Laurence Bach


Laurence Bach’s new series of photographs entitled “Nightspells,” 1986, continue his signature style, combining a Constructivist syntax and Surrealist vocabulary within the framework of a lapidary attention to formal description. They were made, as was all his prior work, on the Greek island of Paros where he summers. They employ, too, the familiar lexicon of objects fusing quotidian function and classical allusion—amphorae, marble fragments, broken wineglasses, stones, pottery shards, cutlery, gauzy fabric—and display the compositional legerdemain with which he has constructed his other recent, illusionistic still lifes and assemblages. What is different then about this new work?

Technically, the changes seem minimal enough. There is, for example, the introduction of selective sepia toning, which quite literally adds depth to the prints. The shifting orchestration of the warm/cool tonal balance imparts a more palpable three-dimensionality to the subject matter, heightening Bach’s penchant for sculptural definition. This sepia tone also casts a certain antique glow so that the images seem bathed in a patina of timelessness; these photographs are meant to inhabit as well as comment upon the realm of artifacts. The title “Nightspells,” at once descriptive and evocative, refers in part to the process by which the pictures were made, and in part to the fantastic nature of the imagery, which seems to exist in a place where the laws of gravity and time have been suspended. All are made from single negatives, but many are multiple exposures, a technique that Bach has used previously, only in these works objects and/or a figure shot during the day have been superimposed onto a scene photographed by artificial light at night, usually a masonry wall broken up and overlaid by plant fronds, silvery olive-tree branches, and their shadow doubles. Therefore, rather than the decontextualized black or white fields that Bach has utilized in the past for double exposures, these images are sited within a real environment, so that they are bound to and by a sense of place, even if it reads like the tenebrous space of dreams or fantasy. The magical and uncanny quality to which the title also alludes results from the concentrated, pinpoint luminosity inherent in the daylight images resonating against the shadowy irresolution of the dark backgrounds.

Criticism of Bach’s earlier work might point to an error on the side of too much good design and a certain rigidity. In the “Nightspells” he has consciously loosened the shackles of overdetermined structure, taking the risks inherent in the operations and fortuities of chance. The superimpositions of imagery, texture, and location that he explores here accommodate a more expressive, more emotional impulse. Conjoined with a new subject matter—a subseries devoted to the male figure—the results for Bach’s work seem important. The sensuosity that in his earlier photographs was sublimated to the delectation of inanimate form has found expression in these depictions of the male body. These contemporary kouroi become the focus of an elaborate metaphor whereby the beauty of sunlit flesh is made to recall the severity and sensuality of Greek statuary while simultaneously being equated with nature and the night, themselves symbols of sexuality and mystery. The textures of skin, sweat, and hair are collaged with those of stone, leaves, branches, and fabric within a brocaded surface counterpoint of concealment and revelation, recognition and defamiliarization. This embrace of ambiguity is seductive in that here a tricky subject has found force through and by a thoroughgoing, refined, complex formalism resulting in the most potent works in this exhibition, and some of the most erotic, most generous photographs in Bach’s oeuvre.

Paula Marincola