4.13 / Review

From Chicago: John Neff

By Randall Miller April 9, 2013

The metamorphosis of photography from traditional film to digital technology has been marked by a handful of poignant moments. One notable milestone was the 2008 demise of Polaroid’s instant film. Polaroid snapshots were more than just pictures; the instantaneous exposures, the soft edges of objects depicted within the images, and the preciousness of the petite photos captured an image of reality that resembled both the vividness of human memory and its instability. Something about these pictures always looks old, distant, familiar, and uncanny all at once. These instant cameras were democratic—inexpensive and simple to use—allowing the Polaroid aesthetic to achieve worldwide ubiquity and forge a language of nostalgia for the collective conscious.

John Neff has found his own way to emulate instant film’s hazy and slightly distressed version of reality by using a homemade camera assembled from a digital scanner and an old Kodak. Fifty-eight of his photographs made with this technology are currently on view at the Renaissance Society. The images vary widely in terms of their ability to absorb viewers, perhaps the consequence of the mission implied by the artist’s titling system: all the pictures in the show are named with the date they were taken, suggesting they are part of Neff’s effort to create a visual diary. Horizontal scanner lines across the images reveal the mechanical processes that gave them form. Combined with the dark-toned black-and-white exposures, they make the photographs appear somewhat removed from their subjects. Neff’s images are at once imprecise and, in the way they mimic the obfuscations of memory, a true representation of reality.

It would be easy to focus on the conceptual trappings of the artist’s DIY process, but Neff’s subject matter demands at least equal attention; revealed within the fruits of his process is the evidence of one man’s subjectivity documented over the course of twenty months. Viewers can witness a vast array of subjects that Neff took interest in during that time: the posture of a man in a chair, the debris inside a bathroom wastebasket, a dirty old sock, clouds. And while the contents of Neff’s images seem dispersed when viewed together, possessing a certain point-and-click immediacy, their stillness suggests that some staging was required to allow the scanner time to record an image.


John Neff. 6/10/2012, 2012; coated archival inkjet print on Epson exhibition fiber paper; 16.25 x 13.25 in. (framed). Courtesy of the Artist and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.



John Neff. 2/27/2011, 2011; coated archival inkjet print on Epson exhibition fiber paper; 16.25 x 13.25 in. (framed). Courtesy of the Artist and the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago.

Recurring themes emerge from this accumulation of images: partially nude young men in beds or on couches, outdoor spaces virtually devoid of human presence, and everyday objects presented in tight compositions. In the wake of 1990s identity politics, it can’t plausibly be argued that pictures of confident young men in sexual situations, such as those seen in 7/9/11 and 9/6/11, expose a hidden social reality. Nor could Neff’s images of outdoor scenes, like the curved road and barren trees depicted in 3/23/12 or the crowded beach shot through the screened window of a high-rise building in 5/8/11, be categorized simply as landscapes. Neff’s pictures are not those of a commentator or a documentarian but of a romantic voyeur with a subjective gaze. As in a Polaroid, every image seems etched with the photographer’s aura. The relatively small print sizes—each surrounded by black matte borders within 16.25 x 13.25 inch frames—support this sense of intimacy, both physically and psychologically. Their smallness draws you in, revealing their details up close.

In addition to the aforementioned horizontal lines, one of the quirks of Neff’s scanner camera is the formation of black marks in several of the photos. In some cases, these happy accidents take up half of the pictures, creating ominous shadow presences that are both creepy and seductive. A flower pictured in 2/27/11 appears to be desperately reaching toward a large void, resembling plants whose leaves grow oriented toward the sunlight. The fact that the clipped stem of the flower is resting in a glass of water on a kitchen table accentuates this highly symbolic image of longing and mortality. In other images, the black spaces read like ghosts or silhouettes, reinforcing the duality between absence and presence. 

While Nan Goldin’s photographs are an obvious touchstone, Neff’s pictures also share the evocative sensibility of German expressionist painters at the turn of the twentieth century. His work plays with old and new, offering subjective truths filtered through the very modern conventions of photographic memory and cultural nostalgia.


John Neff is on view at the Renaissance Society at the University of Chicago through April 14, 2013.

Comments ShowHide