Photography is a great dumping ground of sentimental clichés. Lovebirds, autumn leaves, maternity-ward prune-faces, sublime mountain streams, birthday antics... Fill in the list. Grand illusion-maker that it is, and connoisseur of the uncanny, photography is also culture’s coyote, the mischievous or brutal prankster that shatters precious conceits. Next time we lose ourselves in the infinitude of the night sky and consider how those magnitudes make human affairs seem petty and inconsequential, we’ll have to reckon a little differently if we’ve seen Trevor Paglen’s photographs, which remind us we’re being constantly watched, and that when we lose ourselves in the stars, we’re losing ourselves, really, to our own technological nosiness. Using information from amateur astronomers and night-sky photographers, Paglen has made a series of images of the over 200 surveillance satellites that spy on our lives. One of Paglen’s pictures dizzies the eye with hundreds of wiry concentric orbits, one of which conceals an eye in the sky. Another is a dust storm of thousands of celestial bodies, those points of light we lazily take to be “timeless,” though more than a few of them were Made in the U.S.A. The photos don’t just redefine outer space, they turn it into an inner space of secret data. They rub our noses against what Paglen calls “the secret corners of the American state” and are evidence that we’ve politicized the cosmos.
Paglen is one of 22 California photographers (selected from nearly a hundred invitees) represented in a juried exhibition at the Museum of Photographic Arts, and while it’s specific to California image-makers, State of Mind isn’t specific to California. It samples photographic practices you’ll find around the globe, from astronomical imagery to straight-up social realism; from deadpan theatricality to micro-assemblage. One constant since photography’s inception is that its practitioners are often as engaged by the mechanics of image-making as by image content, though the technical explorations themselves open up new ways of revisiting the past. Consider Claudia Kunin (like others in the exhibition, she’s been a noteworthy presence for at least ten years), who grew up fascinated by her father’s old 3-D camera. Stereo pictures remind us that our binocular vision creates a depth of field that consciousness normally foreshortens; 3-D dilates and exaggerates depth of field, which is why 3-D, from House of Wax and Avatar to Kunin’s family-album enchantments, feels so uncanny and teases our wits. Kunin harmonizes her father’s stereo archive with her own pictures, which feature her and her mother in landscapes real and imagined. 3-D’s glassy depths and the Kunins’ anachronistic imagery make time slither and skip: present and past elide, and human relatedness seems a floating, half-perceived, half-imagined world airy with hope and unknowing.
Photography-as-chemistry-set-inventiveness also results in goofy, hilarious falsification. A particular way of developing a print can create an illusion of a certain time. The 19th Century wet collodion process, which involved coating glass plates with light-sensitive chemicals, bequeathed us sober, sepia-toned, occasionally smoggy imagery. Stephen Berkman, using the same process, brings a daffy SNL humor to his staged scene of five frock-coated, senatorially serious gentlemen who look primed to orate but who in fact compose, the title tells us, a Mute Debating Society. (An even more serious-looking timekeeper stands by.) And his Fraternal Furriers features a pair of entrepreneurs heavily mantled with sable, mink, and fox pelts, standing either side of a fur-strewn dresser. The furriers, whose identical haircuts look like roadkill modeled to resemble sartorial topiary, stand like worshippers at that altar of fashionable animal byproducts. Berkman is a performer-provocateur. He plays off the historical sobriety of “antiqued” methods against contents that send up cultural seriousness, and we’re the beneficiaries of his hip, zany inventions.
We like to think that photography loves and pursues stopped time, but it’s just as obsessed with time’s velocity and the smeary speed of things passing through (or into) time. Every photo is an effort to free ourselves from being hostages to fortune and a small act of despair at ever being truly freed. Liza Ryan took a photograph similar to the kind we’ve all taken: Scene Unseen is a shot of forestland viewed from a train window. While the eye registers the millions of discrete nano-instants that compose the briefest moment, what we actually see is the disarticulated streaming of forms and colors. It’s a fair analogue to the streaming operations of consciousness. In Ryan’s image, razor-edged green and brown streaks zip horizontally like nature’s staves. The image enacts the extreme brevity and unrepeatable momentariness of everything in nature. It’s a postmodern Impressionist flash.
Todd Hido is best known for velvety nocturnes of nondescript suburban yards and houses lit to seem Halloween-creepy. His land-bound eavesdropping imagery (distant cousin to Paglen’s outer-space snoopings) has an excruciatingly spooky stillness. Hido’s next move was, I suppose, obvious. He would move. In recent years he’s been taking pictures of backcountry byways through his car’s windshield. His pictures in State of Mind, wrapped in slushy atmospheres, are reduced almost to monochromes save for the occasional redemptive headlight or traffic signal. Isolation and endlessness never looked so lush. Weather conditions and the car’s motion create a phantasmal squeegee scrim, as if the landscapes have been troweled by time. Good artists are nearly always dialoguing with predecessors, and Hido’s pictures double up. They don’t just remodel the on-the-road armature of Robert Frank’s game-changing 1955–56 photo-essay, The Americans, they also extend Frank’s 1958 series of pictures he snapped while riding New York buses. This kind of photographic conversation not only enriches (and complicates) the medium, it reminds us that the truth of the evidence any photo proposes (whether it’s by Frank, Hido, or your aunt Hildegard) is determined by a vagrant, speculative subjectivity.
We don’t just inhabit culture, we are culture. And photography is, among other things, a merciless inquiry into ourselves as cultural products and cultural beings. As cultural products we can be a bad bunch indeed, to judge from Ken Gonzales-Day’s Erased Lynching Series, where the photographer replicates vintage photos and postcards of lynchings but effaces the victims. We see the attending impassive or gawking or triumphant faces grotesquely deprived of an occasion for their affect. One Gonzales-Day piece replicates a different kind of historical inconclusiveness (of a most conclusive activity) by presenting not a photo but only a postcard’s inscription: “This is what he got.” As for the human being as a culture “site,” see Susan Anderson’s morally rattling portfolio of children’s beauty pageant contestants, which before anything else recall the excruciating uncertainty of the JonBenét Ramsey murder investigation and its poisonous media storm. Photography is species memory: it remembers on our behalf not just cornpone happiness but also the worst of the worst. I’ve never been close enough to the world of beauty competitions to speculate on whatever lies behind the grotesque, twisted dramatization of a child’s identity to suit the glitzy dreams of their mothers, though I suppose there’s plenty of bourgeois normalcy behind the showbiz hoo-ha. Anderson’s images jack up the jewelry-box glamour imposed on these kids and tweak our assumptions about childhood innocence. Anti-innocence isn’t a feral, cave-children condition, it’s this exaggerated pretty-in-pink artifice of contented perfection. These four- and seven-year-olds are dolled up in high-keyed colors, mostly burning reds and baby pinks — red for hot sex, pink for feminine frailty. Each girl is a canned ideal: there’s the pert and pretty flirt in a lime-trimmed miniskirt and white go-go boots; another is a kiddy-fied Baywatch babe; the one African-American — another era would call her “a dusky enchantress” — wears a coyly brooding, holder-of-dark-secrets look. Of the many fine images in the exhibition, these are the hardest to look away from. I felt shamed to be enthralled by something so near abomination playing it so cute.
State of Mind: A California Invitational
Museum of Photographic Arts, 1649 El Prado, Balboa Park
Through Sunday, June 6. For additional information, call 619-238-7559.