New York

Patrick Faigenbaum

The Prague of Patrick Faigenbaum is filled with silent moments of motionless anticipation: a woman on a bus; two girls at the entrance to a dining room; someone not folding napkins. In contrast to his portraits of Italian nobility, the link between the people in this series is mood, not class. Waiting for something to happen—a destination to be reached, an interruption to cease, a guest to appear—these figures caught in Faigenbaum’s grisaille could as easily have been this way for centuries as for seconds, and Prague emerges as a city of sleepwalkers.

In part this mood is conjured by Faigenbaum’s fetishistic—almost maniacal—attention to finish and surface. His gelatin silver prints mounted on aluminum look damascened rather than photographed, yet they possess a tensile strength. You would have to be sleepwalking not to feel somewhat ravished by his technique, but after a while the “perfection” of it begins to bore. While Magritte or Balthus might be able to paint such pregnant, hypnotic moments, Faigenbaum’s photographs of similar states turn something bittersweet into something almost saccharine.

Faigenbaum’s street scenes are like Peter Hujar’s city nightscapes without the mystery or eroticism; or Philip-Lorca diCorcia’s urban scenes minus the sensuality or fictive complexity. After spending time with agroup of twenty works, only three got stranger and better. All of those showed the influence of Diane Arbus by showing the strangeness lurking beneath the epidermis of much of the normal, and yet, remarkably, they were not derivative. A bow-tied boy in a buttoned shirt evokes Arhus’ straw-hatted, berserk patriot, but where Arbus’ young man fully engaged, Faigenbaum’s seduces by being utterly empty, waiting to be filled. A skinny woman in a bizarrely ordinary blouse channeled Joyce Carol Oates—big goo-goo eyes, badly permed hair, resonating, insect-precise intelligence—the beauty springing from her visage somehow answering the awkward, hand-sewn clothes. The eeriest photograph—and one of the few in which Faigenbaum’s stunning technique didn’t overwhelm but contributed to the haunting atmospherics—depicts a woman seated in an elegant dining room, folding napkins, or taking a break from doing so; her hypnotic eyes, dark as ink, only sockets providing passage to the shadows enveloping the room around her.

In his review of Untitled, Arbus’ book of pictures of the mentally retarded, Hilton Als outrageously and brilliantly noted “her sensitivity to the expressive power of clothing; they arc, among other things, extraordinary fashion photographs”—she contrasts their “clumsy” attire with the gentle “openness of their expressions.” Part of the greatness of Arbus’ work is that it rejects the very notion that one can distinguish between “fashion photography” and “photography”; it is always open to the variousness of interpretation. Faigenbaum’s interest in clothing seems an afterthought, and yet I kept thinking that his best work was interesting precisely because it was, in spite of itself, weird fashion photography—everything momentary, awake to something fresh and living.

Bruce Hainley