Photo/SynthesisJuly 28, 2010
While the quality of the exhibition’s individual pieces varies, “Photo/Synthesis” creates intriguing relationships between works and offers up a survey of conceptual photography. Currently on view at the de Young Museum, the modest-sized exhibition includes collages, installations, and other photo-based projects by a range of international and local artists from the 1960s to the present.
“Photo/Synthesis” elucidates the practice of merging multiple images, which can often render ideas or events more completely or complexly than a single photograph might. For instance, the works present a comprehensive understanding of time, exploring the long-term as a historical framework, while also ruminating on the short-term narratives created by a moment or situation. In addition, many of the artists position themselves as archivists, cataloguing their mediations on a particular subject matter—daily walks, parking lots, Icelandic or Hudson River landscapes, and the very collections of the deYoung and Legion of Honor. Implicitly, many of the works in Photo/Synthesis suggest that, through multiple images over varying amounts of time, the truth or essence of a subject can be revealed, at least momentarily.
In “Luncheon at the British Embassy, Tokyo, February 16, 1983” (1983), David Hockney defines the time frame of a meeting he attended by compiling 138 individual images into a single composition. Shot with varying perspectives and focal lengths, each of the photographs in “Luncheon…” indexes a particular moment as the subjects and photographer move throughout the meeting. “Luncheon…” reads on two levels; it highlights the individual photographs that construct the collage within the composition as a whole while bouncing the viewer back and forth between the specificity of a single moment and the collage’s larger narrative. Moreover, “Luncheon…” implicitly documents Hockey’s personal narrative as a witness and photographer at this meeting. In terms of concept and process, the collage is one of the most direct pieces in the show, and it nicely draws in those works that involve longer frameworks of time and more obscure imagery or processes.
Like Hockney, Nigel Poor uses multiple photographic images to explore time from a subjective perspective. With an 8 x 10-inch view camera, Poor straightforwardly documented the debris she found on daily walks while traveling through Jordan, Israel, San Francisco, and Piedmont in July 1998. Poor noted the date and location of the item with embossed lettering in the bottom corner of each of her thirty-one black and white photographs. Referencing the calendar, she installs these images in a grid of seven vertical columns and five horizontal rows. Because July 1, 1998 began on a Wednesday, the thirty-one days are justified to begin with the fourth column and end in the sixth, on Friday, July 31. In addition to playing nicely off of Hockey’s exploration of momentary time in ”Luncheon…” Poor’s conceptual strategy balances Olafur Elisson’s “The River Raft Series” (2007) and Ed Ruscha’s “Parking Lots” (1967/1999), which investigate cataloguing and typology through series of photographs of Icelandic landscape and parking lots, respectively. However, I found Poor’s individual black and white images of crumpled and worn metal, paper, and plastic street debris to be perhaps slightly mysterious, but still predictably nostalgic and precious.
In contrast, Ed Ruscha’s Every Building on Sunset Strip (1966) succeeds as a document of 1960s LA and a conceptually exciting investigation of typology and place. As the title indicates, Ruscha’s self-published accordion book documents every building on the north and south sides of Sunset Strip. The top row of upright images represents the buildings on the north side, while the upside-down images on the bottom row depict the south side. While the images at first appear code-like, the addition of address numbers and intersecting side streets gives the work a sense of scale and location. In “Photo/Synthesis” the book is presented upright and unfolded so that the beginning and end meet in a rounded rectangular form, highlighting its linear narrative. However, if flattened, Every Building... would operate as a photographic map.
While Every Building... explores urban landscape at a specific moment, “Panorama of Nob Hill from the Steps of Huntington Park, with Genthe’s 1906 view embedded” (2004), by Mark Klett and Michael Lundgren, brackets the urban landscape with two specific points in time: 1906 after the San Francisco earthquake and 2004. Klett and Lundgren have researched specific photographs, locations, or events and exactingly found the same location and vantage point in order to reshoot the images. In “Panorama of Nob Hill...” the image pans left to right from Grace Cathedral through Huntington Park, the Pacific Union Club, and across the street, finally ending with the Masonic Temple. In the center of the photo collage, Arnold Genthe’s 1906 image of the stairs to Huntington Park anchors the sequence of eleven images that construct the panorama. The images shift abruptly from a 1906 black and white photograph of the destruction of the earthquake to color images of the restored and modern developments of Nob Hill in 2004. In addition to highlighting the changes in the architectural landscape of Nob Hill, Klett and Lundgren’s work also confronts changes in the photographic medium, revealing the shift from black and white to color and the improved clarity of modern cameras versus those of the turn of the century. Their work demonstrates that a photograph can seduce one to participate imaginatively in the past, but can also jolt one into the present.
While Klett and Lundren’s work contrasts a specific historical moment with the present, Elliot Anderson explores the way that historical imagery has shaped our ideas of landscape. Anderson uses custom designed software to cull and “average” images from the Internet based on searches for the titles of Hudson River School paintings. For “Niagara” (2006), the software collected tourist snapshots of Niagara Falls and sutured them together to create a ghostly and slightly pixelated layered diptych. While the iconic falls are clearly evident at first, longer inspection reveals the many layers created from the assemblage and undermines viewers’ confidence in their initial recognition of the images.
The works in Photo/Synthesis bounce off each other in surprising ways and examine interesting relationships in photography, time, landscape, place, and events. As indicated by their use of lengthy and descriptive titles, many of the artists in “Photo/Synthesis” define their works with strategies that predetermine the scope and subject of their investigations. For these artists, the strategies that they used to develop the works in “Photo/Synthesis” defined larger bodies of work and shaped their greater art practices. “Photo/Synthesis” showcases these diverse strategies, offering a succinct sampling of conceptually-based photography that is accessible to the general public, but—with its many subtle and unexpected layers and relationships—remains thought provoking and engaging to more seasoned viewers as well.