Photographing the Otherworldly and the Abject

Photographing the Otherworldly and the Abject

Photographing the Otherworldly and the Abject

Barbara Ess’s lo-fi photos, which pluck scenes from our culture’s surveillance regime, make the banal seem terrifying and mystical.


There’s no simpler photographic apparatus than a pinhole camera. Any lightproof box with a tiny aperture on one end and some film inside will get you a picture, no lens needed. There are commercially manufactured pinhole cameras, but aficionados make their own. It’s a DIY kind of thing.

Barbara Ess hadn’t really found her métier as an artist until she built her first pinhole camera, following a diagram in a 1983 newspaper article. But she was already a name on the downtown scene, the publisher of Just Another Asshole, an occasional mixed-media magazine (the word “magazine” here covering anything from a photocopied zine to an insert in another magazine—Artforum—with squibs featuring tabloid-style headlines such as “Worker Abandons Self to Pigs” and “‘Lady’ Paid With Coupon,” to an LP record featuring 77 tracks, each under a minute long), and a musician in post-punk bands the Static and then the Y Pants.

The Y Pants were an artists’ band; the sculptor Kiki Smith said, “Many of their lyrics had become part of my vocabulary. They’re my youth. It was ‘girlie punk music’ with a hidden bite to it. ” Future Sonic Youth front man Thurston Moore was impressed not only by their music but also by how Ess was part of a new trend in musicians’ names: “Last names like Lunch, Place, Chance set up a new breed of blankness from earlier punk names like Hell, Rotten, Vicious. But Ess was even more halting, possibly even more subterranean in effect.” Part of the Y Pants’ appeal was their instrumentation. The sight and sound of Ess passionately strumming away on a ukulele were hard to forget; so were those of her bandmate Gail Vachon attacking a child’s toy piano with equal panache.

No wonder Ess was ready to take a low-tech, DIY route to image making. She gained immediate attention with a 1985 exhibition at New York City’s Cable Gallery that, as critic Jean Fisher declared at the time, reinvented “the effect of the photographic…by returning to the first-order image and its simplest mode of production, ” bringing pinhole photography to the mainstream art world and vice versa. Ess turned all the ostensible defects of her primitive technology into artistic gold. With the images enlarged and printed with an overlaid tinge of a single understated color, the blur, distortion, and extreme perspectives produced by the lensless camera seemed to show another world within or beyond the everyday. Instead of fixing a moment in time, permanently recording what would otherwise have been seen for just a moment, they seemed to show something the eye alone could never witness. The darkening of the field around the edges of the images and the concentration of light at their center seemed to convey a radically subjective viewpoint with no distinct boundary to the visual field and a capacity to highlight the most essential sights and ignore the rest. A dog’s bony forepaws on the pavement, a couple embracing on a seemingly vast otherwise empty beach, a row of white suburban houses tipping toward and away from a tree-darkened horizon like stumbling drunkards at twilight—these simple observations of perfectly recognizable yet somehow inexplicable forms stranded in unaccountably vast and devouring space, at once perfectly ordinary and somehow spooky and sinister, seemed to question the ground of reality itself.

Or was it simply the photograph itself under question? The artist defined photographs as “these traces of a moment when wisps of light pass over the physical world…like a shadow on a cloudy day, a poor reflection in a dirty mirror, a representation that can’t contain the juice” yet exposing “the poignancy of the mute surface of the physical world. The physical world itself so promising and comforting even in its damaged, crumbling, flooded, shining, decaying, pathetic state. ” It’s revealing that, among her other activities, she organized an exhibition of “thoughtographs” by Ted Serios, an alcoholic former bellhop who claimed to be able, when drunk, to project images from his mind onto Polaroid film. Whatever the trick he really used to produce them, those blurred and indeterminate images did somehow feel like the result of some intensely concentrated but intangible mental process. One could see why Ess might be captivated by them. And yet they had none of the haunting depth of her own photographs. Another photographer, Mark Alice Durant, complained that Serios’s photographs were too obvious in their elusiveness:

Diaphanous, blurry, vignetted, and incomplete. As with Victorian spirit photographs or UFO images, it seems that the visual proofs of paranormal activity must be conveyed in styles analogous to their tenuous accessibility. These other worlds supposedly captured on film, whether they are spiritual, telepathic, or alien, represent parallel universes that are simultaneously close by and far away—here but not here, visible only to sensitive clairvoyants or sensitive film. The photographs, then, straddle the fence between knowing and not knowing, between hard evidence and invisibility. The camera may sometimes act as a visual doorway to other worlds, but it is as if the lens were made of cheap plastic, offering only refractions, foggy figures, and ambiguity.

