New York

Jörg Sasse

The first thing one notices about Jörg Sasse’s new images is that they’re gorgeous, then that they resemble everyday snapshots. Only somewhere down the line does one recognize—in the strange tonalities and heightened formal rhythms—that they have been digitally tweaked. Sasse collects casual photographs made by others, studies them, and then teases out their latent formal and conceptual properties. That he uses digital imaging to effect his changes is almost beside the point, since the resultant works are manifestly about photography—“practicing photography by other means,” as Richter has described his paintings from photographs—and not about computer manipulation. The best of Sasse’s images transform the unintentional visual effects of “bad” photographs (light leaks, unconventional focus and framing) through subtle and highly purposeful alterations of color, line, and light into coherent, interrelated compositions. His work probes the fertile border between photographic representation and autonomous abstraction.

The panoramic print 5334, 1998 (Sasse’s titles all consist of random four-digit numbers followed by the year of completion) pictures three male bathers wading in the shallows of a lake. All three wear blue trunks and bend over to wash their legs. It is a pleasing horizontal composition—aquatic reeds in the foreground, blue-green trees on the far shore, scumble-clouded sky above—reminiscent of a painting by Millet or Corot. Though each figure in this idealized landscape strikes a slightly different pose, the three are too similar to come across as individuals. In fact, they are clones—a bit unnerving given the otherwise “naturalistic” setting.

Another kind of aesthetic shiver is produced by 7747, 1998, which presents a perfectly square, perfectly white house with a green-tile roof. A flawless wooden fence separates the house from a limpid line of water in which the lower portion of the scene is reflected. The image has been cleansed of the specific vagaries of the real. As a vision of domestic order, its airless perfection grows monstrous over time, inducing claustrophobia and panic.

The light in these images is often forlorn, as if emitted from an extinct source. This gives them an elegiac tone analogous to that of early photographs, just after the medium’s emergence out of realism in painting. For this time-travel reclamation to work visually, risks must be taken. 7090, 1999 is cropped to include only a section of a stucco wall with a strip of pavement or gravel below. Into the whitewashed wall are set three squares, painted bright red-orange. A blue strip along the base of the wall separates it from the pavement. The image at first seems too pared down, too simple in form to work as a photograph. But as a photograph moving toward being a Color Field painting, it is splendid. Lacking the earthy tactile pleasure of paint on canvas, such a composition must rely on the more airy pleasures of combinatory blessedness.

In 8144, 1998, we see a paved promenade from which a walkway cuts back to the sea. In the small plaza are seven lampposts—thin white poles topped by glowing orbs. It is not dark out, so the light coming from these orbs is wrong, but not entirely unfamiliar. It at least alludes to that time of dawn or dusk when artificial light mixes with waxing or waning sunlight to produce an extraordinary hybrid. By casting this actual and specific light into a setting that is not, but could be, real, Sasse subtly shifts our attention from photographic verity (the marks light actually makes on sensitive surfaces) to something one might call, in its conjuring of unlimited possibilities, postphotographic relativity.

David Levi Strauss