PRINT September 2000


AFTER ALMOST TWO DECADES of making images of indoor worlds—rephotographing magazine and advertising images, or shooting portraits of the paintings lying around his studio—Richard Prince finally lugged his camera outside. Of late he's been taking photographs in and around the upstate New York town he moved to several years ago. On paper it sounds like a dramatic departure, but one of the more surprising aspects of Prince's new work is how quietly yet persuasively it insists that there is no essential difference between making pictures of other pictures and making pictures of the world at large.

ln “Upstate,” an exhibition held this past spring at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture in Los Angeles, Prince underscored this point by displaying a mix of recent and older works. (MAK, Vienna mounted a similar show simultaneously.) The Girl Next Door, a near-perfect book produced in conjunction with those exhibitions, follows a like strategy, casually juxtaposing rephorographed snapshots of rowdy biker parties with Prince's “own” photos of above-ground swimming pools, dysfunctional tree houses, and bunker like storage units perched on the edge of overgrown fields.

On one level, these recent photographs chronicle a landscape of working-class decline. Pictures of pathetic flora in planters made from inside-out tires (a staple of upstate downscale yards), and melancholy images of abandoned-looking basketball hoops suggest a region cut off from the surging economic mainstream.

Yet Prince is clearly up to something more. By intermingling soft-core images of biker pinups with his own photographic portraits, including pictures of his wife and a young female assistant, he calls attention to the way his own images seem just as alluringly authorless as his appropriations. And he manages to blend the two with a provocative seamlessness, so that a photo of his daughter at age two, her mouth smeared with brown goo, doesn't look remotely out of place beside amateur snapshots depicting leering bikers and babes stripping at rock concerts.

It's not that these disparate images appear to belong to the same world so much as they embody a similar perspective. Through its repetitive and seemingly artless format, as well as its nonhierarchical inventory, the book invokes a leveling, Warholian gaze. Warhol, of course, used repetition to simultaneously drain photographs of their reality quotient while imbuing them with an incantatory power; Prince, on the other hand, doesn't repeat single images but instead presents series of pictures whose subjects—whether odd cultural relics (those ancient-looking tire planters) or defining gestures from marginal scenes (long-haired bikers squeezing their girlfriends' breasts)—appear to be so uncannily similar that you wonder if they are, in fact, really real.

Thus his images of basketball hoops, which recur in the book in a mind-boggling variety of situations and configurations, are ultimately less concerned with rural desolation than with that Twilight Zone intersection where the ordinary seems beyond belief-where everyday artifacts that we routinely overlook suddenly seem utterly surreal because someone has called our attention to them.

Prince, whose work is ideally suited to the book format, recently opened a small bookstore near his upstate home. He plans to develop it in the near future into a hybrid exhibition space, perhaps along the lines of earlier site-specific undertakings such as his Spiritual America Gallery, 1983, a New York storefront where visitors encountered a single soft-core photograph of a prepubescent Brooke Shields, or his 1993 First House project in Los Angeles, for which he transformed an unoccupied and stripped-down home into a gallery of sorts. Different rooms featured different bodies of Prince's work, with paintings left leaning against the walls in stacks or situated in relation to specific architectural details, so that the art objects ended up taking on the character of props in a theatrical venture.

Prince, in any case, is still intrigued by the possibilities of presenting his work, as well as that of other artists, among different kinds of objects, and the bookstore could prove to be an ideal venue for continuing his curatorial experiments. In the meantime, the store—which is fully stocked with books, posters, and records—exists behind closed doors. When we talked over the phone, he said the idea was that it would suggest “the ideal bookstore you'd want to discover by accident. But you can only peer through the windows and wish it were open.”

Photographs, of course, often put us in a similar position. Appealing to our desire to get close but not too close, they intrinsically lend themselves to fantasy. They place the world at our fingertips, but they also make the accessible seem inaccessible, if not implausible. The Girl Next Door, like much of Prince's earlier work, surveys this piece of fossilized real estate at the heart of photographic representation. Beyond depicting the mundane exoticism of his upstate milieu (exotic, at least, to a media flaneur), these new pictures implicitly insist that what we behold in a photograph is never really a depiction so much as a rhetorical reconstruction, and as such, a metaphor for a certain way of relating to, and desiring, the visible. In other words, it doesn't really matter where we point our cameras—looking through a viewfinder is always an inside job.

Ralph Rugoff is a writer and freelance curator currently living in London.