Don’t expect to see beautiful photographs in elegant frames of landscape or portraiture when you enter the College of New Jersey’s art gallery. Don’t expect to see work done in the tradition of classic photographers such as Ansel Adams or George Tice. But do expect to see work that has pushed and extended beyond the boundaries of what is called a photograph. And do expect to be challenged by the very notion of what photography is.
The exhibit, “An Unfixed Image: The Photographic Across Media,” on view through Sunday, April 26, features the work of nine artists: Lothar Hempel, Leslie Hewitt, Elad Lassry, Marlo Pascual, Eileen Quinlan, Mariah Robertson, John Stezaker, Sara VanDerBeek, and Letha Wilson. They “create works that engage a porous relationship between analog and digital practices while raising crucial questions about visual strategies and the materiality of the photographic image,” notes gallery material. “Working with diverse methods and materials, these works reflect and destabilize photography’s ubiquity.”
To explain this further, their work explores issues of contemporary photographic practices, image making, and photography. In many cases, photography depended on reproducing an image composed in a viewfinder and exposed on film.
Now, in the digital age, it is called image capture, converted into a series of ones and zeros, measured in pixels and gigabytes in a digital camera. It is in this exhibit that the image exists outside the frame, not as a two-dimensional image but as a three-dimensional object.
Anita Allyn is the exhibition curator and the coordinator of fine arts and lens-based arts at TCNJ. She previously commuted from Philadelphia for 14 years before recently moving to Ewing with her husband and dog. Since her father was a photographer and historian, she sees her photography as having a dialogue with him in the way he thought photography should be and the way she thinks about it. Her mother, a librarian, was politically active — another influence on her thinking.
In the catalog’s introduction to the exhibit Allyn writes, “Two organizing principles of the exhibition are the use of found imagery and the idea of the studio as a site of engagement.” The artists in this exhibition “mine from our collective image banks to create their works. These artists source found photographic imagery while calling attention to the images as objects. They share mutual strategies, but there are also significant distinctions.”
The idea for the exhibit came from her own practice as a photographer whose work was becoming more and more installational as it started to include objects. “That led me to want to understand and investigate what I was also seeing in exhibitions with other artists who were primarily photo-based but were extending the boundaries.”
The show is a mix of approaches including photography, sculpture, painting, and found objects. The artists are each working with different kinds of materials but are using photography as a point of departure or engagement. The visual strategies are different and the conclusions define the terms. The found objects used in the creations include a wide range of materials, processes, and experiments.
“What I was surprised to find out in my research is how long this practice has been going on and that artists had been working with photographic materials and media and trying to extend it beyond the page for over 40 years. So I think that is one part of the continuum as a practice,” says Allyn. She also alludes to remarks by the panel held before the opening of the exhibition with Corey Dzenko, an assistant professor from Monmouth University, and Josh Brilliant, education coordinator at the Philadelphia Photo Arts Center. “I also think, as Corey said, ‘our physical relationship to photographs as objects has changed throughout time.’”
As an example family photographs were placed above fireplace mantels or on bookcases or in wallets. Now photos exist as digital images on phones and computers. The interaction between image and object has also changed. As Dzenko said, “We can think further about how these various forms of materiality continue today. In all these forms and even in the most celebrated modernist prints, the materially and object hood of the photograph matters. Not only does it give us a support material to the photographic image, it can also greatly impact our understanding and use of said image.” Allyn adds that she is excited to see that physicality and potential can reignite interest in the physical object.
To viewers who visit the gallery, the question is “Why would this work be considered photography?” To that she says, “All the artists who are showing work have spent their careers exploring photography in conjunction with other materials. I think they have a real sensitivity and sensibility that is very much about light, form weight, frame, even though they extend beyond the single image.”
There is an intersection of object and image. “The goal is to make people excited about possibilities” and “to show there is a pluralism of approach and that there’s not just one canon and to make people really excited about possibilities.”
The big ideas are about image. The question remains as to when a photograph is an image. When is a photograph a photograph? When is an image an object? Can a photograph be an image without having object-hood? What are contemporary artists doing to engage in questions about how the photographic image has embodiment? The exhibit challenges viewers on all of those fronts.
Allyn cites three of the artists — Letha Wilson, Leslie Hewitt, and Eileen Quinlan — as examples of artists who work closely in their studio with their materials and have a physical relationship to the process, much like an analog photographer would work in the darkroom. “There’s a physicality and time that’s required, and alone time for the artist in their space to respond to the work.”
In a related essay Allyn describes the practice of each artist. Leslie Hewitt’s work leans against the wall, which in some ways makes it more of a physical object. All of the work is done on a table top in her studio, where all the vignettes and tableaus are set up and shot.
Eileen Quinlan constructs still lives of material objects and abstracts them through lighting and mirrors. With the use of medium and large format cameras, studio strobes, and black-and-white Polaroid film, she achieves a passive model of production and an active intervention as she manipulates the surface of the film with steel wood.
Letha Wilson prints her own color landscapes and then folds, cuts, and casts the images to integrate with sheetrock, concrete, and cement. The results are an emulsion transfer shifting the image from the print to the concrete surface.
As a take away from the exhibit she wants the audience “to be excited both with photographic images, to be excited with their physicality, to be excited about possibilities of what you can put together. I hope the end result is a level of excitement even if you don’t understand what the work is about, that it raises your curiosity and makes you want to find out more.”
An Unfixed Image: The Photographic Across Media, College of New Jersey Art and Interactive Multimedia Building, 2000 Pennington Road, Ewing. Through Sunday, April 26. Gallery hours Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays, noon to 7 p.m., Sundays 1 to 3 p.m. Free. tcnj.edu/artgallery or 609-771-2633.