Lisa Oppenheim: Equivalents
A photograph exists as a trace in relation to a source outside itself, akin to processes such as the silhouette, the physionotrace or waxworks. A recognizable form behaves as a template in its subsequent rendering. These media, like early photography, seem “closer to the arts of the fairground . . . than industry” as per Walter Benjamin,1 who also held that the “flowering” of photography occurred in its first decade, before it could be mass-produced and standardized.2
Looking back at pre-industrial, scientific and artistic photographic forms underlies the three bodies of work exhibited by Lisa Oppenheim at Harris Lieberman. The show’s title, Equivalents, is a loaded moniker since it repeats the titles of Alfred Stieglitz’s cloud photographs from the 1920s. Expressly intending his Equivalents to offer a summation of his work, Stieglitz presented the series as the final statement of a Great Man of Photography. The cloud photographs, in simultaneous repetition and endless variety, become abstract. As the images turn from material to metaphor, the evanescent and immeasurable clouds become the Photographer’s Vision: his contemplation of the Infinite in both nature and art.3
Lisa Oppenheim, Billowing. As we were driving up to Norfolk yesterday I saw the Enfield fire; where a Sony distribution centre set ablaze by rioters was just pouring out smoke over the motorway. The sheer amount of smoke was quite surprising, and today smoke was still covering the motorway. I feel such despair at people who have taken to looting; so angry at the destruction people can cause. 2011/2012. (Version V), 2012; unique photograph; 24 x 20"; image courtesy Harris Lieberman.
The main gallery contained examples of the series Leisure Work and Smoke, and it is the Smoke series that refers most directly to Equivalents. Oppenheim uses images from found photos of fires, reframing and reprinting details of the images in a way that dismantles the photographs’ documentary legibility. The images become ambiguous abstractions of amorphous and airy forms—like Stieglitz’s clouds—but they suggest parched chasms of destruction rather than the oceanic feeling of Stieglitz’s images. Oppenheim also exposed the prints individually by open flame, producing an irregularity that renders each print a unique object. In their handcrafted uniqueness, Oppenheim’s project cues the Pictorialist ethos espoused by Stieglitz earlier in his career, which hoped to ally photography with the fine arts by celebrating by-hand alterations of photographic prints.4 Yet in contradistinction to the dream-like and fragmentary imagery, Oppenheim titles each work flatly with the name of the location and the date of the fire. The gap between the expressiveness of the image and scientism of the caption suggests that there is no total experience in either, that our understanding of the photograph is partial.
While it is possible to look at Oppenheim’s photographs as autonomous “pictures,” their references to canonical photographic histories unpack an engagement with photography that is more interrogation than embrace. The tension between the potentiality for critique inscribed in the references and the lush materiality of the prints places the work in an opaque third space.
Leisure Work plays similar games with photography’s history. Made of large lace panels folded over a few times, placed atop light-sensitive paper, and then exposed, the resulting images consist of ghostly white impressions, since the light darkened the paper left uncovered by the lace. In pre-camera photography, laying flat shapes across sensitized paper constituted the first photographic negatives, a common motif in the experiments of William Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s main inventors. Such prints, known today as “photograms,” also appear in the first photographic book, Anna Atkins’ Photographs of British Algae: Cyanotype Impressions (1843). Oppenheim’s use of lace twists these early foundations. Where Talbot’s or Atkins’ prints presented the objects they printed from as white voids atop dark paper, Oppenheim’s prints of lace sustain the illusion of the object’s substance. What might otherwise seem a ghostly absence appears in its white materiality.
Lisa Oppenheim, Leisure Work, Fold I (Version III), 2012; photogram; 24 x 20"; image courtesy Harris Lieberman.
The oxymoronic title Leisure Work refers to a term used in an early twentieth century Belgian census for lace-making.5 Historically lace making was handicraft made by women, a form of piecemeal labor. Lace can appear as exquisite craft or an infernal geometry for cramped hands and failing eyesight; Oppenheim’s prints render panels of lace as a kind of menacing net, layered into a claustrophobic totality. In Talbot’s experiments there is no manipulation of the lace, it functions as is, whereas Oppenheim utilizes the lace as a construction on the surface of the print, which identifies it as a product of labor, evident in its ironic title.
Oppenheim problematizes the calm experimentation of Talbot and the magisterial artistry of Stieglitz, invoking issues of unseen labor, illusionism and incompletion as integral to the photograph. While it is possible to view the work in an entirely ahistorical manner, as pattern, abstraction, and flatness, there are still clues to lead us to a much less utopic stance than that of our intrepid photographic predecessors.
- 1. Walter Benjamin, "A Short History of Photography," from One Way Street & Other Writings, (London: Verso, 1985): 240.
- 2. Ibid.
- 3. If anyone were to doubt the public gravity of Stieglitz’s cultural position, I would recommend the festschrift America and Alfred Stieglitz: A Collective Portrait (1934), ed. Waldo Frank. It contains writings by William Carlos Williams, Lewis Mumford, Elizabeth McCausland, Gertrude Stein and Harold Clurman, among others; and it situates Stieglitz in relation to American culture in his roles as photographer, publisher, art dealer and promoter.
- 4. Stieglitz later advocated for a “modern” photography that eschewed the hand and focused on the fundamentals of the medium: seriality, regularity and transparency.
- 5. Press release, Harris Lieberman Gallery, May 2012.