The Slow Photo

June 13th, 2012 0 comments

I didn’t see a lot of photography when I was in DC at the start of this month; I’d tweeted a while back that I’ve been a little tired of looking at photos lately, and I was fixated on finally visiting the Hirshhorn (which totally underwhelmed, but I’m not going into that right now), so I didn’t make a big photo itinerary. I did manage to hit two large-ish photo shows anyway — I Spy and Asian American Portraits of Encounter, and they were okay. But the things I went back to again and again (and again, because they were so compelling, and also conveniently on view across the street from my hotel) were two video sculpture works by Nam June Paik, and Peter Campus’s Barn at North Fork.

I didn’t spend enough time with either of the Paik pieces to get beyond gobsmacked transfixation (yes, that is a real state, if not an actual English phrase), but I loved every second of all of my tiny experiences with them. They just feel so much like both real and virtual life, but thrown off and hung up, in all their racing, cacophanous, ADHD glory, for you to look at and listen to, instead of live through — except the scale of them is such that you’re immersed, and can’t help but live them anyway. Massive sensory overload in the wide view, jewel-like in the detail view; the onslaught of visual and auditory input is energizing and meditative at the same time.

And then there was Barn at North Fork, which couldn’t be more different from the Paik pieces. And yet it can’t really be thought of as a counter-argument or antidote to the pace of life depicted in Megatron Matrix or Electronic Superhighway, because it’s both as meditative and at least as stimulating as Paik’s works, in its own silent, oozing way.

Shot on high-def digital video, Barn at North Fork shows a white barn morphing into abstraction and back again e-v-e-r-s-o-s-l-o-w-l-y — so slowly, you’re not even sure anything’s moving at all until you realize it’s moved. But it’s not “long photography” like some work by Sam Taylor-Wood or Gillian Wearing. Campus breaks his image into big blocks that could be the blown-up pixels of a photo, except they’re velvety and soft-edged in a luminous, painterly way, and they seem unfixed — subtly pulsating, overlapping each other, and never quite immutably there in the way the pixels are in digital still photos. It’s video about documentation and abstraction, light, time, breath, vision… about video. It’s sumptuous. I could have watched it for hours.

This morning when I read Joerg Colberg’s “provocation” asking how photography moves forward from where it is today, I immediately thought of the Campus piece. Not that I think “video” is the best answer to “what’s next for photography” (for many reasons), but Barn at North Fork is the first thing I’ve seen in I-don’t-know-how-long that’s made me think about the unique qualities of the medium — not video, but photography; about the specific properties of photographic images; and the challenges inherent in documenting… anything. It made me think in new ways of the possibilities of photography in the digital age. I wouldn’t call it long photography so much as “slow photography” (where the subject is not stopped in time, but slowed…?), and it could maybe hold an acceptable answer or two to Colberg’s question.




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