PRINT May 1981

Developing an Image: Gerald Incandela’s Recent Photographs

IN THEIR QUEST FOR a separate identity, photographers quite quickly questioned the word “painterly”—“straight” was increasingly strived for. Recently the word “altered” has been enlisted to describe the works of an increasing number of photographers who have visibly employed the hand to transform the vision through the camera. “Painterly” is more suited to the work of Gerald Incandela—although he cannot be accused of painting envy. Incandela has subverted photography with its own tools and brought new focus to the dialogue between the eye of the artist, the eye of the camera and the eye of the viewer. Even when he abandons the camera, he does not abandon photography.

Since the outset of his career as a photographer, in 1974, Incandela has belied the supposed truth of the camera by manipulating its evidence. By using composite negatives and by directing the liquid chemicals that activate the light-sensitive gel of photographic paper, he transforms the memory of an image into the presence of an image.

The camera’s mechanization of the system of one-point perspective that has obsessed Western culture since the Renaissance, as well as its high-fidelity rendering of details of the external world, seem to make photographs all but incorruptible by the internal falsehoods of human intention and give them the credibility of a mirror—a “mirror with a memory,” in Oliver Wendell Holmes’ words. In Full Moon over Charleston Church, 1979, Incandela distorts the mirror by multiplying and layering its reflections. Four negatives overlap and parallel the ascending blocks of the church from base to steeple, unfolding in a constant counterpoint of depth and flatness—the intersecting negatives subvert and make transparent the illusion rendered by the monocular vision of the camera lens. The spatial ambiguity of the play of planes is punctuated by the expanse of empty paper where a sky would be expected.

The self-conscious configuring of planes on a flat support, the large size and the fact that it is a unique print relate Full Moon over Charleston Church to much modernist painting (the parallels to the tonal faceting of Analytical Cubism are obvious). Simultaneously, Incandela dramatizes the process of photography by isolating and exaggerating the natural transparency of the negative, and reordering (refracting) the light that penetrates the lens and orders the film.

The image of the church is comprised of fragments; photography is the ultimate medium for framing and freezing moments of external reality. Incandela’s reframing and refragmenting converts memento into metaphor.

Not only does Incandela distort the mirror, he tarnishes it. The liquid developer that activates the light-sensitive grains suspended in the gel of the paper, and makes a positive image out of the projected negative, is not evenly washed across the paper but is hand-brushed or rubbed with a paper towel. The hand orchestrates the emergent shades of silver—suppressing superfluous detail, encouraging and discouraging the light, and creating a velvety variegation that seems to have the physicality of paint while simultaneously calling attention to the process of printing. The blurred tones make it ambiguous as to whether the negative or the positive is being reflected, creating an image in suspension. The chemicals become alchemical. Even the fixative becomes a visual component—a streak of mauvy pink emerges at the top edge, where the absence of fixative and developer have left the paper free to discolor when exposed to natural light—making a positive stroke emerge out of a negative one, and once more calling attention to the plane of the support.

Full Moon over Charleston Church is but one of many landmarks photographed by Incandela; he has a taste for the kinds of vistas and tourist shots so popular at the outset of photography. He is quite shameless in his romanticism. The spatial rigor of Malevich was important as a formative experience, but he also likes the sashaying elegance of Sargent. He is happy to poeticize a bean curd à la Chardin or to stage a still life with a classical bust that has a composition and distressed surface akin to a Daguerre. (Incandela studied art history, but his knowledge of early photography was quite limited until he moved to New York from London, in 1976, and had frequent access to Sam Wagstaff’s collection.) His taste for the elegant and the picturesque is framed and focused by a formal intelligence that develops the subject in space and causes a constant tension between the taking and the making of an image.

In the last year and a half, Incandela has called increasing attention to the making of an image. The strokes of brush and paper towel have become more visible and even occasionally create shapes not recorded by the camera. The erasure of some superfluous flesh and the addition of a ballooning skirt wittily change an aging art-scene party goer into a lustrous Velasquez infanta.

In Monkeys, 1980, Incandela gives rein to an orientalizing simplicity, anchoring a branch bearing a monkey and her child on the blankness of paper. The camera-recorded volume of the branch first blurs, then blends and flattens into the strokes made by hand. The mother’s tail is one stroke and the baby is all but a puddle of shadow. Camera and calligraphy, illusion of depth and flatness, resolve and dissolve each other in silvery translucence. The increasing collaboration of chemical and hand is highlighted by the light-induced red at top and bottom.

Like its subject, Tripod, 1980, does not include a camera. There is no negative to mediate between the darkroom light and the developing fluid and sensitized paper. The one-point perspective guaranteed by the lens is mocked by the inaccuracy of the hand. The depicted tripod is three-dimensionally wrong but visually right—balanced not in depth, but in flatness. The tool meant to assist in creating a clear reproduction has now become a precarious pictograph. The machine-made telescoping legs here look like bamboo. The tripod appears to be made of tangibly physical strokes but the work has the flat lacquered surface typical of all photographs. The gel of the paper that dissolves and interacts with the developer resets and buries the strokes so that they become photographs of themselves. The hand becomes the camera.

Klaus Kertess writes fiction and art criticism.