New York

Hans Namuth

Leo Castelli Gallery uptown

Hans Namuth showed photographs of old-fashioned tools seen against black velvet backgrounds. The photos were without labels or titles; except for this they could have been illustrations in a book on technology or archaeology.

Namuth seems interested in the raw facticity of the objects, free of social meaning. He has intentionally chosen older tools, many of which are not even familiar to contemporary viewers. And the items which are still in use—the scissors or the scythe—are shaped just differently enough to share this sense of alienness. The familiar objects also tend to flirt with a symbolism that transcends their mere presence. The scythe, for instance, seems an odd object to stand for death or time when so concretely presented.

For Namuth the object is the subject of a radical, conceptual removal from familiarity. He wants the tools to seem as if they came off flying saucers, or were dredged up from Atlantis. He empties the objects of their social and technical significance, while leaving no doubt that they did originally have such significance, and he emphasizes the incidentals of surface—the nicks and scratches, the rough spots and rust brought out by museumlike side and top lighting. The photograph is not an end in itself here, but part of the experiment in distancing: it is a presenter of the real object, a kind of counterpart to the vitrine in the museum where the object is displayed like a relic.

Namuth removes the comfortable familiarity which upholsters everyday objects like tools and wraps a peculiar aura of inexplicability around them. Once these tools fit as easily into their users’ minds as they did into their hands. Now they are alien things, strange forms fit for a museum—or for a photograph.

Phil Patton