New York

Barbara Ess

Cable Gallery

We are so accustomed to the notion of the photograph as a demonstration of “real life” or as the glamorous artifact of advertising, that it is something of a shock to encounter a photographic image whose constitutive codes are bent out of their expected alignments. Barbara Ess’ work ”reinvents" the effect of the photographic, using none of the expository devices of photomontage or textual support; by returning to the first-order image and its Simplest mode of production, some of the contradictions in our relation to the medium are allowed to emerge.

Paradoxically, the strangeness of these photographs, with their subdued, monochromatic color, is created by the very mechanism that originally gave photography its seductive semblance of realism: a pinhole box whose monocular; lensless “eye” produces a single and fixed vanishing point, following the tradition of Renaissance perspective, and centers the viewing subject in an ideal, holistic vision of the world. This vision has already been much discussed as a sociopolitical construct—it does not correspond to the real curvilinearity of binocular vision, but to a conceptualized ordering of reality—and yet it is not easy to displace. This tyrannical point dictated by the rules of optics is embedded in Ess’ images, but it is subdued, not always legible. Where converging lines are apparent—as in an image of two lovers on a street corner—the effect is far from reassuring. The apparent low angle of the shot produces acute angles in the image unlike the parallel vertical lines that traditionally form a coherence with the rectangular frame and, by extension, with the space occupied by the viewer. Here, there is no such stability: the buildings lean toward each other, trapping the figures in a second visual cone that undermines the dominance of the viewer’s visual axis.

Elsewhere, other compositional effects create a hiatus in spatial continuity: in those that appear to be beach scenes, the empty middle ground provides no anchor between the fore ground figures and a blank horizon; in the seemingly casually framed interiors, the diffident occupants appear entrapped in a shallow, tilted space. A sense of claustrophobia is reinforced in images where light fades from the center, which again sets up an uneasy relation between the image and its rectangular framing edge. The diffuse pool of light presents not a window on the world but a “telescopic” sight: the effect is of peering rather than seeing, which, at first, may seem to assent to the essentially voyeuristic nature of the medium. The use of figures in a private interior draws our attention to this condition, as does an occasional and uncontrolled dustiness—particles are trapped and magnified on the surface of the print like flies in amber, which, in a way, is also true of the objects subjected to a camera’s scrutiny. Nevertheless, things are not brought closer but are made more imperceptible. The identity of the object, and the viewer’s identification with it—ensured in a conventional print by the sharp focus—is denied here by a blurring of figures, or by the backlighting that renders them dark and impersonal silhouettes. Consequently, what we become aware of is not an emergence of things, but a dissolution. The unfocused “telescopic” view seems to reverse the expected movement; rather than revealing the world from a comfortable distance it turns inward on the viewer, so that the image appears to function less as a transfixed memorial to a past moment than as an exposure of the vagrancy of involuntary memory.

This fugitive quality is more typical of the arrested film frame than the still photograph. Indeed, the similarity to the filmic image reappears in the uncertain resolution, the captured movement, the “noirish” lighting, the quasi narrative quality. However, it is those photographs least dependent on a staged mise-en-scène—not the interiors whose punk sleaziness is already a secure genre, but the eccentric view of a pair of indistinct forelegs of a dog, or boatlike forms shimmering on an indefinite horizon—that are most expressive of the ambivalence between perception and memory, with their investment in the photographic image.

Jean Fisher