New York

Doug Prince

Witkin Gallery

In the series of black-and-white photographs shown here Doug Prince has printed close-ups of various plants and flowers, or occasionally classical busts, over Italian scenes (landscapes, architectural details, interiors). From such a bare description this might seem simply a shrewd exercise in mixing and matching images from two categories of the conventionally pretty, in hopes of breathing a little artiness into stale genre subjects while retaining the reassuring appeal of the components of the scenes. Something more interesting actually results, however, for the pictures violate their own implicit premises and, as a result, remain outside of—though tantalizingly close to—the categories into which they seem intended to settle.

Prince achieves this largely through the way he treats the flowers he prints into the scenes. Shot in close-up, they appear grotesque and almost threatening, with ornate, spiraling tendrils and silky petals that stretch across the frame, like giant mutations that might have sprung up at the site of some chemical spill. The flowers don’t seem that separate from the backgrounds; from a distance, most of the pictures can be read as having been shot with a very-wide-angle lens (although when you get close you can see they were produced through double printing). But this sense of forced perspective and extreme depth of field gives the pictures the melodramatic quality of science-fiction films, in which the camera discovers the noxious alien growth within the ordered setting and shows it to the audience while the characters in the story remain oblivious to it. In some cases Prince heightens this otherworldly quality even further by slightly solarizing the images of the plants, turning them into negative photographic images of themselves, and thus further distancing them from the placidly pretty backgrounds.

The Surrealists recognized the camera’s ability to make the familiar strange and the natural grotesque—for example, Minotaure published Brassaï’s close-ups of insects, and Georges Bataille included some of Karl Blossfeldt’s photographs of plants in his journal Documents. Usually, though, photographs are used to reinforce stereotypes, to give the conventional—whether conventional prettiness or conventional ugliness—the strength of fact. By using picture-postcard scenes as backdrops for his ominous flowers, Prince places these two aspects of the medium in opposition. Of course, this opposition can itself become conventional. The Tuscany that we see in Prince’s photographs evokes the world of the Borgias rather than that of Botticelli, but in the popular mind both are stereotypes. By blending these contrasting forms of photographic meaning, though, Prince sets up a friction that rescues for photography some of the uncertainty and possibility that too often it seems to have lost beneath the crushing weight of its familiarity.

Charles Hagen