View of “Sara Greenberger Rafferty,” 2018. Foreground: 3, 2018. Background: Wallpaper for THE LAUGHTER, 2018.

View of “Sara Greenberger Rafferty,” 2018. Foreground: 3, 2018. Background: Wallpaper for THE LAUGHTER, 2018.

Sara Greenberger Rafferty

At the entrance to Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s saturated précis on the props of studio photography, two black-framed photographs, each indexing thirty-nine scanned 35-millimeter slide images arranged in a loose grid, hung side by side. The tiny positive images exposed in Slide I and Slide II (University of Michigan Extension) (all works 2018) documented a variety of color-calibration and white-balancing cards, often juxtaposed with a white human hand as a test subject. Evincing Rafferty’s material interest in transparent supports for photographs, these ink-jet prints were transferred onto clear acetate and adhered to Plexiglas with transparent acrylic polymer, imparting a gelatinous and ghostly quality to the antiquated slide format and the photographic tools they reveal.

In the main gallery, printed vinyl wallpaper covered much of one wall, its sepia-toned motif punctuated by text reading PHOTOGRAPHIC TEST PRINT. This tessellated graphic field functioned as a backdrop to a series of photographs that hung on top of it, and was interrupted by a central image of a colossal black oculus that could be interpreted as a camera lens or the pupil of an eye. This shape denoted the physical structure necessary for seeing and recording light, furthering Rafferty’s investigation into the material conditions of photography. In addition, the imposing shadowy vacuum created a dramatic scale shift, functioning as an organizing schema in an exhibition dotted with collections of small found images.

Distributed in a straight line across the patterned wall, surrounding the oculus, the series of nine silver gelatin prints (titled with sequential single digits) represented the classic form of the darkroom test print. A cropped black-and-white image of a nose and mouth, shot against a dark background, progressively shifted in value and contrast from one photograph to the next. The soft gray light of 1 gave way to severe shadows and sharp tone variations in 9. Enhancing the sense of progression, each print also contained a black number that corresponded to the sequence of the exposure test as well as to its title. These digits were visible in the lighter-value prints but gradually disappeared in the longer exposures.

Nearly all the material in Rafferty’s scans was culled from found film stock purchased on eBay. Full-spectrum color bars, brick-wall lens tests, and images of commercial stock photography tools were threaded through the exhibition. Like Michael Smith and William Wegman’s 1986 video The World of Photography—which gives humorous pathos to the stereo-typical photographer, who hangs a long-lens camera around his neck in search of the decisive moment and who relishes the magic of the darkroom—Rafferty’s exhibition indulged the quirks and obsessions of professional photographers, especially in examining the medium’s technical artifacts and quality—control methods. But she refrained from sentimentally lamenting a bygone era of darkroom production. Instead, each of her photographs underscored an entanglement between analog and digital methods of production. In some works, such as Color Bar Composition, the thick, transparent, irregularly shaped Plexiglas support hosted three striped color cards arranged in a geometric composition, foregrounding the formal qualities of this historical device. Rafferty’s characteristic process of affixing a transparent digital image onto a transparent surface dilutes color saturation and gestures toward the emulsions inherent in film. Still, like Smith and Wegman, Rafferty finds absurdity in the process. Her composite image Double Wall pokes fun at the farcical yet seductive physical prerequisites for quality image production—the photographing of brick walls to achieve focus and accuracy—at a time when all a photographer needs is a cell phone.

Michelle Grabner