Houston

Amy Blakemore

The Diana camera—an apparatus cheaply made in the early 1960s that subsequently developed a cult following not unlike that of Pixelvison video—might be described as a subjectivity machine, a device for the manufacture of idiosyncrasy. So much so, in fact, that it seems wrong to refer to the brand in the singular; really, we should only ever speak of particular Diana cameras, since their inherent flaws ensure that each Diana distorts images in its own peculiar way. Houston-based photographer Amy Blakemore has been exploring these eccentricities for some time—her last show at this gallery was a ten-year retrospective—but this show of portraits demonstrated that what is at stake for her is not simply the realization that a machine may possess a “personality” (such as the one Robert Pirsig, for instance, once attributed to his motorcycle) but rather that this machine, in turn, can attribute personality to human beings, both subject and photographer.

At first glance, these photographs might appear to be blowups of anonymous amateur snapshots; their already faulty lighting and focus are underscored by the enhanced scale. Similar images are often found by chance on the sidewalk or at a flea market and convey a level of mystery only rarely attained by self-consciously artful photographic work. A portrait by, say, Avedon or Mapplethorpe tells us something about its subject, while one of Thomas Ruff's tells us so emphatically that it's not going to reveal anything that we don't have to think about it. But an anonymous snapshot leaves us pondering everything it doesn't tell, about the person shown and especially about the photographer's relation to that person. The same is true of Blakemore's portraits. Why, one might muse on seeing Duncan, 2002, is this bespectacled fellow in the brown and gray T-shirt, with a vast field behind him, looking down toward his feet as if he'd rather show his bald spot than his face? What about the guy in the overcoat (Steven, 1997/2002) who's turning his face quizzically to the side, his eyes half closed? Or the woman (Stephanie, 2002) whose face is shaded by her cowboy hat and sunglasses? Why do they seem to be declaring, above all, their resistance to fully participating in the photographic activity to which they've lent themselves?

For her part, the photographer can seem just as evasive, exploiting her camera's fortuitous pictorial effects to collaborate with her subjects in their refusal to hand over their secrets to the lens. The subject of Ellen, 2001, may return the camera's stare, but her eyes harbor a look of wariness not to be appeased even by the lyrically distracting blue shadow that hovers across her shoulder as though part of the sky itself had come down to rest there. The inherent but variable effects of blur, of bleeding light, of vignetting, and so on function like a blues musician's bent notes and feedback, turning the most straightforward visual riffs into something sly and oblique. They seem innately expressive, but of whom—or what? Somehow it comes as no surprise to learn that some of Blakemore's earlier work included documentation of pilgrimage sites like Lourdes and Fatima. For her, it seems, personality is a kind of apparition that's all the more precious for possibly existing only in the fleeting perception of it.

Barry Schwabsky