The American artist Lisa Oppenheim is fascinated by old photography, both in terms of its technique and import. She attempts to recapture the photographic images of yore in her work by considerably expanding the photographic moment, once considered so historical.
Photography is the ultimate medium for the snapshot in time. In a flash, or in any case no longer than the speed of the shutter, the camera records a fraction of reality. As soon as that moment in the present has been captured, it becomes part of the past. The fact that one can also think of a different relationship to time in photography is made clear in the work of Lisa Oppenheim. This American artist is fascinated by the history of photography. She combs through any and all archives and collections in search of examples of historic photography and its techniques, which she then adopts in her own photographs and film projections. For her, it is not just about the various moments at which reality was registered, but also about how they guide our perception, and the way we experience reality. Oppenheim (b. 1975) currently lives and works in New York. She studied at Brown University and Bard College and participated in the Whitney Independent Study Program in the United States. She worked at the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam in 2004 and 2005, after which she exhibited at the Juliètte Jongma gallery. This fall, she has her third solo show at the same gallery.
A specific historic event, the first moon landing on July 20, 1969, is central in her 2009 double projection, No Closer to the Source (20 July 1969). This world event naturally had enormous impact, and it temporarily generated an exceptional sense of community. Many photographs were taken of it, snapshots, in keeping with Susan Sontag's reasoning in On Photography: ‘[The camera] makes real what one is experiencing.... A way of certifying experience, taking photographs is … converting experience into an image, a souvenir.’ In an attempt to be part of that unique moment on July 20, 1969, countless photographs were taken of the moon, simply from people's gardens, as if they wanted to safeguard a souvenir for the future, the material proof of their own presence at that specific historic moment. Meanwhile, astronauts Neil Armstrong and Edwin ‘Buzz’ Aldrin were taking their own legendary photographs of the earth from Apollo 11.
In No Closer to the Source, Oppenheim seeks communication between those two specific perspectives – a souvenir of the earth and a souvenir of the moon – and places them face to face. As the title of the work indicates, Oppenheim tries to come closer to the source, closer to an event from the past. She copied each photograph at 101 percent, copied the copy, and so on, until the enlargement and the technical imperfections of the photocopier gradually cause the subject to disappear, leaving only a white page behind. The separate images have been worked into an animation, film sequences that are simultaneously projected with a 16mm projector. Each copy bears its own imperfections, degrading with each successive repetition, until only the dust and the dirt on the photocopier are exposed.
The attempt to come closer to the source is doomed to fail. Even though both perspectives of the same historic moment are literally enlarged, the artist arrives not a step closer. The final result is an abstraction in which, with some goodwill on the observer's part, craters (the moon) and oceans (the earth) can be recognized. The process of discovering truth is expressed in a mystification, powered by the film animation. Presenting the tableau in loop form lends a certain sense of eternity, in which the snapshot (the original photograph) is expanded in time and escapes its historic determinant.
Such extensive reworking of found material is characteristic of Oppenheim's work. Hers is a strategy of appropriation in which, by way of technical manipulation, the assumed neutrality and truth of the original image is both exposed and provided with subtle commentary. Found material from the past becomes tested, as it were, in the eyes of today. In her 2010 Lunagrams series, included in her exhibition at the Juliètte Jongma gallery, she literally even exposes the past in the present. At the New York University archives, Oppenheim more or less accidentally discovered daguerreotypes of the first photographs of the moon, taken by the chemist John William Draper (1811-1882). Together with his son, Draper would ultimately produce more than 1500 photographs, a large portion of which are today preserved at the NYU archives. Oppenheim took the daguerreotype as her source and made enlarged negatives from it. She subsequently used these to make photograms, whereby the negative is put on light-sensitive paper and exposed to the light of the moon. A photograph is thereby made without the use of a camera. Oppenheim exposed the negative of Draper's daguerreotype with the moon in the same position as it was in the original image. This way, a half moon from the 19th century is photographed by a half moon from 2009 and a full moon from the 19th century by a full moon in the present. Finally, Oppenheim treated the photographs with silver gelatine, whereby the white areas in the photograms acquire a silver gloss. The two earliest photographic methods for registering time and reality – the workable daguerreotype and the slightly earlier photogram – come together. Both techniques demand enormous patience, certainly when compared to the snapshots of the cameras of today.
The resulting Lunagrams are exceptional images, with a somewhat nostalgic tint and exceedingly detailed. Here, the idea of the snapshot, of the instant registration, seems to have been extended, and not just by the shutter speed of the original image. The cycle of the moon itself determines the time, and that time is doubled by exposing the moon from 1840 to that of 2009. The union of the process and the content brings a new weight and significance, now that the images have been created by the light that they also represent.
In terms of theme and use of the visual image, Oppenheim's Lunagrams and the previously mentioned No Closer to the Source are very similar, but although her conceptual approach is a constant factor in her work, it results in highly diverse works. In The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else (2006), she worked with the clichéd image of the setting sun. On the popular website www.flickr.com, she found photographs of sunsets taken by soldiers in Iraq. The soldiers' photographs focused exclusively on the sun and seem to want to shut out everything that might remind them of the war, as if they were just ordinary holiday shots. Oppenheim took 15 of these photographs, held them up against a real sunset in New York and photographed them again. This way, one sunset doubles the other, so that subtle differences spring to the eye. Suddenly, that tiny scrap of dust becomes apparent, perhaps just thrown up by a tank, or the light from a helicopter in the air. While sunsets are inevitably associated with romance, in this work, Oppenheim takes away the magic and shows the banality of such images, which, by linking Iraq to New York, gives them new weight. As she explains, 'Re-looking at such moments allows for transformation. I try to make images that point towards the main event as well as in other directions; the erosion of information through the passage of time, the canned beauty of a sunset, the aestheticization of war, the socially loaded meaning of everyday objects.’
With such clarified attention to the photographic document, the work of Lisa Oppenheim is connected to the art of a generation of contemporary artists engaged with the reworking and manipulation of raw documentary material. In this context, Oppenheim certainly knows how to choose her own path, with her specific interest and focus on the technical possibilities of photography and the implications thereof for our understanding of photography itself. Her oeuvre begins to surface as an opposing force, playing on the traces left by time, such as the rattle of the 16mm projector and the grainy image from the photocopier, which our digital universe seems to have eradicated. This lends her work a sensitive, slightly nostalgic character, in which the past is ambiguously and simultaneously both present and absent.
Laurie Cluitmans is an art historian and critic, Amsterdam
Lisa Oppenheim: Blood of the Ghosts
Galerie Juliètte Jongma, Amsterdam
6 November – 18 December 2010
The Sun is Always Setting Somewhere Else is part of the exhibition Van Zwaarden en Ploegen at Kunstfort Vijfhuizen, 4 September – 28 November 2010
- Susan Sontag, On Photography (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1978), 9.
- The artist describes her work on the website of the Rema Hort Mann Foundation. See: http://rhmfoundation.org/egallery.php?id=223&img=1556&a