San Francisco

Zoe Leonard, January 15, frame 10, 2012, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 11 3/4".

Zoe Leonard, January 15, frame 10, 2012, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 11 3/4".

Zoe Leonard

Anthony Meier Fine Arts

Zoe Leonard, January 15, frame 10, 2012, gelatin silver print, 9 1/2 × 11 3/4".

In Zoe Leonard’s “Sun Photographs,” 2010–, the artist sets out to depict some of the paradoxes of light. The series, selections from which were on view at Anthony Meier this past spring, features emanations from the sun captured in gelatin silver prints. A few of the images are anchored at their bottom edge by urban landscapes—buildings, antennae, branches—while others are centered on the glare itself as it dissolves into abstraction. Together they comprise a meditative encounter with the dualities that structure both vision and photography, as Leonard points her camera at the thing that makes sight possible yet is itself impossible to look at unaided.

Some of Leonard’s prints were tacked directly onto the gallery walls, the stiff paper bulging and buckling out slightly to emphasize their materiality. Small imperfections such as specks and dust spots on the surfaces of the prints further drew one’s attention to the contingencies of darkroom procedures. In each photograph, the flare of rays that is the focal point of the image bleaches out the sky to create a study in subtle tonalities of gray. A diptych of nearly identical prints of shots taken on January 19, 2012, from slightly different angles, captures a sunspot that hovers over a streetscape. The direction of the glints changes as they are fixed onto film, palpably registering the shifting body of the photographer. Another photo focuses on a bright white circle that punctuates the sky like a navel, with a few bare treetops the only indication of Leonard’s physical location. In January 15, frame 10, 2012, an airplane, frozen midflight, forms a kind of constellation with the spots of sunlight. Throughout her impressive oeuvre, Leonard has intelligently grappled with the contradictions of time, and in this image we are reminded of the strangeness of photography’s power to arrest ephemeral moments.

Cameras as seeing machines have historically made possible different kinds of sight. Each of Leonard’s sun photographs is titled with a date and a frame number, a decision that suggests the series as a whole is a comment on scientific inquiries into the ability (albeit limited) of the camera to document the sun. Yet this work doesn’t give one the sense that it aspires to be part of a detached record-keeping system. Rather, the photographs are the results of a more sensitive approach to temporality and to the presence and subjectivity of the artist—and of the viewer. The pictures and their titles also withhold information, and as spectators we are confronted by all the things the images cannot tell us: Are we looking at a sunrise or a sunset? Is the haze an indication of a cloudy day or is it the milky film of the sky itself? Where are we, exactly? Leonard consistently uses photography to address expectations of visibility, invisibility, and hypervisibility. What drives this work is a perverse desire to challenge a fundamental prohibition: the exhortation not to stare into the sun, lest we damage our eyes. Leonard so brazenly flaunts this taboo that to look at these photographs gives one the thrilling feeling of transgression.

Julia Bryan-Wilson