4.9 / Review

The Unphotographable

By Lea Feinstein February 12, 2013

Jeffrey Fraenkel is a wizard. A photography dealer, collector, and curator, Fraenkel reveals his extraordinary gifts best in the themed collections he curates: works sourced from old and new masters, borrowed from collectors and other galleries, and rescued from obscure places. He suggests the connections between images, proposes unusual parallels, and often startles viewers. In an era of commercial one-liners and gimmicks, Fraenkel is not afraid to pose hefty philosophical questions. For instance: What is our place in the universe? How does the micro reflect the macro? The photographs Fraenkel displays, and his thoughtful installations of the images, offer both questions and answers.

In his current show, The Unphotographable, Fraenkel explores the work of photographers who ventured beyond depictions of concrete reality and tried to capture the ineffable: the mysteries of life and death, mental states, electromagnetic phenomena in nature, possible evidence of a spirit world, and God. In an essay for the catalogue, he acknowledges other exhibitions that probed similar themes, but he goes deeper.

The works on display in the first gallery might belong under a theme called “Approaching the divine.” Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalent (1931), a small print of the moon illuminating a cloud-studded sky, is steps away from Bruce Conner’s Angel Light (1975), a looming photogram that depicts a shaft of light and a radiant disc that scatters illuminated dust-like particles. Both images rely on diffuse, evanescent light that evokes the sacred. Gerhard Richter’s scraped strokes in September (2009)—his response to the events of September 11—echo the violent smears of light in Ralph Eugene Meatyard’s untitled image (ca. 1957) nearby. And who but Fraenkel would hang Malcolm W. Browne’s Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Dúc, June 11, 1963 (1963) in close proximity to Man Ray’s melting nude, Primacy of Matter over Thought (1929)? In both works, flesh dissolves, literally or metaphorically. Viewers may imagine the experience of burning alive and see the erotic nude transform into a depiction of human decay. Browne’s image challenges Ray’s, positing the inverse of Ray’s title—the primacy of thought over matter—when one’s values are tested and the physical body is sacrificed.

Fraenkel’s canny wit leavens this darkness with the inclusion of Swallowed Coin, Military Hospital, March 18, 1918 (1918), a French photographer’s print from an X-ray negative. A series of six images taken by an unknown technician, Oscilloscope Photographs Taken with One Sweep of the Scope (1963), viewed alongside Idris Khan’s Black Horizon (2012), are striking works of art. Both depict conventions of notation over time: in the technician’s series, rhythmic light waves indicate bodily process while Khan’s is a blacked-out musical score. Christian Marclay’s Silence (The Electric Chair) (2006), his quote from Warhol’s eponymous series, sets the somber tone for the room.


Wolfgang Tillmans. Mental Picture #97, 2001; unique chromogenic print; 20 x 16 inches. © Wolfgang Tillmans. Courtesy of the Artist and Andrea Rosen Galley, New York.


Christian Marclay. Silence (The Electric Chair), 2006; silkscreen ink on paper; 20.5 x 30 inches. Courtesy of the Artist and Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco.

The contents of the second gallery might be classified under “neuro-celestial.” Diane Arbus’s Blowing newspaper at a crossroads, N.Y.C., 1956 (1956) and Richard Misrach’s Untitled (Sandstorm) (1976) appear to be extraordinary depictions of intense inner states: depression or mania. In Wolfgang Tillmans’s Mental Picture #97 (2001), coiled links are punctuated by electrical bursts to create an artist’s version of a functional magnetic resonance image (fMRI) of brain activity. And across the room, Carl Wernicke’s Psychiatric Clinic in Wroclaw. Atlas of the Brain. First Division. Frontal Sections (1897), a faint, almost floral cross-section image of a brain, prefigures MRI images.

T. S. Eliot wrote in Four Quartets: “[The] dance along the artery/the circulation of the lymph/are figured in the drift of stars.”1 In his selections, Fraenkel similarly moves between the body and the heavens. Richard Learoyd’s Empty mirror (2012), a 48-by-48-inch camera obscura image of a large mirror reveals not blankness or reflection but craters and constellations in a vast empty space, an antique map of the night sky. Kota Ezawa’s lightbox, Lubbock Lights (2012), is a whimsical reference to the UFOs reported in that Texan city. An 1885 image by Pierre Jules César Janssen records sunspot activity while nearby, in Chris McCaw’s Heliograph #7 (2012), the moving sun’s light literally burns arcs into a negative. We as viewers are moved backward and forward in time, and between different experimental techniques, leading us to ask the question, “What is contemporary?”

Fraenkel often saves the last small gallery for the most outlandish or shocking images; in this show, his wall of what I would call “evidence” of occult phenomena is like a scrapbook for the Society for Research in Rapport and Telekinesis (SORRAT). A small photograph of the ghostly, merged images of a boy and girl, attributed to William Hope in the 1910s, bears Arthur Conan Doyle’s autograph. For much of his life, Doyle belonged to societies that conducted séances, inviting interaction with the spirit world. Was Doyle present at the visitation in the Hope photograph? Did he sign the photo for a fan of Sherlock Holmes? Amid rows of arcane subjects like this, and an image of a levitating tea tray, Fraenkel has placed Frederic Sommer’s famous 1946 portrait of the artist Max Ernst. The print is a double exposure that overlays Ernst’s image with that of a wooden barn door. The artist gazes out from a slat in the door, the texture of the battered wood suggesting streaks through the skin of his chest. Situated in this group, the portrait emphasizes Ernst’s reliance on the spirit world, on dreams and free association as the inspirations for his surrealist works.

Other stunning images in the gallery include Walead Beshty’s pair of oversize ink-jet prints, entitled LAX/SFO/PEK PEK/SFO/LAX (2011). Containing abstract zigzags in light and dark tones, they suggest not only flight paths but also the traveler’s delirium brought by spatial and temporal dislocation. In a digital print with text, Sophie Calle’s Autobiographies (The Obituary) (2012) records the events of her mother’s last day alongside an image of her mother’s toenails being painted. This extremely personal image of Calle’s mother reads like a detail from a painting of the deposition of Christ.     

Two striking photographs bookend the show. The final image in the last gallery, Glenn Ligon’s all-white He Tells Me I Am His Own (2005), echoes the first image in the first gallery, Adam Fuss’s black-on-black untitled photograph (1990). In the hymn that gives Ligon’s piece its title, the supplicant and master walk and talk together. In Fuss’s photograph, an indecipherable figure could describe a ghost or an angel. What to make of this? What lies beyond this life or depictions of this physical reality? “Look harder,” Fraenkel seems to say, “What does transcendence look like?”


The Unphotographable is on view at Fraenkel Gallery, in San Francisco, through March 23, 2013.


1. T. S. Eliot, “Burnt Norton,” Four Quartets (New York: Harcourt, 1943).

Comments ShowHide