“But, Is it Photography?,” on view through tomorrow, October 30, at the Swan Coach House Gallery, features works made with a range of artistic processes by five Atlanta area photographers whose material experimentations can be traced back to the 1970s. Works of this type were seen in “New Photography” at the Museum of Modern Art (2009) and “What is a Photograph” at the International Center of Photography (2014).
Spencer Sloan, whose work “explores the obsession with celebrity culture and ownership of images,” digitally manipulates images into graphic abstractions to create large-scale prints. Titles such as Amanda Seyfried — departs at LAX Airport 1/21/13 1 clue us in to the source image, but otherwise the work does little but brush up against the obsession with celebrity culture.
Also working with abstraction, Ryan Nabulsi scans Polaroid film that has never been run through the camera. Instead, he manipulates the chemicals that reside inside that white strip at the bottom of a Polaroid print. The result is an abstract image full of warm-hued color that spills across the frame. To hint at the process — or perhaps beat you over the head — Nabulsi has retained the Polaroid format, white border and all. The prints suggest the mechanical reproduction of photography more than an “exploration” of materiality that would open up the conversation of photography as object.
For her series Things on Paper, Angela West made large-scale photographs of her children’s drawings, and “free fall ” abstractions made from negatives shot previously by West when learning to use a view camera. The children’s drawings look unabashedly photographic and slick, reinforcing the notion that we are looking at copies, not original marks. Her West’s proficiency behind the camera is apparent in these works, although their inclusion in this show seems out of place. Her abstract pieces have her out of her element and she seems to be on unsure footing. The black and white compositions read as landscapes, and when set in traditional picture framing do little to disrupt their reading as photographs.
The works that seem furthest from the photographic realm are those of Nakita Duncan. In her Fractal pieces, layers of acrylic with minimal drawn organic shapes, are stacked and viewed as a single flattened piece. The visual is far from image oriented, but the presentation recalls the layering process in Photoshop and the aspect ratio of a 35mm frame. There are two smaller pieces in frames situated on columns, which provide an awkward viewing angle, and a larger more intriguing piece suspended with wire and shown without a frame, which reveals the layers not easily seen in the smaller framed pieces but is lit in a way that diminishes the subtle magnetism of the work.
The standout pieces are modest 8-by-10 works by Christina Price-Washington. Light in Purse #7 and Light in Purse #10 , which she made by placing folded light sensitive paper in her purse and carrying it around as she went about her daily life. The folds are evidence of an action, tapping into the basic function of a camera to document, and by presenting the actual paper instead of a copy, the work retains its “thingness.” The small size and uniqueness of the original object prevent the pieces from straying into a mode of overcompensating with large scale prints, which happens often with artists working abstractly with photography.
The works in “But Is It Photography?” try their hardest to show the hand of the artist in an attempt to remind us of that which we already know, that photographers are artists too.