Essay By Lyle Rexer
A Dream of Something
essay by Lyle Rexer
“And by restoring to nature the multitude of subjects which he has plundered, it seems as though he had given away part of his own personality, the best of himself—as if man were never so entirely himself as when he forgets himself completely and merges his individuality with the sum total of things in the universe.”
Every age has its emblems. In an earlier time the emblem of photography would have been this: Brassai (the nom de travail of Gyula Halász), in fedora and overcoat, bent over his Voigtlander camera with its small bellows, looking through the view finder at a night landscape of Paris – the photographer as Walter Benjamin’s boulevardier, nightwalker, cultural surveyor, surrendering his identity to the images before his eyes to become the first great purveyor of a virtual nightlife. The light has changed, and a different sort of darkness encroaches on the day now. In the contemporary emblem, a man sits in front of a computer screen, prepared to merge with the images gathering there, but separated from them by the camera he holds, a Polaroid, which he snaps compulsively, generating a mounting pile of paper and chemical images, a “real” alternative to the virtual world that threatens to engulf him.
In an earlier time, photography opened out on the world; it came from the world and issued into the world of physical objects. Today photography closes in on itself, is a circuit through which images flow, entering people’s minds but seldom issuing outward, seldom “coming to ground,” as Sally Mann put it. Yet our new emblem—a self-portrait of the photographer John Messinger at work—captures a more complicated passage and a much more ambiguous ontology. To begin with, the images that comprise his work are sourceless, that is, their only provenance is a position in digital space. Messinger is of the generation old enough to have a foot in both worlds, analogue and digital, but in this preference for found images Messinger expresses the tendency of the time to rescind the role of the originator in favor of the curator, as iteration yields to circulation. If photographs were originally thought to bear a privileged and direct relationship to nature (nature painting itself, in William Henry Fox-Talbot’s phrase), then the prevalence of media has undermined that, turning viewers into spectators, not of reality or even experience at second hand, but of something more abstract: images. Messinger’s extensive experience of the transition from wet to dry photography has made him hyper aware of the current compulsion to curate our experiences and identities. Those are never completely malleable, but translating every moment into an image fosters the illusion that life is simply an increasing artifact, and the artifact can be changed at will.
Among contemporaries, Thomas Ruff has traveled far along this path. Abandoning documentary practice for pixilated internet images, satellite transmissions (themselves assembled from data), mathematical formulae and finally algorithms that mimic light itself, with each step Ruff further distances his work from originating photographic circumstances and individual human agency. Penelope Umbrico engages the image traffic more politically, searching commodity recycling sites such as E-Bay and Craig’s List for evidence of technological obsolescence and economic instability. It’s everywhere, as failed or transitioning businesses seek to unload yesterday’s advanced money-making technologies. Her vast suite of images depicting 24-hour photo developing units for sale is horrifying and poignant. Horrifying the productivity predicated on waste; poignant the desire for remembrance entrusted to a hulking machine, appropriately medical in its plastic appearance. Some other emotion attaches to the realization that no output technology can now keep up with the production of images.
The artist inaugurates nothing but instead surrenders to the digital flow, riding currents and seeking undertows and whirlpools. Yet something is missing in this description, the emotional character of visual hunting and gathering without ever moving. Its obsessive component is certainly suggested in Umbrico’s work by volume – dozens of photo machines, hundreds of TVs from Craig’s List, millions of sunsets from flickr. The last example displays the meeting of two orders of obsession, that of amateur photographers with the natural world and its primordial events, the that of the artist with the profusion of representations. The roots of John Messinger’s work lie deeper below the surface, in emotional states provoked by web encounters. Emotion is what links his work to a predigital Romanticism and what solicits us to read his image compilations symbolically, even autobiographically.
In the seriality of his work and its apparently strict formal organization, Messinger is obviously influenced by Minimalism, but it is worthwhile pointing out what he is not doing in these works – or not primarily. A point of comparison might be the work of Dutch photographer Jan Dibbets. Like many artists of the late 1960s and 70s, Dibbets explored temporality though photography. In some of his best-known works he photographed the same subject (usually light through a window) at specified intervals over a set period of time (usually 24 hours). The process emphasized the impersonal, unvarying, mechanical and abstract character of photographic recording. More tellingly, in stopping time and anatomizing duration, it made the instants available for redistribution and imaginative contemplation.
It would require another essay to explore the ancestry of such a preoccupation, in ancient Greek philosophy and early medieval Christianity, with special reference to Saint Augustine and Plotinus, not to mention the nearer antecedent of Eadweard Muybridge’s photographic motion studies. Dibbets underscored the formality of his process by displaying time as a grid of same-but-different instants, each unique but all of equal status, a momentum without drama, suggesting a cyclical infinity. Messinger’s grids operate more intuitively. First of all, they are bound by a process, psychic and intellectual, rather than a program. The process originates in an intuition and unfolds as a combination of systematic and improvisational steps. The result is a group of discrete physical photographs, each unique and unreproducible, organized into a pattern but not an obvious sequence. Time, we might say, is redistributed spatially, but even this suggests too schematic a relationship among the images.
