Artists on Art: Vesna Pavlović on "Near-Documentary" Photography

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Christopher Williams, Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968, (Meiko laughing), Vancouver, B.C., April 6, 2005.
Christopher Williams, Kodak Three Point Reflection Guide, © 1968, Eastman Kodak Company, 1968, (Meiko laughing), Vancouver, B.C., April 6, 2005.

Of all the photographic work over the last couple of decades that has had a lasting impact on me, images by Christopher Williams and Jeff Wall deserve particular mention.
When I recently gave my collection of Artforum magazines to the art department at Vanderbilt University, where I teach, I found I could not part with the 2006 issue with a Williams piece on the cover. It is a photograph of a woman with her hair wrapped in a Kodak yellow towel, shot in the glossy and eye-catching style of advertising photography. The Kodak color chart is included as a reference in the image, uncovering elements of the photographic process. Even while the images made clear reference to photography and photographic technology, themes of the Christopher Williams’s work went well beyond these, including modernity and industrialization.
During graduate school, as I first started working with slide projectors, Williams’s investigation into obsolete technology inspired me. His stark representation of the Kiev 88 camera, shot from three different angles, was depicted monumentally with its objective point of view. The depiction of this Russian answer to the medium-format Hasselblad camera was curious and exemplary. I also saw Williams’s photographs in the exhibition  “For Example: Dix-Huit Leçons Sur La Société Industrielle” in 2006 at David Zwirner Gallery in New York.  The images in the exhibition were not tied to any specific theme. However, they all had what Joel Snyder recently called “technological utopianism of modernism” (Artforum, Summer 2014).
Christopher Williams, Model # 105M-R59C, Keystone Shower Door, 57.4 x 59” / Chrome / Raindrop, SKU # 109149, # 96235.970 – 084 000 (Meiko), Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, April 6, 2005; gelatin silver print, 16 by 20 inches.
Christopher Williams, Model # 105M-R59C, Keystone Shower Door, 57.4 x 59” / Chrome / Raindrop, SKU # 109149, # 96235.970 – 084 000 (Meiko), Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, April 6, 2005; gelatin silver print, 16 by 20 inches.

One of the images, shot in black and white, depicted a woman in a shower, with shampoo on her head. It resembled a Hitchcockian cinematic depiction, and its title—Model # 105M-R59C, Keystone Shower Door, 57.4 x 59” / Chrome / Raindrop, SKU # 109149, # 96235.970 – 084 000 (Meiko), Vancouver, B.C., Wednesday, April 6, 2005—sounded like a set of instructions. “The decisive moment always lies elsewhere, buried deep inside the backstory of a chosen subject or ricocheting among groupings of images within an exhibition,” wrote Bennet Simpson on the art of Christopher Williams in that 2006 issue of Artforum (“What Does the Jellyfish Want?”). This decisive moment, a modernist proposition for the photographic event, was expanded through the use of text in Christopher Williams’s photographs. Words of the often long and complicated titles provided hints about processes, places, and origins of objects. Looking beneath the text revealed an attempt to further complicate and challenge the traditional reading of the photographic image.
I first saw Jeff Wall’s photograph Milk displayed in an underpass in Kassel, Germany, as part of Documenta in 1997.  The image depicts a hunched-over male sitting on the sidewalk against a uniform brick background. The detail of the image, which grabs our attention, is a large splash of milk coming out of a gray bag that he is holding. What could have been a simple documentary image was a carefully constructed and staged photograph. Wall’s subject matter in the 1980s included political subjects suggestive of specific strata of society. He stages tableaux images that are shown on giant light boxes, a method of presentation that borrows from the advertising industry. His displays are “contemporary forms of non-spectacular dramatizations,” according to curator Catherine David in the Documenta Short Guide introduction. The illuminated screen further removed any thought of documentary representation, as did its unusual placement away from a gallery site and accessible to random passersby.
Jeff Wall, Milk, 1984; silver dye bleach transparency, aluminum light box, 6 by 8 feet by 8½ inches overall. Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York.
Jeff Wall, Milk, 1984; silver dye bleach transparency, aluminum light box, 6 by 8 feet by 8½ inches overall. Collection Museum of Modern Art, New York.

Having worked in the 1990s as a photojournalist in Serbia, seeing photographs at such a large scale and of mundane actions triggered a shift in perspective for me.  These images were “near-documentary,” to borrow the term often used in describing Jeff Wall’s work. They were also social commentaries presented beyond the traditional documentary format. When talking to my students about staged photography, we discuss Wall’s deliberate retention of lines where two transparencies meet each other in the image plane. Such details invite viewers to observe novel ways of constructing images.
The images of both artists operate between different genres. They defy casual interpretations and disrupt widely accepted ways of making and viewing images. They require renegotiation of our viewing habits and provoke questions. The influence of these artists is central to my artistic strategies.  This can be seen in my attempts to expand the photographic image beyond its frame and traditional format, to challenge the role of the photographer in production of images, and to contest the idea of the photographic moment.

Vesna Pavlović’s exhibition “Illuminated Archive” is at the Phillips Collection in Washington, D.C., through September 28.