Photography in the Time of Digital Disenchantment

Peggy Taylor Reid

From the late 20th century to today, the explosion of digital photography and its use in both social and mass media have changed the nature of taking and viewing photographs. With the saturation of images on both a commercial and individual level, there was in the beginning created, a sense of freedom and discovery. However, as technology progressed, the deluge of images became overwhelming. Skepticism crept in and questions about the photograph's role in a digital world were raised. The prevalence of digital manipulation has undermined our belief in the veracity of the photographic image. Today the question of authorship is no longer in the realm of object/subject but more on the circumstances and intentions of the photographer. This show includes the work of eight photographers whose work ranges across a timeline of historical photographic practices but with a link to the present understanding of photography in a time when we have started to gain some perspective on the digital revolution. The artists in this exhibition use both analogue and digital photography to convey multiple concepts associated with time and space, nature and culture, subject-object relations, memory and identity. Their images are determined by both the technologies they employ and the photographic choices they make.

     In the wake of recent popularization of the self-portrait on social media sites, it is refreshing to view the work of Elizabeth Siegfried. Her series "look" stems from her 25- year focus on self-portraiture. Her interest in self-portraiture grew out wanting to capture something about herself she did not know or see in the mirror. Her choice to use black and white is most certainly linked to her years of working in platinum printing. Although this new work is digitally printed it has the feeling and quality of her earlier platinum prints. Self-portraiture requires the artist to be both photographer and sitter, bringing the element of performance into the equation. Siegfried is aware of the performance element and in "look" we see it in the framing of the image. It is not always conventional and sections of her face may be outside the frame, sometimes at awkward angles. Her gaze towards or away from the camera acts as a film still and this draws us into the story. In "look" the story is about loss and acceptance. In much of Siegfried's work, we see this connection to the passage of time and place, be it physical or psychological.

     Place is an important part of Dianne Bos' work. She uses pinhole photography to capture her ethereal images of interiors. The pinhole camera is, at its roots, the most basic of photographic tools. It is a light-tight box with a pinhole at one end and light sensitive material placed opposite. The exposures for pinhole photographs are typically quite long, from 5 to 15 minutes. The beauty of these long exposures is that the light leaves behind a faint trace of any movement and people become ghostly trails or completely disappear. Bos writes "By using pinhole cameras and long exposure times I record, not an instant, but rather the passage of time at the site. This recognizes the importance I have assigned to time, memory and capturing the essence of place."  She also refers to these interiors as being a "malleable substance of darkness and light." The light in her photos bathes the interiors in a way that enhances their beauty and transports us as if into a dream.

     Virgina Mak's use of filtered light and soft focus also creates an image that feels dreamlike but is rooted in the elusive nature of memory. In Tai Nan Street, Mak creates scenes that are steeped in ambiguity. There are visual hints, here and there, where she chooses to allow the viewer a clear glimpse of the scene; but for the most part the details are hidden from us. We become unsure what we are looking at. The recognizable and ambiguous sections intersect like two memories colliding. Mak's use of printing techniques in Tai Nan Street harken back to the early history of shadow prints. In the darkroom, she prints the negative through rice paper thus obscuring some of the images in a hazy softness. Her choice to place the rice paper between the negative and the prints is reminiscent of how memories themselves are interleaved between time and place. In Room of One's Own, Mak photographs people immersed in light from the window. It is the quality of light and the soft focus that draw us to the figures in the photos. They are ghostly shadows whose gender is readily discernable. Mak deliberately constructs images that transcend objectivity, leading us to focus more on the intimate and reflective moment of the sitter. We are placed in the construction of gesture, place, and light to contemplate a manufactured space that reflects the act of an individual, who is both looking inward at her station, and outward at the opportunities beyond the window.

     These choices to construct images are also important in the work of Sarah Ann Johnson, and Osheen Harruthoonyan. In her Wonderlust series, Johnson finds the photograph at a loss to convey the essence of the experience of intimacy. In the work Puzzle Pieces Johnson fragments and re-constructs the surface of the image to get closer to the sensations we have when we are intimate with one another. It is in these manipulations that the photograph comes to life as an image we can feel and trust. Osheen Harruthoonyan's black and white, silver gelatin prints, from the series Saw the Splendor, are also rooted in surface manipulation but at the level of the negative. Harruthoonyan reworks his 4 X 5 inch negatives before he prints them. It is a process that lies in the alchemy of the wet darkroom. Here he transforms the film to create images that fluctuate between the cosmic and the microscopic. These images hover between two worlds, one we recognize and one we think we recognize. This shift of perception is at the heart of his love for creating images that masquerade as documents of the real and connect to his interest in memory, history, identity, and time.

     For Brea Souders, a simple act of cutting up her negatives in an attempt to dispose of them resulted in the discovery that spoke to her about the demise of film and the parallels to memory. Film fragments she was trying to place in the trash became stuck to an acetate sheet and refused to let go. She saw it as "a metaphor for film itself trying to hold on, literally." Her arrangements are formal figure/ground compositions where the fragments, often-recognizable pieces of the world, are shapes that float above the picture plane disconnected from time and place. On a poetic level they seem to act like fragments of memory, some of which fade away while others cling and persist.

     In Zach Nader's work, we see a direct connection to the uncertainty around digital photography that has developed in the image-saturated and mediated world we inhabit. His interest lies in finding a place for photography in an overly mediated world. Works in the series Counterweight began as family snapshots, which were then altered digitally to remove all traces of people. He intentionally uses the content aware fill tool to eliminate all the people from the photograph, but pushes the digital technology beyond its intended design. As a result, unexpected shifts in the patterns and colours of the photograph appear. These deliberate disturbances in the picture's plane and the video's narrative sequences speak directly to the nature of ‘digital intervention' and how ‘images are both created and consumed.'

     Robert Canali's sculptural pieces speak to the history of photography and how our perception of the traditional darkroom has changed. The enlarger presented in the exhibition has been carefully refurbished as "one would restore a classic car." Its placement on a marble base changes its purpose from a functional object to one of aesthetic beauty. The device used in the act of creating an aesthetic object has itself become the object of beauty. In the plexiglass vitrines, there are housed black plastic sleeves that were traditionally used to protect light sensitive material from exposure to light. In each vitrine one bag is presented, taped shut and containing a piece of exposed paper, sealed from the light and sealed from the viewer. We can only imagine what image or potential image might be revealed were it to be processed in the appropriate chemicals. Canali gives us a conceptual look at the performance and tools that are part of the workings of the darkroom. He also reminds us of the beauty and mystery inherent to photography in the pre-digital era.

     The eight artists in the exhibition all bring to their practice a deeper understanding of the complexities and diversity found in the photographic arts today. Their practices, very different in approach, are connected by a desire to weave an element of humanity into the photographic process.