Photo-Poetics: An Anthology

by Nick Scammell

1 Mar 2016

If poetry is the place where the lustre of language amplifies or replaces its content, where compression yields fruitful ambiguity, then how might a photo-poetics look? Photo-Poetics: An Anthology, currently on show at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, whispers of ‘the nature, traditions and magic of photography at a moment when the medium seems poised to evaporate into digital oblivion’. It strives to rematerialise the image in pursuit of a visual poetics that sees printed matter as map and territory. We are asked to read these images rather than adopt the visual click and swipe encouraged in the digital realm.

Kathrin Sonntag, Mittnacht (detail), 2008, courtesy the artist

Kathrin Sonntag arranges and re-photographs vintage images of the paranormal with the aid of mirrors and other tools from her studio. Shown as a series of slides, Sonntag’s Mittnacht is rendered predictably strange. Anne Collier’s Crying, which appropriates a still of Ingrid Bergman from the film For Whom the Bell Tolls, feels similarly slim, even when counterposed with Elad Lassry’s elegantly inoffensive, sculptural images.

Kathrin Sonntag, Mittnacht, installation view, 2016, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Lisa Oppenheim’s photographs are subtlely politicised: sunsets shot by US troops stationed abroad, printed out and held up by the artist in front of a New York sunset. Although there are touches here of Lebanese artist Walid Ra’ad, Oppenheim’s series The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else remains politely anaemic.

Lisa Oppenheim, from the series The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (detail), 2006, courtesy the artist

By contrast, Sara VanDerBeek reflects on the production of meaning via the construction and photography of assemblages of images and objects. From the Means of Reproduction lies somewhere between collage and sculpture, rewarding sustained engagement.

Sara VanDerBeek, From the Means of Reproduction, 2007, courtesy the artist

For her series Naked Eye, Erica Baum photographs the partly opened pages of mass-market paperbacks, revealing thin slices of text and images. Newspaper Clippings sees the artist arranging news-printed headlines into brilliant, absorbing hybrids of concrete poetry, collage and photography.

Erica Baum, from the series Naked Eye and Newspaper Clippings, installation view, 2016, courtesy Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Claudia Angelmaier deftly tackles the reproduction and representation of canonical art works by reproducing the (backlit) backs of postcards from the shops of major museums. Exhibited here is an image of the reverse of a reproduction of Ingres’ La Baigneuse, whose faint subject is herself seen from behind. Angelmaier’s disarming simplicity of approach enables reverie as only poetry can.

Claudia Angelmaier, Betty, 2008, courtesy the artist

With a literary sensibility that over-reaches marvellously, Moyra Davey foregrounds the practice of reading and writing, with her camera relegated to the role of scribe. Davey’s photographs of objects imbued with personal meaning become self-portraiture at a remove. Those that comprise Trust Me are folded, addressed and mailed to writer Lynne Tillman. Presented here opened, creased, stamped and stickered, they bear the marks of their travel with quiet grace.

Moyra Davey, Les Goddesses, 2011, courtesy the artist

So, what of photo-poetics? On the evidence of this exhibition, the bloodless tyranny of the nice seems total. But just occasionally we see affirming flames: call them poetry.

Nick Scammell sustains an art practice that cuts across photography and literature. Fascinated by where the image meets the word and where the material meets the digital, Nick works with out-dated scanners. He considers the image a rumour rather than a document, a liquid instrument and a performance. Nick also collaborates with AFTER, a curatorial platform which showcases and supports recently-graduated artists still shaping their practices.