PRINT January 2014


Ernie Gehr’s new work

Still from Ernie Gehr’s Photographic Phantoms, 2013, digital video, color, sound, 27 minutes.

ONE OF THE LEADING FIGURES of American avant-garde cinema since the late 1960s, Ernie Gehr has consistently explored the spatial, temporal, and granular qualities of film, upending laws of gravity and confounding optical givens, without repudiating real-world material. His most recent engagement with digital technology—represented by the five elegant works screened last fall in the New York Film Festival’s “Views from the Avant-Garde” program—constitutes a new high in a long and distinguished career. As inventive as they are formally rigorous, the videos exploit different potentials of the new technology. But seen together, in the order shown at “Views” and preferred by Gehr, they celebrate the achievements of photographic and cinematic image-making from the late nineteenth century to the present, forming an arc, of sorts, between early photography and pure digital phenomena.

Photographic Phantoms (2013), the first and longest of the pieces, is composed of hundreds of photographs dating between 1890 and the 1930s, taken by amateurs around the world and collected by Gehr over many years at flea markets and photo fairs. While the locations depicted are only occasionally identifiable through landmarks (e.g., the Eiffel Tower) or signs in French, German, or Spanish, the anonymity of the pictures is no small part of their appeal.

Astonishingly beautiful, these black-and-white and sepia-toned photographs capture faces and bodies, interiors and exteriors, street scenes and landscapes, architecture and rooftops, locomotives and ocean liners. Vivid with detail and tonal balance, and boasting a depth of field of great clarity, the images defy the flattening effect of digital media, exerting a presence that belies their age and the irrevocability of the lost eras to which they bear witness. Many of the public spaces depicted—e.g., arcades and railway stations—were the hallmarks of the modern world for those who would soon write about it.

Each photo was one of a pair designed to be seen with a stereoscope, through which the images effectuated a three-dimensional illusion. Gehr used a single print from each pair, the one freest of scratches or technically superior, trimming it to fit his camera’s aperture. Alternating the frames of successive images, he teases their virtual three-dimensionality into a fluttering vibrancy. In a film dissolve, incoming and receding images are seen simultaneously and can be prolonged to stress emotional and thematic ramifications. Gehr’s oscillating digital images, however, are optically segregated (with few exceptions) until the “incoming” replaces the “receding” one. At times, this produces a fleeting impression of a photographic negative, creating a ghostlike effect, which no doubt lends weight to the title and aura of this work.

Gehr orders the photos masterfully, respecting their idiosyncrasies while occasionally implying sight lines between two images or allowing affecting affinities to emerge. A baby’s upward gaze in one shot appears directed at a diving man in the preceding one; a photo of a woman holding a child is replaced by a poignant image of another woman gazing out of a window into the empty space just vacated by the mother and child.

More compelling than such connections, however, is the way in which Gehr seizes the implicit life in these products of the remarkable technology of their time and brings them into what feels like a predestined dialogue with the twenty-first century. The recurrent imagery of ships and trains reflects the historic shifts of immigrant populations that marked the era. The sound of a chugging train that we hear over the images throughout is not only fitting accompaniment; it also serves as an audial metaphor for the driving engine of Gehr’s work and for the relentless advance of technology itself.

In the utterly charming Winter Morning (2013), a Brooklyn street shovels itself out after a snowstorm. Inserting an interior frame within a primary one (a favorite device of the artist), Gehr plays with the depth, scale, colors, and continuities of the material, often doubling superimpositions, layering planes of action while confusing or collapsing borders. Without erasing his original footage, he creates a magical pictorial realm in which piles of snow become patches of colors altered at will, and plows and trucks drive through the bodies of children as if these were mere chimeras. There are moments of breathtaking beauty: The interlacing panoply of tree branches superimposed over others has the chromatic splash and textural density of a Pollock canvas. Blues, reds, yellows, and greens abound, but none is natural to the setting, or like any colors to be seen in films. All were digitally generated and tweaked by Gehr during the editing process. As with the entire work, such images playfully negotiate the boundaries between artifice and actuality.

Unlike the imposed sound track of Photographic Phantoms, what we hear in Winter Morning—feet trudging through snow, shovels scraping, the muffled motors of slow-moving plows, and that familiar hollowness of human voices in a snowy echo chamber—belongs to the milieu. Never one to avoid plain speech amid transcendent images, Gehr is overheard chatting with a neighbor who wonders if he is filming for “the news,” then remarks on how long it takes the city to remove the snow. “There’s nothing you can do about it,” says the filmmaker. But, of course, he has done something about it.

