New York

Barbara Ess

Curt Marcus

Certain photographic traditions cannot be found in Beaumont Newhall’s canonical The History of Photography. Those odd spiritualist photographers who thought that the camera was the perfect medium for capturing supernatural phenomena are conspicuously absent. Apparently, Newhall found their images of floating heads and ectoplasmic emissions too gimicky to warrant a position in history, for his work did much to define photography in the positivist and modernist terms in which we speak of it today. Yet, if you had to fit the work of Barbara Ess into a tradition, it would lie somewhere between turn-of-thecentury pictorialism and this neglected ectoplasm-ism. Recently, she even organized an exhibit of works by the “thoughtographer” Ted Serios, who claimed that he could project his psychic visions onto Polaroid film. Ess’ own work, however, does not have the kitsch look of spiritualist trick photography. If the medium manipulates the photograph in a fraudulent attempt to give proof of something metaphysical, the photographer manipulates the medium to see if something metaphysical lies at the limits of its empiricism.

Blurring our perception of the material world, Ess’ photographs explore the possibility that something lies beyond the physical. Though most of her works are not titled, one eponymous photograph, I Am Not This Body, 1990, derives from a meditation called “’Who am I?” by Sri Ramana Maharishi: “I am not this arm, I am not this leg, I am not this face, I am not this body.” Whereas typically Ess’ work consists of the presentation of a single (though often layered) image, I Am Not This Body employs a grid format to repeat one archetypal image: a woman squatting with her legs spread wide open to the camera, her form obscured by a brilliant burst of light that whites out anatomical detail. Against the black background, her body forms a glowing pattern, not unlike a lotus flower. The repetition of the image perhaps functions in the same manner as the repetitive cant of the meditation: it fixes the mind on a singular train of thought, diverting it from consideration of things worldly and profane.

Ess reconciles her artmaking with her ascetic metaphysics by eschewing high-tech equipment. Instead, she prefers to work with a simple pinhole camera, which gives her photographs a vertiginous sort of chiaroscuro: a bright burst of light at the center of an image radiates outward and fades into obscurity at its edges. Because the pinhole camera has no lens, it also tends to blur an image. By exploiting these technical “limitations,” Ess attempts to shake our faith in the camera’s inherent empiricism, in its status as an unmediated recorder of reality. The female figure floating in the center of Untitled, 1991 (a black and white image printed on colored paper), looks artificial, perhaps like a mannequin or a blow-up sex doll, and eventually you discern that it is being held up for inspection in someone’s hand. Is this a hand-of-God metaphor, a suggestion that the artist’s ability to create is divine? Ess says that she does not “take pictures of the world to represent the world. For me, the world is already a representation of something that can’t be photographed.” What do hands represent if not hands? Flames seem to rise from the fingertips of another pair that emerges from the black background of a different photograph. It appears that, for Ess, any definition of life that excludes fire is too narrow.

Keith Seward