Most people think of the photographer’s job as going into the world and documenting the “truth” of what they find before them. Even portrait photographers and studio-bound artists who shoot constructed tableaux fall within the relatively conventional domain of people with cameras aiming at visual phenomena “out there.” In the Getty Museum’s superb, thought-provoking exhibition Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography, curator Virginia Heckert has selected seven photographers who are more concerned with exploring the fundamental nature of the medium, from the inside out.
In works that often rely on the chance effects of chemistry on paper (paper as elemental to photographic art as canvas is to the history of painting), these seven — Matthew Brandt, Marcel Breuer, John Chiara, Chris McCaw, Lisa Oppenheim, Alison Rossiter, and James Welling — extend the antecedent genealogy of pioneers such as Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and Edmund Teske (some of whose works, photograms and the like, are featured here as well). The compulsion to experiment with expired or abraded paper, retooled cameras, foreign chemical solutions, camera obscura setups, hours-long exposures, and other deviations from standard photographic practice has resulted in works that are often astonishingly beautiful, and exhilarating in their strangeness. They provide a visceral sense of the materiality of the medium that, in modernist terms, goes deeper than the frozen-in-time 2-D illusionism that most photography entails.
Most of the artists on view have a background in traditional darkroom techniques, or so-called analog photography, and their love of this “wet” approach to image-making is evident in the ways in which they seem to defiantly revel in hands-on process, tactility, and unfolding accident-driven discovery. Paper as a recording surface is reexamined and coaxed to new purpose, usually involving a keen awareness of the passage of time. Some images are course-grained, some finely etched; some black-and-white, others in saturated color; some are landscapes, either plainly pictorialist or merely suggested, others pure abstractions — compatible with the theory that abstract painting arose out of the distilled geometries of landscape. But all inhabit the horizon line between joyful science and cutting-edge, enduring art.
Light, Paper, Process: Reinventing Photography is on view at the Getty Museum through September 6. The catalog by Getty curator Virginia Heckert is from Getty Publications.