Wednesday, January 28, 2009

The Last Days of W...

Enough praise has already been given Alec Soth's work, and his latest offering The Last Days of W fairs no differently. No problem here- I'm a fan too. So why did I leave feeling somewhat let down after finally getting to see actual prints live and in person at The Stephen Wirtz Gallery- after all, the difference between the latter and his recent newspaper quality booklet are not unlike comparing theater quality surround sound to that of a transistor radio? The answer I realized is that I couldn't "bond" with said images- their very size forbade me and kept me at distance. I had to choose between detail and overall image, the former allows only the curiosity of close up inspection, but with the latter I lost much of the sense of intimacy that makes the photographic viewing experience a joy.

Mind you, it's not exactly the first time I've seen large prints, and I've certainly seen larger. Perhaps, with books and monitor screen taking primary lead of late, I've simply grown unaccustomed to the experience. Perhaps the large cavernous room they were exhibited in, with more than ample room between images contributed to the sense of isolation, detachment, and ultimately, distraction. I don't know. But I very much wanted to leave with a well reproduced book in my arms to really get to know these images.

I didn't get that feeling with Avedon's wall sized portraits, perhaps it's just the more primal nature of faces against backdrops developed from infancy that allows one to process them as a whole more readily. Nor did I get that sense when I saw Todd Hido's large minimalist landscapes in the same venue. Soth's landscapes however, lend themselves to a variety of details throughout the picture area that work both in the small hidden corners, as well as in the large expanses that dominate. The magic comes in viewing them as they work together as one organic whole. As John Szarkowski reminds us, the surface of the photographic print is but a mirror, we don't have the texture of a painting's canvas to help mediate and transform the experience for us.

With so much attention given to the process of making photographic books of late, I think we may need to pay a bit more attention to how photographs are displayed in their ultimate and presumably most potent form of presentation.

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