PRINT Summer 2003


CHRISTOPHER WILLIAMS’S PHOTOGRAPHS, INDIVIDUALLY, IN SERIES, AND configured hyperconsciously with respect to given sites, often suggest a quasi-documentary directness, yet they are open to metonymic drift and metaphoric condensation. He plays on foreground and background, what’s evident and what requires detailed explanation, the main narrative thrust and the numerous back stories. The interpretive process is one of deferral or unraveling, as the “data” from one image seeps into another. The lengthy titles Williams gives his pictures arrest immediate understanding while providing clues for yet another stab at their meaning.

The four photographs presented here are the beginning of a new series, and all rely on the material specifics of the medium as entrée. The first picture shows a Soviet camera. It looks expensive, but in fact it’s a cheap Hasselblad knockoff. The dye-transfer printing process that Williams uses is quickly on its way to superannuation itself, as Kodak has not renewed the patent; digital technology renders dye transfer financially implausible. He employs a rarefied color process to make a picture of a “fraudulent,” almost black-and-white object; the camera, optics, and studio setup are dauntingly sophisticated: “It’s like using NASA-type technology to represent a slingshot,” Williams remarks. The next picture—(artificial) corn, with an unusual color bar suspended above, hovering, like the camera, in a gray quasi void but casting a distinct shadow—relates to the development of color technologies by food corporations in postwar America. Sometimes the technicians would include tools of the trade in their compositions. “I’ve never heard anyone talk about the extent to which corn is involved in photography,” Williams adds dryly, referring to the omnipresence of corn by-products in photo equipment and film. The third picture shows a diagram illustrating how to load a machine used in making color film, drawn by an anonymous worker on the reverse of a memo pad that bears the heading DON’T SAY IT, WRITE IT. The text, which shows through the paper, is viewed upside down and backward, suggesting Williams’s penchant for reversals.

The final image depicts four dancers performing Janger, a secular, twentieth-century form of Balinese dance born of colonialism which combines Asian and Western influences. The dancers wear brightly colored costumes, but, again counter-intuitively, Williams uses black-and-white film. This isn’t an ethnographic image proper: It’s staged for the camera. The artist photographed the dancers in Los Angeles, on a platform designed for teaching Japanese tea ceremonies. “Someone is coming from the East,” begins the song that accompanies the dance. “Whoever sees her falls in love and is filled with joy.” Janger isn’t a perennial favorite in Bali. Its recrudescence is said to herald a “season of madness,” and while Williams shies away from occult fascinations, he notes that the periods of the dance’s popularity have been strangely congruent with those of social upheaval in that country. The color photographs obliquely reflect this sense of turmoil, evoking displacements from Western Europe to the USSR and the US. All the pictures were made in Los Angeles—almost Hollywood.

David Rimanelli