New York

Jan Groover

Since achieving recognition in the early ’70s for a series of coolly conceptual photographic pieces, Jan Groover has followed a path that has taken her deeper and deeper into an exploration of the properties of photographic depiction. Perhaps not surprisingly, Groover’s quintessential photographic formalism has led her to rely on an increasingly pared-down technique, involving the use of a large-format camera and black-and-white film to produce platinum-palladium contact prints. At the same time she has restricted her work to a narrow range of subjects, primarily still lifes composed of a limited number of objects that recur in picture after picture. All of these factors give her recent photographs the quality of carefully controlled experiments in the construction of photographic meaning. Groover has not forgone the conceptual underpinnings of her earlier work; instead she has clarified her project and brought to it a growing command of photographic means.

By the same token, her work has come to reflect both the look and the concerns of earlier Modernist photography. Her still lifes recall work by Man Ray, Florence Henri, and Edward Weston, while several portraits and a series of compositions of intertwined arms and legs might have been done by Alfred Stieglitz. But Groover isn’t engaged in a game of appropriation, nor is she making knockoffs of the work of these photographers. When she photographs peppers and funnels, as she did in a series of color work from 1978–80, she begins by accepting the formalist premise behind Edward Weston’s canonical photographs of peppers from the ’30s, but then sets up a far more complicated and canny formal play than Weston did.

In her most recent work Groover has increased the narrative capacities of her photographs by introducing a variety of evocative objects—tools, models of animals, a statuette of a baseball player, a fragment of an architectural pediment—into her still lifes. She has also continued to explore questions of photographic form, and especially of photographic space. Thus she shoots some pictures from a high angle, flattening the array of objects that she has strewn across a tabletop; in others, she shoots the scene with a very shallow depth of field, keeping a narrow plane in focus while throwing the background into a fuzzy haze. These are dramatic devices as well as formal ones, and Groover frequently uses them in almost cinematic ways. For example, in one picture the open jaws of a pair of pliers are seen in sharp focus in the foreground, next to the wispy husk of an onion that shades off into the shadows; looming in the background, out of focus, is a lemon bracketed by the handles of the pliers. From this simple arrangement of objects Groover has constructed both a formally sophisticated composition and a narrative about destruction that has the inevitability and cyclical quality of a child’s game of rock-scissors-paper.

Groover’s pictures recall the work of even earlier photographers as well—in particular, still lifes made in the first days of the medium by its inventors, Joseph Nièpce, Louis Daguerre, and William Henry Fox Talbot. Those photographers made still lifes not by preference but because the long exposures required by their slow emulsions limited them to depicting subjects that did not move. In renouncing most of the technical improvements in the medium that have been made in the past century and a half, Groover is returning to a kind of Ur-photography, a prime definition of the medium. This act of return seems utterly contemporary but in itself doesn’t necessarily make for good art. Groover, however, in using the most elemental terms of photographic depiction to make works that are so rich both formally and emotionally, examines the essential riddle of meaning that photographs, like all other pictures, pose.

Charles Hagen