New York

John Loengard

James Danziger Gallery

In On Photography, 1978, Susan Sontag stated that “to collect photographs is to collect the world. Movies and television programs light up walls, flicker, and go out; but with still photographs the image is also an object. . . .” Since then the fetishization of the photographic print as the “handmade” object has been critiqued by many artists, but John Loengard takes it a step further. His seven-year project of traversing the globe to photograph the negatives of famous photographs poses another essential question, What is the photographic object?

Loengard is a photojournalist whose most famous images appeared in Life during his thirty-year career at the magazine. He began “The Negative Project” in 1987 when he photographed the negative of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s Behind the Care St. Lazare, 1932. Over the next seven years, he reproduced a photographic canon in reverse—an abbreviated and inverted Photography 101. Many of the images are immediately recognizable in a slightly uncanny way, from Alexander Gardner’s 1863 portrait of Lincoln, to Jacques-Henri Lartigue and André Kertész’s work from the ’teens and ’20s, through Dorothea Lange’s and Walker Evans’ Farm Administration photos of the ’30s, to works by Harry Callahan, Imogen Cunningham, and Aaron Siskind in the ’50s. The series as a whole seems interested in examining two paradoxes: the visual paradox of the tonally reversed image and the economic paradox of the value accorded prints rather than negatives.

Of the more prosaic of its quandaries, the project points to the fact that while print prices have been soaring, negatives are seen to have little value and remain virtually uncollected. And yet, for Loengard, the negative is the primary photographic object. Ansel Adams compared a negative to a musical score, a print to a performance. Prints of an artist’s work can be made at any time, and frequently are, often after the photographer is deceased, but negatives are a marker of time, an almost instantaneous celluloid imprint of an event. They are also an index of a particular technological moment, an indication of the medium’s possibilities and limitations in transforming experiences into images.

As far as the tonally reversed images are concerned, Loengard’s many striking visual effects both reinforce elements in the original photographic prints as well as construct compositions that employ the negative’s unique properties. In the negative of Philippe Halsman’s portrait of Einstein from 1947, the scientist’s eyes shine out in a manner that suggests he is receiving divine wisdom. For the negative of Cunningham’s 1957 Unmade Bed, a sea of dark rumples, Loengard has created a backdrop of lined and crinkled paper that perfectly mirrors the negative’s abstract forms. His print of Alfred Eisenstaedt’s negative for René Breguet, St. Moritz, 1932, contrasts the extreme purity of the all-white image of a waiter on ice skates precariously balancing a tray in his left hand with Eisenstaedt’s very lined, age-spotted hands holding the negative.

As “The Negative Project” progressed, it increasingly focused on the hands holding the negative. Each of the prints in the series is titled with the name of the photographer of the negative, the negative’s title and date, the place and date of Loengard’s photograph, and the name of the person holding the negative. By emphasizing the mannered unnaturalness by which photography captures experience, Loengard forces us to reevaluate our relationship to the photographic object and our preception of it as an accurate reflection of the world. As Ludwig Wittgenstein demonstrated, “we regard the photograph, the picture on our wall, as the object itself (the man, landscape, and so on) depicted there. This need not have been so. We could easily imagine people who did not have this relation to such pictures. Who, for example, would be repelled by photographs, because a face without colour and even perhaps a face in reduced proportions struck them as inhuman.”

Andrew Perchuk