Galerie Michèle Chomette

The photographs of Christine Felten and Véronique Massinger are literally one of a kind, for each is a positive image obtained directly on Cibachrome paper by means of a modern-day version of the camera obscura—an old camper painted black inside and fitted with a tiny aperture in its back wall. Indeed, the two Brussels photographers, who have been working as one for the past decade under the combined name Felten-Massinger, have transformed their collaborative venture into a nonprofit corporation known as Caravana Obscura (a play on the French word for camper, caravane). But, as evidenced by the images in their recent show, the landscapes and double self-portraits they create are far from the gimmickry that such a description might conjure. The “pinhole” process itself, applied to a commercial developing paper that is intended for color enlargements, yields images totally unlike the typical Cibachrome print, with its saturated colors and grainless high resolution. With exposure times that can be measured in hours rather than nanoseconds, Felten-Massinger’s near-panoramic landscapes (without a lens, a camera’s angle of vision is about 120 degrees) have an uncanny depth of field, and their tones are dense and somber; no shadows are cast, nor is there a consistent source of light. And as the incidental highway panel or shop sign reminds us, the image has been captured in reverse (in fact, it’s upside down as well). The self-portraits, meanwhile, because they are posed much closer to the aperture, with an expo-sure time of “only” ten or fifteen minutes (during which the artists remain motionless and quasi-breathless), break up the faces of the two women into patches of light, shadow, and disembodied features.

In the landscapes and portraits alike, what we are seeing is nothing less than a record of time’s passage. Each of the five views along the Roubaix Canal presented in this show (which was put together as part of an innovative public commission intended to revive interest in this abandoned waterway in northern France near the Belgian border) has been exposed for four or more hours, as attested by the “ghosts” of cars and trucks passing on the roadways. But these anecdotal details are secondary to the overall accumulation of color, light, and time on the surface of each photo, a process akin to superimposing all the frames from a film sequence. Both the time and the image are “real,” but neither corresponds to our “reality.”

In this respect, the double self-portraits might be seen as both a counterpoint to and a counterpart of the landscapes: There the “ghosts” were incidental; here they are the subject, and through their presence, the “view” has become a per—for-mance by the two photographer-subjects. In addition to the formal play on posture and gesture, Felten-Massinger exploit the possibilities of color, not only through more patent subversion of the Cibachrome—in Autoportrait double, Caravana Obscura 1/1, 1997, for example, the underexposure of the image creates a slightly red-tinged tonality—but also through the use of makeup and costume. By putting themselves in the picture in this way, they alert us to the artifice of their art: the staging, pacing, and pain-s-taking preparations that are, too, present, but far less evident, in the landscapes. And, with their faces frozen before the aperture, an elusive assemblage of disembodied features uncomfortably reminiscent of death masks, Felten-Massinger alert us as well to the passage of time that marks our own mortality.

Miriam Rosen