A couple of examples show how Messinger exploits the grid to achieve something more subversive and poignant. The work Heavy with the Things She Loved was born in Messinger’s preoccupation with the modulations of artificial light, just as the transit of natural light inspired Dibbets’ work. Spending so much time in front of a screen (instead of looking out the window or at the shadows growing in the room around him), Messinger became preoccupied with the light emanating from the machine before it displayed an image, a pale blue light of varying hue and intensity. He photographed that chromatically subtle blankness with varying exposure times under different atmospheric conditions in the room where he sat – conditions that would affect the Polaroid output. These empty photographs he combined with images of water taken from the internet and subjected to slight interventions: tight cropping, magnifying, changing focus. Some of these steps follow a systematic program but most appear to be aesthetically motivated and arranged. Many of the differences among the images are almost undetectable. Messinger produces a seamless transition from non-referential registration to denotation (the images of water), from the mechanical to organic. The result is an examination not of nature or light per se but of information about the world (and the experiences of people in it) digitally convened and photographically ratified. The Polaroid bestows an ontological status on the ghosts in the machine. As a final step, the titling suggests an occasion for the work: a memory, a poetic-emotional situation or a reference to the cultural origin of the source imagery.
The final form of this and all Messinger’s work, a very large framed and gridded collage, reasserts the object-oriented character of his process. It adds a new chapter to the story unfolding in our time of the relationship between virtual and actual worlds, images and objects. Virtual origin yields actual (that is, physical) outcome, which echoes another, older dialectic: mechanical and reproductive technology yields one-of-a-kind object. Behind this is the more profound paradox of the age of curated experience, in which anonymous circulating imagery becomes the vehicle of memorial investment and commercial stereotypes, reconvened, become deeply personal imagoes.
The relationships are more obvious in All the Light in a Given Space, in which Messinger selected an image of the woods from the internet and progressively zoomed in and past (or rather through), the cover of vegetation, his “camera” – the software of the computer—penetrating ever deeper into nature’s appearance in search of some fundamental revelation or knowledge. Beyond the trees is nothing but open sky, a digital atmosphere, a tint that looks like natural light and is, at least insofar as it, or at least the source photograph, has a referent. The repetitive natural imagery recalls Monet and his haystacks, measuring light and time, but the changing point of view (no one is actually moving, after all) suggests Thoreau at Walden, as he looked into the pond and saw a reflection of heaven. But are the intimations of immortality in Messinger’s work vitiated by their third-hand origins? Or is this, as he suggests, our new nature? We can imagine an updated version of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog with the wanderer gazing at a giant video screen, enhanced by Dolby Surroundsound. Making an actual photograph of the digital encounter confirms it as a moment of true feeling, its immediacy somehow validated by the (nearly) instantaneous output of a positive image. That at least is the historical resonance of the Polaroid photograph, that its uniqueness and rapid appearance guarantee the authenticity of the moment and provide the most evocative if not reliable vessel of memory.
But memory of what, exactly? In a universe increasingly populated with digital simulacra, will images move us still? How so? Can these pixilated, fungible, immaterial pictures summon anything? And how does an artist give expression to that interior experience when the terms of sublimity have been utterly compromised? In How We Learn of Loss (Uncle Ludwig 1949-1995), the only piece that includes human images, Messinger sought to come to terms with the death of his uncle from AIDS when the artist was twelve years old. Long after the fact, Messinger rented a DVD of the film Dallas Buyers Club, the only Hollywood film about HIV he had ever been willing to watch. He calls it “therapy on a 45-inch screen.” The catharsis provoked a complex response. Messinger selected fifteen seconds of footage in which the actor Matthew McConaughey is laughing and sobbing, a doubly surrogate experience. Photographing gave Messinger purchase on it and possibly on his own past loss, and cutting up the sequence into distinct photographic acts (in a sense recovering its discontinuous cinematic ontology from a digital copy) gave him the opportunity to rearrange visual experience into a new pattern of relations. The McConaughey sequence becomes fragmented and repetitive, a trauma that cannot be exorcised. It is surrounded by a delicate blue, which could be the light from a blank screen but on closer examination is seen to be the sky outside McConaughey ‘s car, a cool, distant and impersonal blue sky that is nevertheless calming. The sequence of Polaroids forming a dark bar across the top of the grid is actually comprised of close-ups from two areas of the car’s interior, where light meets shadow. Taken out of context and repositioned, the images become symbolic in a way that reflects not only on film photography (suggesting the unused end of a roll of color film) but also on the Romantic tradition entwining love and death, a tradition that photography at its inception inherited.
The work is as confessional as anything one might find on Instagram but all the same distant and inscrutable. It recalls the basic paradox of the photographic complex that has only intensified as the mediation of the world by images has expanded. The camera is an apotheosis of subjectivity, granting every individual a “point of view,” but it also divorces that subjectivity from its own experience, making it a connoisseur of two dimensions in the real world. Brassaï sought to lose himself in images of the world and let them flow through him. Messinger makes photographs of images in order to recover the world, to interrupt the flow, and for that time, to experience a more tangible sense of his place in it. He quotes the line of the poet Robert Frost, “For once, then, something.” It remains for us to discover, in these works and beyond them, how that something might exist for us.