San Francisco

H. G. Kaiser, Sun Cycle Taken Dec 21–17. Looking South from Gov. Hill, 1917, gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 x 7 1/2". From “The Unphotographable.”

H. G. Kaiser, Sun Cycle Taken Dec 21–17. Looking South from Gov. Hill, 1917, gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 x 7 1/2". From “The Unphotographable.”

“The Unphotographable”

H. G. Kaiser, Sun Cycle Taken Dec 21–17. Looking South from Gov. Hill, 1917, gelatin silver print, 5 3/4 x 7 1/2". From “The Unphotographable.”

Since its invention, photography has been defined by its indexical capacity to document the visible world—what Barthes famously called its “that-has-been.” “The Unphotographable,” as Fraenkel Gallery titled its recent show, challenged this received truth, unearthing, according to curator and gallery owner Jeffrey Fraenkel, “a parallel history in which photographers and other artists have attempted to describe by photographic means that which is not so readily seen: thought, time, ghosts, god, dreams.” Spanning a broad historical and conceptual terrain—from nineteenth-century spiritualist and scientific experiments to twentiethcentury pictorialist and documentary traditions, amateur images, and contemporary abstract, cameraless, and lensless practices—the fiftyplus works on view raised more questions than they answered about the ontology of photography and its status today. These questions are implicit in the paradox of the show’s title: The fact that all of these purportedly intangible phenomena have in some sense managed to be represented by means of the photograph suggests that it is not only photography’s referent that is destabilized but equally the medium itself.

Photography’s complex relationship with knowledge and vision has been a topic of fruitful scholarship lately, notably in Corey Keller’s wonderful 2009 exhibition “Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible, 1840–1900,” mounted at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. As Keller argues in the catalogue, photography not only served as empirical knowledge by revealing phenomena not observable by the naked eye (microscopic bacteria, the surface of the moon, the paranormal), but it also reciprocally shaped scientific inquiry. The Fraenkel show highlighted many rich formal and thematic connections between this history and the concerns of contemporary practices. H. G. Kaiser’s Sun Cycle Taken Dec 21–17. Looking South from Gov. Hill, 1917, a multiple-exposure image that tracks the sun’s passage on the winter solstice as a set of twelve glowing orbs arced above the horizon, was juxtaposed with Chris McCaw’s Heliograph #7, 2012, which does not depict the sun but registers its movement and energy as vectors literally burned through the print’s surface. Likewise in this show, the quest to signify the numinous is undertaken in different ways by the homespun special effects of occult photography and by the silent, otherworldly cloudscape of Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalent, 1931. Meanwhile, Glenn Ligon’s He Tells Me I Am His Own, 2005, expresses the very ineffability of the divine through a blank (unexposed yet chemically fixed) sheet of light-sensitive paper—perhaps the single work in the show that remains true to the exhibition’s conceit.

As these works witness, at stake in this show was photography’s changing relationship to abstraction as contemporary artists have pushed the limits of what—and the very ways in which—the medium is capable of representing. For example, Walead Beshty produces his “Transparencies” (an ongoing series begun in 2006; two from 2011 were presented here) by subjecting his negatives, which he stows in his carry-on luggage, to the X-rays of airport-security scanners—a process that bands his images with shadowy, unpredictable patterns. Or take the tarnished, mirrorlike surface of Liz Deschenes’s Front/Side #10, 2012, a silver-toned photogram that she created by exposing the entirety of a sheet of black-and-white photo paper to ambient light from the night sky and surrounding buildings, thereby foregrounding the chemical processes of photography and allowing the environmental factors (such as humidity and temperature) present when creating the image to be the only visible “image” (one that will continue to “develop” as the marks oxidize over time). While the works of Beshty and Deschenes are ostensibly abstract, they are also exceedingly concrete, displaying not images of reality but rather the very conditions that govern the production and reception of images.

The political and technological changes that give such practices their urgency today are alluded to by another work that was on view, Gerhard Richter’s September, 2009, a photograph of a blurred, barely legible painting based on a newspaper image of the second plane crashing into the World Trade Center. The distinction between image and photograph that these works underscore—the former a dematerialized representation, the latter an object in the world—critically addresses the larger crisis in visibility ushered in by a fully digital post–9/11 world. It is in this context that the very concept of the unphotographable—that which is not fully knowable or certain, including, not least, the photographic medium itself—must be seen as deeply historical and hence unfixed.

Gwen Allen