The pictures Ess made were and were not like that. She was able to find something poignant and true out of this collision between the otherworldly and the abject. Not that behind the world we perceive is a phantasmic one but that the world we perceive is phantasmic—without substance yet with untold depths.

By the 1990s, Ess’s photographs were being shown in museum exhibitions in the United States and abroad. In 2001 the Aperture Foundation published a book of her work, I Am Not This Body, its title referring to a Buddhist thought exercise in questioning the idea of identity. As the artist explained, “The meditation goes, ‘I am not this arm. I am not this leg. I am not this head, etc.’ until you get to ‘I am not this thought. ’” Since then, however, she has been less present on the exhibition scene, or at least I haven’t come across her work as much. All the more welcome, then, was the opportunity to catch up on some of her work—photographs as well as video and sound pieces from 2007 through this year—in the recent exhibition “Someone to Watch Over Me,” which took place at an enterprising artist-run gallery on Manhattan’s Lower East Side, Magenta Plains.

None of the new pieces appears to have been made using a pinhole camera, though there is a fuzzy, low-tech, low-resolution feel to most of them, despite the fact that many were made by piggybacking on an elaborate and technologically advanced infrastructure—that is, the Internet. The exhibition title refers not to the romantic yearnings so sweetly encapsulated in the 1926 George and Ira Gershwin song of the same name but to the Internet’s surveillance regime. What’s more, many of the works derive from the artist’s participation not as a subject of surveillance but as one of its agents, albeit a double agent.

In 2007, under a plan approved by Texas’s then-Governor Rick Perry, it became possible for anyone anywhere to take part in scrutiny of the state’s border with Mexico, thanks to a network of cameras set up by the company BlueServo, which allowed part-time amateur sentinels to enroll as “virtual Texas deputies” and monitor the cameras’ streaming video. Journalists later denounced the whole scheme as a boondoggle; the state used $2 million in federal funding to underwrite the installation of hundreds of cameras, but only about a dozen were put in place, leading to just three arrests in the first year of operation.

Maybe one reason this surveillance-oriented network proved so ineffectual was that, along with any number of true believers who took up the call—or sort-of true believers, like the guy who told the BBC that he gets “a kick out of coming home from a day in the office and playing border guard. It’s more interesting than TV ”—it attracted others who were just curious or even, like Ess, saw it as ripe for détournement, that is, turning it against itself, scrutinizing the act and apparatus of observation more than the spied-on scene itself. I don’t suppose she ever reported to the pertinent authorities anything she saw as she watched the Texas border from her New York apartment. It was the imagery itself, and how the imagery seemed to reflect on the act of looking, that offered material for the artist. Like Serios’s bogus thoughtographs, the Texas border scheme served up a grift appealing to the mind’s ubiquitous paranoiac need to find significance in inchoate, seemingly prosaic images.

The mostly monochromatic photos from Ess’s “Surveillance Series”—shot in 2010 and ’11 but mostly printed this year—show nondescript scenes: a herd of white horses wandering up a hilly landscape, no humans in sight; a bend in the river with a road nearby, where nothing seems to be happening and no one’s to be seen, though crosshairs are on a random spot near one shore; a stand of trees is reflected in the water’s surface; a single automobile with its headlights on, off-road on what might be a patch of sand. It’s the graininess and pixelation of these low-res images and the way their unstable ratios of light to dark make them seem to keep shifting between negative and positive that give them their paradoxical allure: The very fact that you can’t quite see what’s there arouses a subliminal desire to puzzle them out. In a surprising way, their elusive, ambiguous quality rhymes with her earlier pinhole photographs’. Here too, suggestiveness and a sense of mystery are evoked through purely automatic means, in this case the surveillance camera and what feels like a digital dirt road—rather than the superhighway—by which the images reached the artist.

