Shirana Shahbazi, Raum-Streifen-01 (Room-Stripes-01), 2017, C-print, 23 7/8 x 19 7/8".

Shirana Shahbazi, Raum-Streifen-01 (Room-Stripes-01), 2017, C-print, 23 7/8 x 19 7/8".

Shirana Shahbazi

Shirana Shahbazi, Raum-Streifen-01 (Room-Stripes-01), 2017, C-print, 23 7/8 x 19 7/8".

At first sight, this latest exhibition of Shirana Shahbazi’s photography seemed to present merely a highly polished version of the eclectic screen aesthetic that characterizes a lot of contemporary photography. Her work might appear to allude to 1960s Op art, psychedelia, found photography, and documentary, all laid out in a manner so clean as to seem forensic. But a second, slower take showed that there is no system of reference at the center of her work. Not only is the subject matter of her photography somehow incidental, but so are any apparent historical citations. For Shahbazi, photography is an optical art, not an information science—more photo, less graph. Her photographs are not images (of what is not there); they are not even commentaries on images—rather they are things, the mirror polish of their aluminum frames only serving to affirm this reading. Shahbazi’s most recent photographs are, above all else, constructed, as unfit for the purposes of representation as the proudest abstraction.

This refusal pushes further one dimension of Shahbazi’s work that was already palpable in her 2014 exhibition “Monstera,” curated by Fabrice Stroun and Tenzing Barshee at the Kunsthalle Bern. There, she still worked with easily recognized figures, objects, and forms, but with a crispness that drew attention to photography as a studio practice. Precision in photography can lend the work a kind of irony, either by showing the object as so real that the photographic process upstages the thing depicted, or by invoking the conventions of advertising photography, in which the effort put into realism is directly proportional to the required degree of deceit.

Shahbazi’s new works feature geometric shapes captured in polished mirrors, they are liquid skeins of color, or figurative forms at play. Some have been taken from constructions made in the studio, using simple contrasting patterns and highly polished mirrors. When recognizable human figures do appear (such as the small girl walking away in Mädchen laufend 01 [Running Girl],2017), Shahbazi reminds us that we are looking at a picture of a picture—as all printed photographs are pictures of pictures, positives taken from negatives—by showing the edges of the faded photo, propped up on the mirror that redoubles it. But the almost unavoidable seriality of photographic images, the reiterative effect of one photograph placed next to another, was undermined by the work’s placement, with pictures of different sizes hung at varying heights to one another, against walls painted in bright Pantones. As a result, entire walls functioned as tight compositions that might have been plotted by a punctilious graphic designer. Color here was no longer a question of life, but of optics. Much has been made of the fact that Shahbazi’s work is analog. She still does gelatin silver prints and makes use of the full chromatic possibilities of photographic chemistry. We’ve become so unused to some of these tones, so much more flamboyant than the restricted gamut of RGB, that the paper looks almost like auto paint, both metallic and outrageously lush.

In the last room, as if to reveal the logic underpinning the rest of the exhibition, Shahbazi showed a series of lithographic prints: black-and-white pictures that recalled photocopies, if photocopies were made in organic ink on luxurious Bütten paper. From the series “Tehran North,” 2015–17, they were snapshots from one of the artist’s occasional trips back to her native country, which she left at around the age of eleven (she grew up in Germany and now lives in Zurich), and where, she’s said, she does not feel at home. Here, at last, we had photographs that were taken, rather than constructed, showing streetscapes, strangers, illegible signage. But the turn to representation did not feel like a return; it was not a relief. The restoration of the photograph as image is only possible because of the distance that separates photographer from content: the distance imposed by black and white, by seriality, and by unfamiliarity.

Adam Jasper