Haunting the Chapel: Photography and Dissolution
Daniel Blau Gallery, London
1 September - 6 October 2011
At its invention, photography was considered otherworldly: the stuff of ghosts. The spirit photographs of the late nineteenth century exemplified this impression of the ethereal, as haunting figures were made to appear within portraits after the discovery in the 1860s of the effects of double exposure by William Mumler. ‘Haunting the Chapel: Photography and Dissolution’ exposes these spirits of photography through a cross-century selection of altered, or altering, images. Besides original examples of spirit photography - including one of Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote a pamphlet defending the veracity of the medium - the exhibition features x-ray images, photograms, silver prints and cyanotypes, documenting as much the dissolution involved in photography’s very processes as the disintegrating nature of its subjects.
The skeleton of a building on the ‘Rue du Bac’ sits between decay and demolition. Nadar’s ‘Foyer of the Paris Opera after Burning in 1884’ is deserted and still; elsewhere an anonymous building is licked with flames. There are Gothic cathedral exteriors and ornate, but empty interiors. A dilapidated stairwell from 1870 disorients like Escher, with unperceivable depths. The intricacies of a ‘Mandalay Palace’ (c. 1890) are eaten away by black patterns. Ancient gardens tangled with plants and palms appear in the travel photography of Emile Gsell (1838 - 1879), the first to represent on film the temples of Vietnam and Cambodia. Architectural juxtaposition occurs between a silver print of New York’s 1920s skyline and black and white vernacular images of rural farms, or the bunker-like dwellings of volcanic ‘Stromboli’. U.S. Army aerial shots show the gridded city lights of 'Toyama, Honshu’, or the spiralling smoke of an Oil Refinery that has just exploded. These last images are haunting for their purpose in recording, their documentation of destruction, which appears, from a distance, abstracted.
Such pieces of early photography sit alongside more recent works - a freckled portrait of Berenice Abbott by Walker Evans, or a Chris Marker still in which the side of a man’s face on roadside concrete is cut diagonally by a falling jet of water. But it is the early specimens, often anonymous, that are mysteriously compelling--discovered, you imagine, upon abandoned desks. The exhibition represents that which is about to be lost, or those who already have been, teetering on the point of disappearance, knocking at the door of the atrocious or the alienated, holding the hand of the fragile. The curators have chosen to frame the exhibition a quote from Borges's ‘The Immortal’: ‘They are moving because of their phantom condition; every act they execute may be their last; there is not a face that is not on the verge of dissolving like a face in a dream’. With the long exposure times of photography’s early technologies, bodies in Italian piazzas or French town squares have become almost-extinguished silhouettes. Kinetic blur jolts the just-frozen moment, and the fall of the shutter fails to quite capture the movement of figures in time.