So, for example, in Single Car (Surveillance Series), the vehicle, caught in the upper-right corner of the picture, seems to float eerily above the ground on a cloud of white light. I was thinking that this white nebulosity underneath the car must be a shadow in negative, but then the car’s headlights are just as bright, and in negative they should be black, like the windshield above them. The various shades of what are presumably foliage and maybe, toward the left, some water form a hazy set of floating tonal areas, which the swarming pixels seem to conjure bit by bit like brushstrokes in a painting. Yet just as a factual-minded view of the image has to conclude that the impulse to see this as a possible crime scene can never be verified, the equal and opposite temptation to see this as a painterly dreamscape has to crash on the realization that this will never be anything other than a banal scene of daily life along the Rio Grande. Somehow, that’s not a formula for disappointment, because it means that the image, no matter how aestheticized and no matter how inscrutable its ostensible content, never becomes a vehicle for mystification.

The show at Magenta Plains also included images taken from other live feeds. Urban traffic is a recurrent topic. Stranded (Remote Series), from 2011, shows cars stuck in a snowstorm. Guys on Corner (Remote Series), from 2012 and ’19, focuses instead on the pedestrian scene around a street lamp; the reddish halations around the three visible lights on the pole seem to have been burned into what otherwise would have seemed a bluish monochromatic print—one of the most striking moments in the exhibition, in which the evidently distant scene seems to have directly touched the paper on which it was printed. (The photographs in the show have been realized as archival pigment prints. Color may have been introduced to color or black-and-white originals in the production process by not only digital means; some were touched up with crayon before being enlarged.)

The availability of remote viewing technologies means it’s no longer necessary to go outside to observe the world. I’d have assumed the “Remote Series” images originated in New York, but according to the gallery press release, the places shown the photographs are not only from Manhattan and Queens but also from Dubai and the American Midwest. The most colorful piece in the exhibition shows a beach in Cassis, on the French Mediterranean; dappled with saturated reds and blues, the beach scene is as crowded as Coney Island in August. This was apparently shot through a more old-school surveillance device, a telescope. Curiously, though, a recent experience of being stuck in her apartment for a month with bronchitis did not motivate her to continue in this vein. Her “Shut-In” series records details of her immediate environment—an air conditioner in the facing window, another facing window with a vase of flowers glimpsed through the metal bars of a fire escape, the corner of a red kitchen chair and the shadow it casts on a stove, a flight of stairs. These images strongly recall Ess’s pinhole photographs, with their hot central illumination and shadowy edges. One feels that somehow the artist was able to communicate her fever to the camera, which thereby registered these ordinary things in a spectral, hallucinatory way.

In Ess’s work, the same unreality that infests the Rio Grande observed by the would-be vigilante-at-a-distance also seeps into the everyday things that are nearest at hand. I can’t help imagining that the door of her apartment building must open not onto New York but onto a place closer to the sinister yet ultimately banal milieu that the Polish writer Bruno Schulz describes in his book Street of Crocodiles, whose setting turns out to be “no more than a fermentation of desires, prematurely aroused and therefore impotent and empty…a paper imitation, a montage of illustrations cut out from last year’s moldering newspapers. ” This image world is formed of light and shadow, but—though as Schulz says, “our language has no definitions which weigh, so to speak, the grade of reality, or define its suppleness”—one cannot help suspecting that the shadow possesses greater reality than the light. Yes, shadows are insubstantial, but light even more so.

It may not be obvious, but Ess’s photographs—not unlike Schulz’s stories—perform a kind of comedy, one that always ends up dismantling their own apparent aspirations to visionary ecstasy. Today, though, the comedy of surveillance might seem less funny than it did in 2011. Under the ascendant surveillance state, there will be no call to crowdsource the monitoring of images. Automation, algorithms—software come to life will do that for us. Ess once attributed the seductiveness of pinhole photography to its “capacity to transform the ordinary into the symbolic and reveal meaning in the apparently mundane.” Today machines are starting to practice divination. I wonder if they’ll really be able to plumb the deeper meaning of things any better than humans ever did on their own.

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