If the tranquil street scene of Winter Morning succumbs to a blizzard of digital effects, the smooth train journey in The Quiet Car (2013) is similarly confounded. Gehr divides the image in half, duplicating in the upper portion of his frame the long take and traveling shot of the passing landscape seen in the lower part—but in reverse order and position. The continuous rightward movement of the train in the lower half is mirrored by its upside-down twin above, moving leftward. Since the dividing line is maintained throughout, the temporal progression of the movement in the lower half is controverted by the spatial and temporal illogic of the upper: The “future” of the action is simultaneously consigned to the past. The scheme seems simple, yet it fully depends on our assumption that the apparent logic of the lower half determines what is and is not the given reality. This is further complicated by the seeming interchangeability not only of the two levels of the frame but of the amusing, gravity-free views in the mirrored portion, traveling at the same pace but offering an animated slide show that parodies its double. As it conjures those handmade tableaux in amusement parks, rolling by as visitors sit inside a stationary, make-believe train compartment, we are reminded of Gehr’s passion for pre- and protocinematic devices.

One of the last things Gehr shot before returning to New York from San Francisco, where he lived for eighteen years, was the vehicular traffic on Ocean Avenue. He filmed it from one end of the street to the other—a journey of seven to ten minutes—over a period of six months. Shot out of the window of a moving car at an acute angle, the footage is merely the raw data of Auto-Collider XVIII (2011). The collision of juxtaposed frames gently broached in Photographic Phantoms reaches an apotheosis here. We’ve seen vehicles at disorienting angles before in Gehr’s work, but the turn to digital allows him to indulge more extravagantly than ever his passion for disrupting the composure of the frame. With the help of mattes, he divides the frame into equal quadrants, consigning four discrete sequences to the four corners of the screen—though occasionally he combines quadrants into just three or two panels—then, through the subtlest and wittiest of editing, he concocts faux continuities, imaginary convergences, and near collisions to spectacular effect. These can be relatively benign, as when the endless flow of cars is unhampered by stop signs or traffic lights. Some tactics seem designed to counteract an impression of randomness: For example, by restricting the bottom halves of vehicles to the lower half of the screen and the top halves to the upper half, Gehr injects a stabilizing constant to offset his more devilish antics. These include having vehicles from each quadrant approach, then vanish into the illusory axis at the center of the entire screen—as if into an offscreen black hole—only to reemerge or be instantly replaced by new vehicles on the same trajectory. And so it goes: Varied elements “circle” like molecules before disappearing into some imaginary, unidentified place of origin or extinction. The work might be a dazzling, hypnotic parody of early philosophy’s absorption with the question of the one and the many.

Such maneuvers speak to cinema’s capacity to disassemble the material world, fragmenting wholes into their divisible elements, much like Cubist painting. At times we are misled into seeing continuities where none exist: The upper parts of iron posts in one frame appear to find their legs in the one directly beneath, as if the quadrants were being shuffled around like cards to find their matches. Gehr’s manipulations bring into one space the components of a montage passage in a movie, as though to mock the metacinematic meanings often ascribed to them.

Gehr’s work in film and digital has always resisted the temporal determinants associated with narrative. There are no technical beginnings or ends, not even a true in medias res. Consistent with the nature of the subjects in these five new pieces—as well as in much of Gehr’s oeuvre—each work can begin or end anywhere. Hundreds of other photographs could be incorporated in Photographic Phantoms. No personal or aesthetic law precludes additional glosses on the winter morning, or a longer ride on the quiet car, or further permutations of auto collisions. In a way, this tendency places Gehr among the least anecdotal of moving-image artists, one obsessed almost exclusively with the methods, techniques, and effects of film and digital media rather than with their capacity to express or evoke feelings about the external world.

Yet that world is endlessly fascinating for him, even when it seems to be completely absent. Brooklyn Series (2013), with its shimmering color bars, demonstrates this more purely than the earlier videos, perhaps even more than any other work by this artist. Here, Gehr filmed the life on his street, emphasizing its colors, then digitally flattened and squeezed the results into thin horizontal strips. (The effect might recall Gerhard Richter’s digitally printed “paintings.”) Embodying the ultimate horizon lines where all digital ventures might lead, the effect also suggests the pinched perspective one might have from a satellite rotating in space: streams of colors fluctuating and interacting, the only signs of active life on the planet, yet no less vital or varied than the pulsating organisms that generated them.

One can easily imagine these five immensely pleasurable movies as a museum installation—a thought Gehr has entertained. Addressing one another across formal and historic horizons, their inherent ties to painting, photography, early cinema, and advanced technology would generate inevitable resonances. In the meantime, we can only hope that viewers will have other opportunities to see one of avant-garde cinema’s indispensable artists at the top of his game.

Tony Pipolo is the author of Robert Bresson: A Passion for Film (Oxford University Press, 2010).