I Am Not This Body
photographs by Barbara Ess
essays by Barbara Ess, Michael Cunningham, Thurston Moore and Guy Armstrong
Published by Aperture
96 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Reviewed by Dana De Zoysa
The last 40 years have seen photography go through a radical stylistic, technical and theoretical mutation. Nobody can say exactly when, but at some point capturing the world "as is" slipped away from the viewfinders of contemporary photographers. They began to see themselves as manipulators of reality rather than recorders of it. Bye-bye went the familiar landscape, portrait, street scene or casual snapshot. In came the photograph as a "directed" or "authored" or "scripted" document. Students of this view believed their role was not to perfect reality using camera craftsmanship, but to create their own version of it. The trick was to imagine scenarios of the world, then fictionalize them on photo film.
The basic optical principles of the pinhole "camera" are described in Chinese texts as far back as the 5th century BC. Chinese philosopher Mo Ti deduced that light travels in straight lines by observing an inverted image when light passed through a pinhole to cast an image on the opposite side. The next mention of the "camera obscura" wasn't until the 10th century AD, when one Yu Chao-Lung used model pagodas to make pinhole images on a screen.
Western philosophers took a different tack. Aristotle In the 4th century BC commented in his work Problems: "Why is it that when the sun passes through quadri-laterals, as for instance in wickerwork, it does not produce a figure rectangular in shape but circular? ... Why is it that an eclipse of the sun, if one looks at it through a sieve or through leaves, the rays are crescent-shaped where they reach the earth?"
In the 10th century the Arabian physicist and mathematician Ibn Al-Haitam arranged three candles in a row and put a screen with a small hole between the candles and the wall. He noted that images (a) were formed only by means of small holes and (b) that the candle to the right made an image to the left on the wall. He too deduced that light travels in straight lines.
In the 1850s a Scottish scientist named Sir David Bruiser was apparently the first to make pinhole photographs. (He also coined the term "pinhole" to describe them.) The Impressionist movement in France had a considerable effect on attitudes about the photograph. A traditionalist school believed in sharp focus and good lenses; a contrarian school of "pictorialists" emulated the atmospheric qualities of paintings. By the 1890s commercial pinhole cameras were sold in Europe, the United States and Japan.
Mass production of lensed cameras and the "new realism" of the first half of the 20th century edged aside pinhole photography. By the 1930s it was all but forgotten. In the mid-1960s several photographic artists in widely separated locales experimented with the pinhole technique. In 1971 Time-Life Books published The Art of Photography in the well-known Life Library of Photography, which included a panoramic pinhole image. The June 1975 issue of Popular Photography published an article "Pinholes for the People," based on a month-long project at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, in which people came into the museum, picked up a camera from one of the 15,000 made for the occasion, and made an exposure. The images were developed in the museum's darkroom and then displayed in the gallery. Democratic art if ever there was such a thing.
Pinhole cameras are so intriguing to artsy types because they have no focal length. They have infinite depth of field, from a fingertip in front of the pinhole all the way to infinity. Pinhole cameras range from ultra wide-angle cameras to long telephoto cameras. They excel at ultra-wide angle images because, unlike lens-produced images, pinhole ultra-wides remain rectilinear. If the film plane is flat -- as in Barbara Ess' photos -- there will be vignetting (light fall-off at the corners), producing a circular image that is sharp toward the center but becomes more ill-defined the further it goes outward. The image also may be overexposed at the center and underexposed at the corners. Barbara Ess exploits all these effects to produce astigmatic soft-focus smears of semi-image which, taken together, chart her voyage from the port of technician out into the promontories and sea lanes of aesthetic philosophy.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, Barbara Ess' photography would have us paging through the dictionary adjective by adjective. She is famous for her attempts to "photograph what cannot be photographed." I Am Not This Body invites us into her imagination as she leads the way into "ambiguous perceptual boundaries: between people, between the self and the not self, between in here and out there." In her view, "reality ... includes a perceiver, who has memories, thoughts, desires, emotions a normal camera tends to omit."
