New York

Liz Deschenes

First developed in the late ’20s, the compositing technique known as “blue screen” still forms the basis of most cinematic special effects. This is how it works: A subject is filmed against a pure blue, green, or red backdrop. A second film, known as the background plate, is shot at a different location. The two negatives are then sandwiched in an elaborate optical printing process. Thanks to the magic of the blue screen, actors can leap off tall buildings or scale rocky cliffs without ever leaving the soundstage. Rendered more accessible by digital technology, the blue screen has become ubiquitous; we see it every time we look at the weather report. Or rather, we don’t see it. But now we do, with the help of photographer Liz Deschenes. In a deft conceptual inversion, Deschenes reverses the blue screen’s normal role by making it the subject of her “Blue Screen Process” series, 2001. (The screens Deschenes photographed at the National Association of Broadcasters Convention in Las Vegas are actually green—a color more flattering to skin than the blue from which the process takes its name.)

If the welling up of ground to assume the place traditionally assigned to figure sounds familiar, the déjà vu is not lost on Deschenes. Two of her photographs show the green backdrop in situ, surrounded by lights and other studio equipment. The majority, though, are shot head-on and printed full frame, and even their utterly contemporary, cyberspace glow cannot dispel their uncanny resemblance to modernist monochromes. Deschenes’s series pushes this comparison in a number of revealing ways. Take, for example, Green Screen #6, which consists of two successive, full-frame shots of the same green backdrop, which have been printed on a single sheet of paper in such a way that the black borders of the negatives remain visible. The work wittily equates the empiricist imperatives of nonobjective painting and f.64-school photography—and then empties out both through Warholian repetition. Green Screen #4 performs a similarly ironic riff on reflexivity. Echoing the endgame that Minimalist sculpture played with high modernism, Deschenes’s rigorous submission to the dictates of medium-specificity results in a thoroughly nonautonomous object—one that takes the conflation of sign and referent to a logical yet absurdist extreme. A uniformly green, 183-inch-long ink-jet print on Duratran-backed paper tacked to the wall and unfurling onto the gallery’s floor, Green Screen #4 doesn’t look like a representational image. (Only the barely visible grain gives away its status as a photograph.) Rather, it looks exactly like—and, in fact, could function as—the screen it depicts. It’s hard to say whether this work would hold up on its own, but in the context of the series it’s positively brilliant—at once literal, reflexive, and simulacral.

“Blue Screen Process” might appear a radical departure for Deschenes, who has focused on landscape in the past. But it’s very much a logical extension of her earlier work. Like her nearly abstract images of the desert and ocean, the blue screen—the ultimate nonsite—occupies a space where depth and two-dimensionality intersect, and, to some extent, fuse. In this respect, Deschenes’s project is related to a broader impulse in contemporary photography: the desire to test one aspect of the medium’s embattled specificity by staking out a form of flatness that, whether produced through analogical or digital means, might properly be called “photographic.” Although far more austere than the work of, say, Andreas Gursky or Thomas Demand, “Blue Screen Process” is a similarly probing exploration of photography’s identity—and its continued interest.

Margaret Sundell