The daily demands of living—work, school, care of self or others—may require posing. But in moments of leisure and repose, you can perhaps temporarily shed such self-consciousness. The pose may be loosened. The acting may cease. One might respond to the world—at the park, in the home, at a party— naturally, without affectation.
In the two-person show “Star-Quellers,” on view at Camayuhs in Atlanta through November 17, photographers Jill Frank and Adam Pape turn to parks, beaches, and front lawns to document people in such moments of rest. Yet Frank and Pape do not appear to aim at capturing the “naturalness” of a person unaware of eyes or a lens trained on them. Even as their subjects play, relax, and socialize in their informal environments, Frank and Pape frame them formally, lending them (or perhaps drawing out of them) a grandeur, intensity, or mystique which an amateur snapshot could not. Pape and Frank accomplish this through their careful camera-wielding and attention to lighting, but also inevitably through the way in which their subjects respond to the camera’s presence. Carry around a camera and people’s comportment, consciously or not, shifts. Both photographers react to this “problem” by embracing it.
Pape, a New York-based photographer and graduate of Yale’s MFA program in photography, does not just take photographs, he directs them. He arranges objects and lights deliberately, artfully, artificially, augmenting some apparent preexisting drama or generating narrative where none existed before. In the photograph Catch, a man and woman rest beside a body of water. The man fishes, his back facing the camera, while the woman, seated atop a rock, looks intently at an unseen object outside the frame. This image, like all Pape’s photos in “Star-Quellers,” is black-and-white, allowing viewers to pay particular attention to effects of lighting and texture. The light which falls upon the woman and her companion, allowing us see them in clear, crisp resolution, renders the unilluminated water before them more striking by contrast; the difference in shade between the recesses and peaks of the gentle waves is so slight as to remind one of an engraving upon a dark block of wood. In Pape’s photograph Stretch, a female figure does just that. Leaning on the wall of a bridge, she extends her right leg behind her, creating a ninety-degree angle with the left leg supporting her. Her body is formed into a spectacular T-shape. The functional act of stretching is thus transformed into an elegant, dance-like gesture through Pape’s precise centering of the figure and the almost-theatrical lighting cast upon her.
Theatrical lighting likewise makes another appearance in Night Picnic, a photo comprised of a constellation of gazes which do not meet. Two young couples lie on a picnic blanket. A young woman rests her head on a young man’s chest, while his eyes, hidden from sight, aim toward the sky. Behind them, another woman, resting easily with both her legs to one side, looks at her phone. Inches away from her, a man leans his crossed arms on his knees, looking moodily, or uninterestedly, or expectantly, at the woman before him. (The exact nature of his gaze oscillates indefinitely, remaining ultimately ambiguous). The picture resounds with unresolved tension that is unavoidably felt by the viewer, who may seek to elucidate why, for example, even as one woman’s body language conveys affection, her eyes are wary, skeptical, and uncertain.
The work of Jill Frank, an Atlanta-based photographer who studied with the celebrated Stephen Shore as an undergraduate at Bard College, has long amplified the performative behavior which a camera conjures by using a large-format camera. Frank’s bulky Linhof Technika, looking more complicated and worthy of attention than a DSLR, may prompt her subjects to behave as they think they “ought to” in the face of an impressive apparatus. In recent years, she has documented the party and post-party happenings of young adults, inflecting scenes typically relegated to Instagram or the walls of dorm rooms with a rare level of care and deliberateness.
Two photos forming a before-and-after diptych, Guy Vaping, appear to share the sensibility of Frank’s party images. You can guess what the subject matter entails. In the first photo, the vaper’s upper half is positioned to the right of the frame, while the vape smoke he has just exhaled occupies the center-left. The smoke is thick, milky, cloud-like, and filled with the same light that makes the figure’s face so clear. In the second photo, the smoke hangs diffusely around the figure at the center of the image. The vaper looks upon his vapor with the narrow eyes of a seer gazing upon profundities.
This is a strange photo. Its high resolution, clarity, and the cool intensity of the subject’s gaze suggest it could serve as a glossy advertisement for a lifestyle brand. But perhaps the most satisfying interpretation of the photo is that we see, via Frank’s composition, how this figure envisions himself, or wishes to be seen: aloof, self-possessed, the twenty-first-century analogue to the Marlboro Man with a cigarette dangling loosely between his lips. Frank’s title, however, implies a further degree of casualness, presenting the subject simply as a “vaping guy.” Rather than ironically deriding her subject, this rather general title highlights, by contrast, the composed nature of the image. Although the photo’s sleekness recalls advertising, a marketing or branding photo aims to occlude the artifice behind the production of an image, not reveal it. A shirt, a car, or a vape pen diminish in desirability as soon as we realize how much of their appeal is extrinsically generated by careful lightning, digital effects, and makeup. By calling attention to the constructedness of the photo, Frank avoids the unintentionally insidious effects of supposedly “naturalist” or “realist” photography (prominently visible in the “Humans of New York” photo project): projecting or assuming the existence of a universal reality by not acknowledging the artifice behind an image.
The four photographs comprising Frank’s series Girl Jumping for Ball, showing a woman on a beach catching a football with outstretched arms, transform an act of play into something glorious, like Pape’s Stretch or Propel (in which he depicts a gymnast hovering gracefully mid-flip). The beauty of Girl Jumping stems not only from the wondrous image of a figure appearing to hover in the air, clinging to a football as if it were attached to the heavens by an invisible string, but also from the pinkish light blurrily suffusing the image, almost suggesting spiritual as well as physical activity.
During photography’s nascence, Walter Benjamin, the German cultural critic of modernity, described how the very notion of producing a lifelike image inspired indignation. According to Benjamin in his “Little History of Photography,” a German newspaper claimed in 1839 that “[to] try to capture fleeting mirror images is not just an impossible undertaking [but] the very wish to do such a thing is blasphemous. Man is made in the image of God, and God’s image cannot be captured by any machine of human devising.” At their best, Pape and Frank achieve something that would make those early reactionaries roll in their graves: they capture divinity in the commonplace.
“Star-Quellers” is on view at Camayuhs through November 17. The gallery is open by appointment only.