Pinhole images in Ms. Ess's hands are soft, rounded, distant, apparitional, out of reach, intimate, tinged with loneliness and melancholy. Reality becomes subtly toned dreamscapes that are not so much moments of being as visionary versions of it. Blurry and distorted, she coaxes her subjects from hallucination and enigma. Distinction between photographer and artist is erased. All the more so is differentiation between the perceiver and the perceived. As she puts it:
The membrane where mind and matter meet is indefinable; it can also be ambiguous where the self ends and the world begins. The material world comes to you via the perceptual apparatus and is mediated through and by you. So sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between what is apparent and what is 'real.'
One of photography's great strengths is its ability to document life while revealing new meanings in it. Barbara Ess is less interested in discovering exotic new images than in fathoming the meaningful within the mysteries of the familiar. Her repertoire of methods is formidable: isolating, magnifying, staging, suspending belief and disbelief; merging the familiar with the abstract; mixing ambiguity into perceptual and psychological conditions. Representing reality is less relevant than making it malleable.
Her landscapes turn common everydayness into surreal romanticism; it's like Andrew Wyeth losing his glasses just after he drops acid. One of her signature tools is an ultra-short distance between pinhole and film. This yields up very soft foci and such severe vignetting that the image is a blurry circle centered within a big blot of black. Such mega-vignetting transforms the image content of a shot into to an extremely transitory event -- a flash of road, a distant barn seen from a gully, her blurred hands seemingly washing themselves in front of a backdrop of leaves. One almost expects the images to vanish from the page immediately after the tenth of a second it takes for the eye to register their existence, so important is her message of transitoriness.
The book's images are accompanied by mercifully brief texts -- extended captions, really. No pedant with a pinhole and a philosophy is this lady: Her "captions" are a cross between mystical realism, a dada manifesto as might be read by Laurie Anderson, a philosophy that denies philosophy, a tally list of the day's most banal events -- all of which comprise a viewpoint disembodied from a theory. She says it better in the text accompanying what is arguably the definitive image in the book: a picture of a curious but dubious curly-haired girl, little finger between her lips in the quintessential gesture of doubt by a little girl, as she is being hoovered out into the vignette of black beyond the circle of life. Of this she says [all-caps her own]:
I AM NOT THIS BODY. But I am. Aching and full of longing. Take a picture of this meat, this husk. You don't have me. I am something that cannot be photographed, cannot be named, defined, translated. There's experience and that's all there is .... But there's also all this stuff. It gets in the way. I've always had trouble with stuff. I've fought my whole life to have control over stuff, over the appearance of stuff: my chaotic hair, learning to play the accordion, getting dressed, being on time, electric bills, the five ballet positions, getting money, spending money, even just putting one foot in front of the other. Clear the table. A place for everything and everything in its place. A battle for order, a battle for space.
If the utter simplicity and honesty of the pinhole camera lead to this chiaroscuro of half-existing things, who or what can one trust?
This is just the sort of cerebral angel-food cake the slick art magazines feast upon, so it is no surprise that Ess' work has occupied covers and inside pages of the likes of Artforum and Art in America, to say nothing of museum and gallery catalogs. She's had one-woman shows at the High Museum of Art, Atlanta; Curt Marcus Gallery, New York; Faggionato Fine Arts, London; and Fundacion la Caixa, Barcelona, and at galleries in Madrid, Los Angeles, Paris, Antwerp, Cologne and Washington. In 1993 the Queens Museum curated the traveling exhibition Barbara Ess: Photography, Installation and Books. However, none of these are as what-the-heck fun as the title of an anthology she edited in New York in 1983: Just Another Asshole #6 .
In other words, forget the hoo-ha and look at the pictures. They're so good you could climb inside. | March 2002
Dana De Zoysa has a passion for developing-country authors. He commutes between Bombay and his writer's paradise in Mirissa, Sri Lanka. He can be reached at DanaDeZoysa@aol.com.