Photography’s relationship to time is arguably its greatest puzzle and source of fascination – the inconstant ways that photographs cause us to imagine time, and challenge our perception of time. Specifically, there are two aspects of time that photographs commonly present to us. Most notably, the photographic illusion sets forth an encounter with instants. The visualized instant is more conceptual than empirical. The photographic instant is a temporal duration so short as to be almost imperceptible but not quite lost to consciousness, giving it a quality of immediacy, even urgency. The visualized instant turns an ordinary second into something slightly miraculous. Yet when the subject is itself unmoving, as in a still life or studio portrait, the photographic illusion is indeterminate in its communication of time. It may equally describe a moment, a period, or an epoch. The photograph’s stillness resists the very metaphor of time as flow, suggesting instead a conception of time as a present or presence that endures.
Both of these aspects of time are at play in Nancy Floyd’s photographs on view through December 2 at Whitespace. Titled “Weathering Time,” the exhibition presents examples from an ongoing project that Floyd began in 1982, when she resolved to make a photograph of herself each day. Using rolls of film dedicated entirely to this purpose (though pictures from recent years are digital in origin) each frame represents one day in her life, and a blank frame represents the comparatively few days that she did not or could not make a picture. Floyd has pursued her project with a profound sense of duty. Every day she performs a ritual of self-picturing that is not (as in the culture of the selfie) a performance of self-admiration. Rather, each is a study in the banality of the everyday, the zone of domestic vastness where Floyd stages a self-seeking that is, by definition, open-ended, inconclusive, and sprawling.
The result, on one level, is something we could call documentation. Floyd presents us with copious evidence about herself, from which we may draw suppositions about her character, her commitments, the things she loves and values. On another level, for all its abundance, that evidence is opaque, inasmuch as Floyd’s methods are not just regulated but self-neutralizing. Day after day, year after year, Floyd pictures herself from head to toe in the midst of her living and working spaces, refusing to play to the camera, and hewing to a pictorial formula in which she appears equally candid and controlled, frank and implacable, inviting and unsmiling. This formula is not a contrivance, but also not apart from artifice, and the resulting images may or may not confess Floyd’s interiority.
This is not to say that “Weathering Time” is non- or anti-emotive. The works that grapple with the deaths of her family members are deeply mournful. In The Month Dad Died, May 2002 and a companion piece on the death of her mother, Floyd presents enlarged contact sheets that represent a whole month of pictures, during most of which she did not make images. Time here is represented as an array of frames floating in blackness, with the columns of frame numbers marking out spaces of her grief. Likewise, in Jimmy ca. 1960, 1969, 2013, Floyd offers a meditation on the death of her brother, including a riveting portrait of herself standing beside his name (and hundreds of other names) inscribed on the Vietnam War Memorial. We do not learn the details of Jimmy’s death decades before the picture was made, but the continuing pain of it is evident enough. Elsewhere in the exhibition, there are many moments of levity, especially when Floyd shares the frame with one of her beloved dogs.
These emotions, however, form relatively stable interpretive points in a more radically experimental whole. In her assiduous self-picturing, Floyd enters into a contest between memory and disappearance––one that memory will ultimately lose, inasmuch as most photographic portraits bend eventually toward anonymity. Indeed, by the terms of her experiment, there is a case to be made that this anonymity is the work’s very predicate, inasmuch as her body appears as a prop in a world of its own making. But this anonymity is relentlessly specific and textured, and so endowed with a capacity to outwit stasis. Memory keeps returning as de-sentimentalized self-apprehension, a rejection of the self-fetishization that has long been encoded both in vernacular and art photography.
In this sense, Floyd’s deep accomplishment is to create a conceptual space not governed either by the conceits of self-objectification or self-subjectification. Within this space, it is a live question whether the self appears in or disappears from its world. Insofar as each frame forms a winking instant from the ongoingness of life, the temporal ellipses between the pictures are potentized, inviting an imagination of other instants that Floyd does not picture. But insofar as each frame is a moment of indefinite duration, the photographs themselves form temporal ellipses between more encompassing questions about the self and the world––questions whose complications do not resolve easily into pictures. With great insight into the phenomenon of herself being herself, and with a wariness toward gluey introspection, Floyd’s prolonged instants are also lifespans flashing backward and forward. So shaped, her pictures manage to visualize the unconscious patterns that form the puzzle of the self’s enduringness and also its impermanence.
That said, the installation at Whitespace seems to me a preliminary account of what Floyd has undertaken. A work of this scope and this magnitude demands to be seen on its own terms, which are precisely the terms of expansiveness and excess. The works in the current exhibition give a taste of what exists in Floyd’s archive. Floyd’s audiences deserve to encounter this work in its most demanding and, I would guess, its freest form: all 35 years’ worth of contact sheets and the 15,000 or so images they contain, each of them a stone in a monument to a self that has preemptively rejected self-monumentalization.
Jason Francisco is an artist, essayist, curator, and associate professor in photography studies in the department of Film and Media Studies at Emory University. He is the author of Far from Zion: Jews, Diaspora, Memory (Stanford University Press, 2006), The Steerage and Alfred Stieglitz, co-authored with Anne McCauley (University of California Press, 2012), and An Unfinished Memory (Galicia Jewish Museum, Kraków, 2014), as well as numerous photoworks, articles, reviews, and artist’s books. For more information, see www.jasonfrancisco.net.