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Camera Obscura

New show at Cornell challenges viewers to reconsider the photograph

Photo: Courtesy the artist/Jayne H. Baum Gallery, New York, License: N/A

Courtesy the artist/Jayne H. Baum Gallery, New York

This is not a photograph: Ellen Carey’s “PushPins, 2002” is on display as part of The Edge of Vision

The contemporary photographers represented in this show are doing the same thing, breaking the photographic process down to its most basic elements and challenging the notion of photography as merely pictures of people, places or things. They make images that document time and processes and space – things that can’t usually be seen with the naked eye, or the traditional photographic lens. Most of the works represented in the show wouldn’t register as photographs at all to many people, and many of them were created without using cameras.

One of the most striking examples here are the works of photographer Charles Lindsay. Two massive black-and-white prints from his Carbon series take up two walls of the gallery space, dominating the room. Upon first inspection, the images look like enlargements of microscopic slides containing microbes or cells. Some of his smaller works on display look like ripples on water or lunar landscapes. To make these pieces, Lindsay smeared a carbon emulsion across pieces of plastic, hit them with a jolt of electricity and developed the resulting images.

Likewise, Ilan Wolff’s series Four Elements records the chemical interaction that takes place when photographic paper is subjected to four “primordial” elements: fire (represented by bars of heated metal), water (by ice melting on the paper), air (represented by light passing through a balloon) and earth. The organic-looking images created look like modern-art prints more than they do photographs; but surprisingly, they actually reveal the sensation of each element perhaps better than an actual photograph could. In “Fire,” rusty rectangular lines reveal the weight and warmth of the metal that burned the paper; the shadowy transparency of the image in “Air” feels weightless but thick at the same time, as if the process managed to capture the sensation of a hot day without a breeze.

The concept of authorless photos is also present in this show, as illustrated by Penelope Umbrico’s installation featuring multiple snapshots of the sun printed on three-by-five-inch paper and presented as one large piece. Umbrico collected photos that contained images of the sun, particularly from advertisements. She cropped in on the sun in each, then printed the images, which make up her “8,313,619 Suns From Flickr.” Presented without context or author, they reveal how photos of the same thing evoke different sensations. The sun, warm and glowing and welcoming in one image, can look harsh and cold in another.

Then there’s the aforementioned installation by Sal: It’s a bit of an enigma, at first, just a composition of four metal bars of iron, placed on top of four sheets of photo paper, with piles of salt poured on top of the metal and spilling over onto the paper. It could be an abstract statement on the chemical and elemental nature of photography – and it is – but it also happens to be a photograph of sorts in the making. Once this show is over, Rexer says, the squares of paper, which have been exposed to the salt, iron, light, heat and humidity of the ever-changing gallery environment, will be processed. The result, he says, will be a documentary image of the show. It’ll utilize the same chemical process that makes a photograph, and just like a photograph, it’ll be a record of an instant in time. Only in this case, the window of time it captures will be far longer – a matter of weeks, rather than moments – and will challenge the conventional notion of what most people think of as a photo.

At the same time, like the other images in this show, it’s just as much a record of time, place and an event as any traditional picture.

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