The Unphotographable

By Jean Dykstra, February 10, 2013

Alfred Stieglitz, Equivalent, 1931. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

The idea that there are things that cannot be imaged is difficult to fathom when cell phone cameras are ubiquitous and available to document every ephemeral instant. Thus The Unphotographable, a collection of some 50 works on view at Fraenkel Gallery through March 23 that attempts to capture the elusive, invisible, and the otherworldly, has contemporary resonance, though it also speaks to a time-honored photographic quest. The exhibition, impeccably conceived and arranged, includes historical, conceptual, and vernacular pictures. 

The show’s theme has embedded issues of belief, photographic tricks, happenstance, and intentional creation. As Fraenkel often does with his Several Exceptionally Good Recently Acquired Pictures shows, he juxtaposes anonymous and non-art photography, in this case, spiritualist pictures seemingly depicting ghosts and supernatural phenomenon, with works by the likes of Alfred Stieglitz and Wolfgang Tillmans. The mixture manages a provocative argument about shifting photographic traditions and how a collection of images that date from the late 19th century to 2012 can collapse notions of time.

Wolfang Tillmans, Mental Picture #97, 2001. Courtesy Fraenkel Gallery

The first gallery includes images depicting a kind of general energy, or force field—see Adrien Majewski’s highly abstract, self-explanatory Mr. Majewski’s Right Hand. Posed 20 Minutes. Room Temperature, 1895-1990, which, while perhaps scientific in intent, plays well with Bruce Conner’s vertical photogram, Angel Light, 1975.  The second gallery features works that focus on atmosphere, the crackling winds in works by Diane Arbus and Richard Misrach (the haunting Blowing newspaper at crossroads, N.Y.C., 1956, and Untitled (Sandstorm), 1976, respectively) and Richard Learoyd’s eerily abstract Empty Mirror, 2012, which was shot with a camera obscura. The third gallery includes works that capture aspects of mortality and religion, including a salon-style grouping of small non-art pictures of spiritual phenomenon and photographic glitches that suggest them, while nearby is the infamous image of the Loch Ness Monster (attributed to Dr. Robert Kenneth Wilson, 1934), and a recent, death themed image/text work by Sophie Calle. 

There is a thread of materiality that runs through the show. Glenn Ligon’s He Tells Me I Am His Own, 2005, an all white developed piece of unexposed paper, riffs on a religious white light as noted by the hymnal reference in the title, while Liz Deschenes’s Front/Side #19, 2012, utilizes processed, expired paper to evoke a complex play of metallic brown hues that shimmer and change from every angle. That multiple viewpoint effect is what the exhibition does best, giving the works the power to be many things at once.