“What were their inspirations? Why were they making these photographs? What gave them permission to make photographs this way?” Lyle Rexer, exhibit curator
There are times visitors to the exhibit will not be able to decipher what is going on in the photographs, but that doesn’t make the images less relevant.
“They’re as much a record as that in documentary photography,” Lyle Rexer said.
Rexer is the curator of The Edge of Vision: Abstraction in Contemporary Photography, a traveling exhibit that runs through Sunday, April 14, at the Louisiana Art & Science Museum.
The exhibit is exactly as the title indicates: a collection of abstract photography created through different processes with diverse results.
The exhibit made its debut in 2009 in New York. It was inspired by photographers’ work featured in Rexer’s 2009 book, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography and has been on the road since its initial opening.
Rexer usually travels with it to oversee the installation.
“I’ve been to all of the venues except one — Baton Rouge,” Rexer said.
He spoke from his home in New York.
“I couldn’t make it there, and my schedule is so tight that I don’t think I’ll be able to make it before the show comes down,” he continued. “I’d like to see it, and I hope I’ll be able to fit it in, but I don’t know if I’ll be able to make it.”
But museum visitors still have a week to take in the show. It runs through Sunday, April 14, challenging viewers to look at photography in a different way.
The exhibit’s 20 international artists certainly have, exploring different ways to use photography to create abstract or “undisclosed” imagery through a range of techniques, visual effects and critical positions.
The show features works in a variety of photographic media, including still images, installations and videos.
The result is a freeing of photography from its familiar and social references.
Rexer began looking at abstract photography after his book, Photography’s Antiquarian Avant-Garde: The New Wave in Old Processes, was published in 2002. The book explored how such contemporary artists were using such antiquarian photographic techniques as daguerreotypes and tintypes to create their work.
It was through this project that Rexer began noticing work by abstract photographers. They, too, used different processes to create their work, and Rexer wanted to learn more.
“What were their inspirations?” he asked. “Why were they making these photographs? What gave them permission to make photographs this way?”
Rexer teaches at the New York School of Visual Arts. He started putting together his book by contacting artists he knew who were working with abstract photography. They put him in touch with others.
“All the processes are important, from older techniques to the digital technology we have today,” Rexer said. “Some photographers used cameras front and center. Others used chemicals to make their work.”
Penelope Umbrico never touched a camera to create her pieces. She’s one of the show’s artists, and her pieces, “TVs from Craigslist” and “11,691,448 Suns from Flickr (partial) 12-6-12,” were made from photos she found on the Internet.
“Penelope’s work is conceptual,” Rexer said. “She’s interested in taking those photographs out of context and putting them back in the world —- she’s interested in what they say about our society now.”
Umbrico’s “TVs from Craigslist” is found in the museum’s main gallery upstairs and appears to be something astronomical at first. That is, astronomical in the sense of stargazing.
But a closer look reveals something different. The framed photographs feature images of tube television sets, most of them reflecting a camera’s flash.
“Those photographs also reflect what’s going on in the room,” Rexer said. “So, you have a little television show of life being reflected back at you.”
And topping it off is the fact that Umbrico’s photos are sized to the scale of the television screens being sold on Craigslist and arranged to depict an old fashioned department store television display.
“She put those photos back on Craigslist and sold them for the same price the sellers were asking for the TVs,” Rexer said. “They were only asking $15 or $20, and if you would have been on Craigslist that day, you could have bought an original Penelope Umbrico print.”
Umbrico’s second piece is an installation that hangs in the downstairs main galleries. It appears to be a patchwork quilt from afar, but comes into clear focus when moving closer. For here are suns over mountains, suns over deserts, suns over water, suns at high noon, suns with clouds, suns setting, suns rising, 33,600 suns out of 1.6 million sunsets posted on the website http://www.flickr.com on Dec. 12, 2012, when Umbrico created the piece.
“This is a commissioned piece,” Elizabeth Weinstein said earlier.
She’s the museum’s curator and oversaw the installation of this show. “If the venue showing the exhibit wants to include this installation, it commissions it,” Weinstein continued. “That means we paid for the materials Penelope Umbrico needed to make it. The installation is different in every show, because the number of sun photos on Flickr changes each time she runs the photos out. They’re chromogenic prints run out on a Kodak machine. The installation is to be destroyed once the exhibit ends.”
Viewers will find themselves asking why people take these photographs and what compels them to post the images on the Internet.
Then there are Ellen Carey’s images created through Polaroid’s old “Instamatic” process. Remember Polaroids? The camera shot a photo, which automatically was captured on photographic paper. The paper was pulled out of the camera, and a negative layer was removed, allowing the image to emerge.
Carey works with a large Polaroid camera to create images that, as the exhibit label states, “incorporate chance and chemistry.”
“She works with a huge Polaroid camera and doesn’t take the cap off,” Rexer said. “There is no light coming into the camera. She pulls out the sheet and lets the image develop out. And what you have is an 8-foot abstract photograph. She displays both the negatives and the positives.”
There are so many examples of abstract images on the museum’s gallery walls, each carefully created through a different process. And it all comes together to ask what, exactly, is a photograph? Where does its meaning lie? Is it in the picture, itself? In the world or its phenomena?
The possibilities definitely are there, and they seem endless.