of detail. For Distant Viewing is like a window into what the viewer could possibly see—the quality of light as the sun sets, shadows. etc. The sequences connect, . . . making it a complete visual experience.”

2. Hollis Frampton, “Impromptus on Edward Weston: Everything in its Place,” October, No. 5, Summer 1978, p. 52.

3. See Thierry de Duve, “Time Exposure and Snapshot The Photograph as Paradox,” October, loc. cit., pp. 113–25.