San Francisco

McDermott & McGough

Grover Cleveland has just been elected President of the United States; Sir Francis Galton is busy proving the individuality of fingerprints; H. G. Wells is dreaming about The Time Machine; and George Eastman is set to begin manufacturing coated photographic paper.

As we accelerate toward the end of the 20th century, retro-graphers David McDermott and Peter McGough are doing everything they can to evoke and inhabit the end of the 19th. In their latest attempt to create a “perfect time machine,” Messrs. McDermott and McGough have focused on the year 1884, presenting a series of photographs purportedly made around that time, depicting parlor demonstrations of scientific principles and curiosities. Each palladium print is meticulously framed in richly stained wood with aged glass. Gold-leafed tags bear titles such as Mode of Formation of Rings of Smoke, 1884, Experience of Equilibrium with Three Knives, 1884, and The Conductibility of Sound by Solid Bodies, 1884 (all works 1990). The conceit is enacted just realistically enough to allow us to imagine the pictures to be vintage if we wish to. It is not the antique technique that is being appropriated as much as the aura of such artifacts. Once we are seduced into the illusion, contingencies of memory and imagination come into play, and “authenticity” becomes irrelevant. A “perfect time machine” would be of little use to us, since it would presumably wipe out our consciousness of the present. What we desire is time travel—consciously triggered by disturbances and fissures in time.

In 1884, photography was still very young, and the debate over its status as an art, a science, or a humble technology raged. The popular fascination with “the wonders of science” found bourgeois expression in parlor demonstrations as well as in amateur photography. Photographs were still believed to “stop time.” This was the year that Eadweard Muybridge began his “Animal Locomotion” studies.

All of the objects appearing in McDermott & McGough’s photographs—crystal glasses, kerosene globe lamps, old coins, a watch—apparently date from about 1884, except one. The unmistakeable anachronism disturbing the illusion are the hands. In one image a hand reaches into the frame to hold the Spiral of Cardboard Put into Rotation by the Ascending Movement of a Current of Warm Air, in another a hand holds a sheet of paper over a glass full of water. These hands do not look like they are from 1884. Why? Has the human hand changed so in appearance in 106 years? Or is it the way they are held, the gestures, that give them away? Whatever the reason, the hands are the punctum, the disturbance in these photographs that makes time travel possible.

McDermott & McGough’s eccentric embrace of the 19th century in their personal lives—their cross-period dressing and fetishism—seems particularly transgressive in a climate in which the illicit intercourse of memory and imagination is judged ahistorical. Some decry the artists’ obsessive and willing bondage to the constraints of the past as perverse and escapist. After all, wasn’t photography invented to enable us to progress beyond such fancies? McDermott & McGough’s insistence that the past is “a state of mind” riles materialists and latent positivists, and asserts the kind of subjective investigation of scientific “certainties” that may well lie in our future as much as it has in our past.

David Levi Strauss