On Beauty, Group Show #53
[Humble Arts Foundation of New York, 2017]
Essay by Roula Seikaly
Living in Moments
[Cornell MFA Catalog, 2015]
Lauren van Haaften-Schick - Ph.D. Candidate in Art History, Cornell University
"How might one photograph the future?"
This question was posed by Carolyn Benedict Fraser in fall 2014 during a discussion on expanded forms and functions of photographic archives. The archive as entity anticipates its own future-making, its own crafting and conveyance of a particular historical narrative, while remaining vulnerable to re-authoring by those who will glean and re-frame selected moments and minor histories left to be uncovered within. In photographic archives, language is secondary, if available as a clue to meaning at all. Where a photographic record is the only evidence we have of a place, a figure, an action, it is left to our subjective memories and imaginings to decipher just what it is that is being revealed. Without fixed referents, the photograph as archive serves only to preserve its own choreography. Captured gestures and traces of landscapes give us our only hint of the emotions present, what happened that day, or why a camera seemed so important in that moment, while the photographer’s unsteady hand stands in for temporal information. Was the image-taker nervous? Did they wish they could capture more of their surroundings? Or did they conceal a provocative detail - their decisive moment - within the craze of a blurred or busy scene, as a gift (or cruel joke) for a future careful viewer to uncover? Might the photographer and the photographic archive’s anticipation of the future viewer define the act of photographing the future? Or might such a future image only be achieved by pushing the boundaries of vision and temporality to their farthest limits, so that we are no longer left with a specific scene or detailed view, but simply the aura of time and space itself?
This is the liminal space between action and non-event that Fraser’s photographs capture. These images are not of trees, the sky, a fern, a skating rink, but rather document an experience of them: the amount of space the photographer can place between body and object, the distance and time it takes to circle one spot, and the limits of her ability to move back and forth and around on repeat. In one sense, Fraser’s works are quintessential “dumb” photographs, to use conceptual artist Douglas Huebler’s phrase, carrying a so-called “egalitarian” dimension in their deadpan and utterly direct simplicity and earnestness. Yet while Huebler’s images rely on textual descriptions, maps, and schematics as a means of conveying the space of a photograph and the function of language vis-à-vis image, Fraser’s photographs comprise the collapsing of area, object, physicality, and time. If authorship is complicated by Fraser’s works it is not done through the “dumbing” down of the image, but by its logic of the glitch, or its exploitation of the straightforward medium of photography to yield a newly holistic abstraction. Rather than associate these works with the celebration of banality in a history of landscape photography – including pictorial, conceptual, and documentary practices– we might more appropriately think of the clicks and cuts embraced in the sonic works of Oval, who exploit the limitations and fragility of seemingly stable digital media to flip the status of the glitch from nuisance to compositional tool. Or William Basinski’s “The Disintegration Loops,” (2002-2003) in which a set of tapes are played on repeat until their recording material disintegrates completely. As Basinski’s tapes progress and their materiality crumbles, their recorded sound also withers and fades, so that the literal fact of crumbling tape becomes the only sound, the only record, the only perceivable fact remaining.
That these literally “de-materialized” practices would seem more concomitant with Fraser’s than much image-making is no mistake. Clearly none of the aforementioned works are truly de-materialized, as they all rely heavily on image, word, recording, paper, and even packaging. In common however might be a “dumb” treatment of their material and the plain possibilities and limitations of its physicality. Fraser’s work does this through a direct focus on photographic film itself. Not to be mistaken for cinema or the cinematic, here photographic film is crucial for its designed function of capturing a moment in time, so that the introduction of a glitch – leaving the shutter open too long, taking multiple exposures per frame – erases our expectation of the static stability of photographic time and space, replacing it instead with everything that photographic memory typically omits: slips, decisions, repetitions, and a complete record of the time spent to make a single image. Just as the lengthy exposure required for Louis-Jacques Mandé Daguerre's Boulevard du Temple (1838) is recorded in the surreal length of shadows and the blurred motions of a shoe shiner, the fact of an image’s making and the duration required to render it become paramount, superseding whatever subject matter we might find within.
A photograph of the future must then also contain an abstraction of the past, and must consider this abstraction as potentially resembling what may be to come. A photograph of the future can only contain anticipation. Which is exactly what Fraser’s images do.