Survey art shows held together by a vague concept are generally specious, the concern being that a broad subject was chosen to shoehorn an unruly and tangential mess of work together. This is, to a small extent, true for Fraenkel Gallery’s “The Unphotographable.” The gallery describes the unphotographable as a difficult to observe reality of “thought, time, ghosts, god, dreams.” It’s a mix of myth and science, much of which can, in fact, be imaged with fMRI. The photos don’t focus so much on things that can’t be seen or are difficult to capture—apparently ghosts are quite easy to photograph—but on things that we can’t make sense of even when we experience it or are shown evidence of it. “The Unphotographable” doesn’t quite fit. More like “The Incomprehensible.”
The work of big-name photographers is mostly of small effects. Mel Bochner, Sophie Calle, Bruce Conner, and Diane Arbus are all interesting but they do not have a presence beyond their frame. Bruce Conner’s “Angel Light” is monumental in size, has maintained the tremendous richness of a gelatin silver process, and is positioned across from the entrance. The viewer simultaneously looks at and is in Connor’s slot canyon with the light of some kind of salvation shining down. In a real or metaphorical canyon, most of us expect the help of a person or an angel; it’s either first world presumption or a theological story, but that doesn’t stop you from assuming they’ll come to your rescue. It seems like “Angel Light” should be able to take over a room, and it’s disappointing when it doesn’t.
Belief in ghosts and UFOs isn’t too rational either. And yet sometimes the most otherwise rational people do. People yearn for excitement or comfort in thinking there’s a dimension beyond our regular existence (this is obviously applicable to religion too). All you really need is “I want to believe.” Kota Ezawa’s “Lubbock Lights” plays along with the Texas town’s 1951 UFO incident in black and white. It’s so futuristic and minimalistic, effortless and perfect—the kind of cool people in the ‘50s expected of the aughts and unsentimental people are still trying for. You want to go there, but there is no there. Ghosts are comforting because it means you don’t really have to leave and no one ever left you. There are ten or so lens flare snapshots and double-exposures of 19th century ghosts. Their warm tonality makes it seem like ghosts were friendlier back then then.
Tom Friedman’s “Caveman (Flash Photograph of the Cover of a National Geographic Magazine Featuring a Drawing of a Prehistoric Man.)” looks utterly horrified by his own existence. It’s relatable. With a hard flash on Prehistoric Man, he’s very Sasquatchian, very Bald Britney Spears. Still, thinking about your relation to Neolithic man is as unwieldy as relating to a snapshot of yourself at five years old. You can’t get a handle on it, and you’re not going to.
Carolee Schneeman used images of the World Trade Center in “Terminal Velocity”—which is thankfully not at Fraenkel —just a month after the attacks on them, enlarging images of nine people who jumped to their death so details like clothing are distinguishable. THAT is unphotographable. It added nothing to the photos as documents other than making horror more visceral. If, in that first month, the tone of the world had been apathy, “Terminal Velocity’s” shock value could be warranted. That month was actually one of the most attentive, vivid period of people’s lives. America changed, and it still doesn’t make sense because we were caught off guard, and paying attention for the first time in a long while couldn’t fix that. Gerhard Richter’s take on September 11, even as a photo of a painting, is perfect. The mimetic process created by the “The Richter-Scale of Blur” applied to the Twin Towers is as appropriate for Americans as his “October 18, 1977” cycle was for Germans (Gertrud Koch). Part of Richter’s way of forcing reflection is through a lack of focus and confusion by way of blur, which is why his paintings feel so true to experience. Richter paints events that are incomprehensible to him and the viewer as blurry as they are in our minds.
“The Unphotographable” is on view at Fraenkel Gallery through March 23, 2013.