New York

Kenneth Snelson

Zabriskie Gallery

Using a motor-driven, rotating Hulcherama camera, Kenneth Snelson photographs scenes that lend themselves to the sort of spatial manipulation characteristic of the panorama process: small places in Paris where several streets converge, the intersections of canals and alleyways in Venice, and so forth. These images offer a surfeit of information, providing a tantalizing sense that the camera is showing everything that can be shown about a given scene. The frame, which usually delimits the photographed world, is pushed so far at the edges of the image as to lose its defining power. The sense of the photograph as a unified and limited compositional field is replaced by a continuous scroll of flowing forms. The wider view offered by Snelson’s camera reveals the way buildings and streets define urban space. Most of the pictures here were taken in the early morning, a fact which gives even the busiest tourist sites the still emptiness of archaeological digs; the Spanish Steps, for example, seem positively eerie without their usual hordes of visitors. The elongated format suggests the sequential filmic pan shot, allowing a viewer to scan the surface and reanimate the scene by tracing the path taken by the camera. The normal sense of time in a photograph is disrupted; in a few cases the same figures that appear on one end of the image appear on the other, as the camera exceeds a 360-degree scan.

In other contexts, the distortion produced in these images would take on an emotional coloration, with the sharply receding alleyways and bulging buildings suggesting an ominous, De Chiricoesque quality of alienation. Here, the result is more coolly analytical. Like Snelson’s gravity-defying rod-and-wire sculpture, these images are less involved with metaphorical suggestion than with a sense of mysterious physical facts embodied directly.

For all the romantic associations of the locations, these are very unromantic photographs. Snelson depicts these endlessly photographed sites with the abstract passion of a mathematician working out an equation. There’s a teasing irony involved in presenting such well-known scenes in an unusual way; Snelson refuses to let viewers settle into the comfortable clichés usually offered by images of these tourists traps. In the end it’s not the scenes that fascinate most about these pictures but the photographic process itself.

The unusual perspectival projection of these weird images challenges the supposed normalcy of photographic depiction, suggesting that the spatial web in which a standard lens arranges a scene—by now nearly invisible, thanks to its ubiquity—is as much an optical distortion as the elongated taffy-like lines in these images.

Charles Hagen