Adam Fuss

If in the early days of photography, the mechanical difficulties of producing even a mediocre photograph prevented the uninitiated from muddling the issue, technical innovations soon meant that anyone could, and would, make a picture. Pictorialism, then, arose at the turn of the last century as a response to the tawdry democracy of the Kodak. Meltingly soft focus, dreamlike emanations full of artifice and dripping with sensibility: Let’s see you try that with your disposable!

Adam Fuss is an unabashed Pictorialist who emphasizes the medium’s expressive qualities. His retrospective at Boston’s Museum of Fine Arts, curated by Cheryl Brutvan, left no doubt that his work can hold its own alongside those Old Masters down the hall. Everything about a Fuss photograph declares its lack of kinship with the snapshot. These are large-format works, destined to hang framed on a wall, preferably in a museum; their subject matter—including such weighty symbolist images as skulls, flowers, young babies floating in glowing pools, swirls of evanescent smoke—also reveal their author’s ambition. While photographers from Henri Cartier-Bresson to Nan Goldin have used the snapshot aesthetic to invigorate the artistic photograph, poetry, rather than prose, is Fuss’s natural voice.

Fuss not only adopts Pictorialism’s self-conscious artiness, but revives its photographic techniques: pinhole pictures, photograms, and even daguerreotypes. If Andreas Gursky uses the latest technologies to depict the sterile surface of the information age, Fuss has adopted the habits of a less alienated era. Significantly, Fuss claims to be less interested in contemporary photography than in painting, and the rich textures of his photographs do recall the painter’s art. But even while reaching back to the past, Fuss reveals his awareness that a profession once identified with modernity now has an archaeology of its own. Even when he paraphrases the great modernists—Alexander Rodchenko, László Moholy-Nagy, or Man Ray—he reveals that the age of mechanical wonders has itself grown old. The artist is not hankering for an earlier time; instead, he is very much the antiquarian, a contemporary figure who, through his obsession with moribund practices, reveals himself as the quintessential man of his time. In fact, though only two self-portraits are included here, Fuss is very much in the foreground throughout: Whatever the subject, the artist’s sensibility holds our attention. Disemboweled rabbits, their entrails coiled in patterns like William Morris wallpaper; butterflies; skulls; and ghostly flocks of birds all point to their maker’s death-haunted vision. A baby floating in a glowing pool offers an alpha to that grim omega, but even this motif seems freighted with symbolist melancholy. We have black-and-white photograms of dolls’ dresses whose frills make skeletal imprints on the paper, and the glistening wake of a serpent gliding through water. In one series featuring a sequence of seven images, what appears at first to be an all-black field slowly reveals the ghostly form of a child: Ad Reinhardt meets F. Holland Day.

“I’m always going after something that is perfect and compellingly beautiful,” Fuss has said. It is a quest that places him at odds with many of his colleagues. Even when he courts such accidental phenomena as smoke billows and water droplets, Fuss seems firmly in control of the results. If the typical snapshot makes the subject present in its most banal form so that its transcription onto the emulsion seems merely mechanical, Fuss’s exquisite arrangements always make the viewer aware of the artist’s subjective presence. Even when Fuss allows natural processes to take over—as in a series of images made by cultivating mushroom spores—he seems like one of those bonsai gardeners whose knowledge of living things allows him to make nature conform to his will.

Sometimes Fuss’s poetic effects seem forced. This happens when artifice overwhelms natural form, something that happens more often in his pretty but often intellectually flabby color images. But at their best, these photographs convince us that the world really is like the one depicted—strange, sad, and beautiful.

Fuss’s images of water and smoke track patterns outside any control yet reveal some hidden structure deep within the natural order. A series of lush color images made by recording on Cibachrome the elliptical pendulum swing of a light also seem to offer a perfect fit between medium and form. This is photography at its most basic; yet with the simplest of means, Fuss has fashioned an image of surpassing abstract beauty. The world is a compelling place for those sensitive enough to pick up its faint, haunting rhythms. Fuss is a compelling guide to those quiet realms.

Miles Unger