Photography is Magic

Printed Matters

Photography is Magic

By Roula Seikaly November 11, 2015

From artists' monographs to beach reads, "Printed Matters" offers a monthly take by a rotating group of contributors on visual art through the printed word.

Photography Is Magic, the latest publication by curator and author Charlotte Cotton, explores photography as a path to the imaginative in the minds of viewers. She considers more than eighty bodies of work, the bulk of which were produced after 2010, from the perspective of close-up magic, as a way to conceptually link a variety of contemporary practices and think through how they complicate and further enrich the image-dense moment in which we live.

Jessica Eaton. Cfaal 340, 2013. Archival pigment print. Courtesy of M+B Gallery, Los Angeles.

Also known as “micromagic” and “table magic,” close-up magic is performed at a distance of no more than ten feet from the audience. Unlike illusionistic magic, the kind performed by Harry Houdini or the duo Penn and Teller that takes place on a stage before large audiences, close-up magic is more immediate. (Think of street performers who, with playing cards or shells and a green baize-topped table, draw us into the arena of play through perfected sleight of hand). Table magic works off of the audience’s faith in their own capacity for observation versus the physiological limits of perception; we know, or think we know, under which cup the ball is hiding or which card is the one we chose while watching the magician’s deft movements. Sequences of movement may appear identical to our eyes, but they are often the result of multiple sleights of hand performed at speeds faster than our vision can track. We willingly suspend disbelief, if only for the duration of the performance. It’s in that suspended state, where our imagination is activated, that the real magic takes place. It’s in a similarly open or suggestive state, Cotton argues, that the photographic practices she highlights—including “traditional” inkjet and C-prints and laser-cut images mounted to aluminum or wood and presented as sculptural objects—can be best appreciated.

Cotton, who has authored numerous texts, including the influential The Photograph as Contemporary Art (2004), and founded the platforms Words Without Pictures and, regards curatorial work as an opportunity to “do creative things for other people”.1 That position is beautifully realized in this volume, which prioritizes creative practices (in image and through statements penned by each of the featured artists) and invites attentive, open-minded looking on the reader’s part. Cotton collaborated with Harsh Patel, a respected independent graphic designer based in Los Angeles and whom Cotton praises as co-author in the acknowledgements, to organize the book. Describing his approach to designing Photography Is Magic, Patel notes that the project was an exercise in reshaping his own attitudes toward technology, photographic and otherwise.2 After trading rounds of proposed image sequences, Cotton and Patel produced a lush layout that reveals each body of work and minimizes false juxtapositions between respective styles or processes. 

Kate Steciw. Composition 008, 2014. C-print, Plexiglass, wood, mixed media. Courtesy Neumeister Bar-Am, Berlin.

Cotton explains that each generation of magicians reconceives their tricks, respecting the origins of their craft, yet updating maneuvers for contemporary audiences. Likewise, the photographs presented in this volume represent similar acknowledgement of foundational practices in formalism, abstraction, and appropriation that are riffed on for contemporary audiences. Annie MacDonell’s untitled piece from the series Flatness, Light, Black & White (2013), which the artist describes as “an attempt to chart the formal properties of the image in the digital age,"3 is one of a small group of black-and-white photographic series tucked into an otherwise near-Technicolor array of images. MacDonell works in real time, spending hours photographing on the street or on location. The documentary aspect of her work is evident in minor details such as a handle or hinge on a door, but the details of space or place are not the subject. Instead the subject is the surface, where our eyes move without hindrance over composite images to absorb visual information, much like they move over the multiple screens we use every day. Jessica Eaton experiments with colors and geometric shapes in her Cubes for Albers and LeWitt series (2010–present), which honors both Josef Albers’ Homage to the Square series of paintings (1950–1975) and Sol LeWitt’s three-dimensional structures. Eaton starts by building and painting the cubes gray, and then photographs the cubes using the same negative but with different colored filters over the lens. The results are images that could easily have been created using computer software, but are in fact the product of a manual manipulation.

Annie MacDonell. Untitled, from the series Flatness, Light, Black & White, 2013. Inkjet print. Courtesy Katharine Mulherin Contemporary Art, New York and Toronto.

Reviewing Photography Is Magic for the online platform American Suburb X, Daniel C. Blight’s criticism is blunt, calling the organizing premise of close-up magic “lazy” and dismissing the balance of the assembled works as catering only to contemporary tastes. To a degree, Blight’s remarks are merited. He rightly argues that by omitting the supernatural from her definition of magic, Cotton jettisons photography’s strong role in the Western spiritualism movement of the late 19th century, undercutting both her critical position and the broader relationship of photography to magic. He also questions Cotton’s motives in assembling a coffee-table-style book when, as she writes in the introductory essay, canonization as represented by such a large volume is not the goal of the project.

Blight’s critique is not without its blind spots. Arguing that the book’s entire premise is “empty” fails to acknowledge the breadth of contextualizing sources, revealed in the copious footnotes enumerated in Cotton’s essay, that represent current critical texts and the cross section of disciplines from which they stem that address technology and the age of the image in which we live. What Cotton and the selected artists wrestle with, and Patel strives to visualize through layout choices, are modes of production and consumption under what reads as almost minute-by-minute terms, taking stock of and contributing to a visual moment shaped almost entirely by the internet and social media. Finally, Blight’s reduction of the creative practices displayed in Photography Is Magic to “new primitivism” is unfounded. The phrase suggests that these artists seek an alternative to the leaps in photographic production enabled by software and other technological developments, one found in casual, retrospective, cherry-picked historic photographic processes applied anew. In fact, the featured artists are rigorous in their research and experimentation with both historic techniques and current technologies. Through their work, we are witness to the imaginative possibilities that emerge and the juncture of analog and digital.

Asha Schechter, Picture 049 (Cardboard Box, Autumn Leaf Red, Funky Monkeys), 2013. C-print. Courtesy of the artist.

Photography Is Magic is the photography book of 2015. In their collaboration, Cotton, Patel, and the artists whose work they they’ve chosen to focus on step confidently into evolving discussions of pixel-based software, digital capture, and 3D rendering as emerging media in their own right, as well as the materiality of photography, and the systems into and for which images are produced and consumed. Photography Is Magic privileges ideas and experimentation over perfect technique. The book, like the practices it highlights, is a thoughtful and timely response to technological leaps that don’t often afford measured consideration. As readers, we’re welcomed into the book’s color-saturated world and encouraged to let our minds wander over and through the images. At a time when collective attention spans are woefully short, spurring and encouraging dedicated attention may itself be Photography Is Magic’s most accomplished magic trick of all.

Photography is Magic, by Charlotte Cotton. Aperture, 2015.


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  1. Nina Strand. “Charlotte Cotton on Her Brand-New Book Photography Is Magic.” Objektiv, July 15, 2014,
  2. Harsh Patel (personal communication, November 1, 2015)
  3. Annie MacDonell, “Flatness, Light, Black & White,” Accessed October 20, 2015,

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