Contemporary photography is in a challenging moment. Image-making is changing rapidly: Camera technology and the Internet allow creation and dissemination of images faster, cheaper, easier. Pixels are now nearly indistinguishable from film grain — a tipping point for film purists? But as photographers exit the darkroom, does photography's hard-earned mystique dwindle?
Such developments ripple into studio practices, inspiring in some an urgency to push limits. April Friges' sculptural/photographic-emulsion hybrids in Spectator, at Filmmakers Galleries, rework the photograph in nontraditional ways, perhaps in iconoclastic homage to a medium experiencing an identity crisis.
The Pittsburgh-based artist's approach investigates photography as historical physical material — specifically, photo emulsion, paper and the support on which a photo hangs. The object-ness is emphasized by Friges' lensless photogram process, creating not images, but various gradients of value on paper. Forgoing images, Friges focuses strictly on traditional photography's defining trait, light sensitivity.
Among the first pieces encountered (all works are entitled "Spectator") is a nearly 20-foot-long sheet of photo paper pinned to the gallery wall. It is flat and black, except when specks of white on the surface appear and the material starts to bend and fold, finally crumpling into a cartoonish mass near the other end.
While some iterations of these large hybrids hang precariously from pins, others are built into gallery corners, as if they had been there all along. There is a discrete sculpture on a pedestal: a wavy and twisted sheet of photo paper uniformly speckled. Its reverse side is painted with plaster; the brushstrokes' cakiness imparts an endearing, homespun vulnerability.
There are a few framed collages, and they fit in and resonate well. Irregular frames (think cellular mitosis, but with square frames) encase torn pieces of variously exposed gradients of photo paper that clump into corners, as if magnetically charged, grouping like visual puns, playing on/in the negative space.
Spectator is a conceptual, but satiating and well-probed, investigation into photography; an aggressive, though oddly dainty at times, mass of tears, puckers, folds and impulses. Further, the size and animated energy of the works tug an empathetic cord, as if the photogram, or photography for that matter, were being teased or tortured. All of which suggest the complicated but fruitful (love/hate even?) relationship Friges perhaps has with photography, a medium that needs to be pushed around.