Andrew Wright: Selected Diptychs and Multiples, Thames Art Gallery
by Randy Innes, June 2014
Photography is a mechanical image-making process that is informed by multiplicity and reproducibility. On the one hand the mechanisms and technologies of photography open a visual field that is characterized by multiple manifestations. An industrial, and now digital-age technology, photography is an image-making process that is defined by re-inventions, mass production, and mass circulation. On the other hand, reproducibility points to the matter of photography: photosensitive papers, cellulose film and digital files make it possible to produce, reproduce and circulate images over and over again, in different formats and contexts.
The technical and industrial dispositions of photography are central to the medium. For the most part, however, these remain invisible. Photographs are usually understood as photographs of something else. In Andrew Wright’s Selected Diptychs and Multiples we find works that adopt different strategies for considering the technical and material nature of photography as such, while at the same time reflecting on and interrupting photography’s relationship to depiction. At one extreme photography appears as matter – a raw resource subject to certain procedures and effects with the potential for depicting something other than itself. At the other, photography investigates its disposition as a depictive process through extra-photographic means: the photographic depiction of another place and time is troubled by transformations to the operations and objecthood of the photographic image.
Take, for example, Still Water. This installation rises from the gallery floor in a series of five deep, photographic black strips. These black strips give way to images of falling water as they spill onto the gallery floor, grounding the vertical installation. The camera has arrested droplets of water and the spume of a weir in a river in Ontario. A weir is an architectural feature designed to modify the course of a river; here, the concave inversion of the weir in the gallery space occurs within a broader alteration of photography. While Still Water began with a series of photographic captures along an Ontario river, the formal disposition of the installation holds themes like ‘landscape’ and ‘documentary’ at a distance, and opens a dialogue between photography, sculpture and installation art.
Insofar as photographs are impressions of light captured in given locations, photography is often strongly informed by a sense of place. After Kurelek investigates a particular approach to landscape imagining. The title After Kurelek establishes a link with a depictive pictorial practice in Canadian landscape painting that has contributed significantly to modes of imagining place. William Kurelek’s realist paintings of prairie life create an idea of the landscape as a place to be worked and inhabited.
Wright’s photographs of the Arctic landscape have been inverted and divided, interrupting the legibility of the landscape photograph. The blinding whiteness of the snowscape stands in stark and jagged contrast to a deep photographic black of the night sky. While the title After Kurelek creates continuity with a tradition of landscape imagining, this diptych turns depiction on its head, recalling the inversions that occur in camera during photographic exposure. These inversions are usually “corrected” and turned around again, according to pictorial conventions; here they remain inverted. After Kurelek is concerned with disturbing the mythologies of landscape picturing and the conventions and codes of photographic depiction.
Nox Borealis is a series of Artic landscape photographs that have been transformed into a set of monumental and highly affective sculptural objects. As in After Kurelek, here a narrow strip of snow extends across the top of these pieces, and a deep black extends to fill the expanse below. While the snowscape retains photographic qualities, the expanse of black announces a difference, a visual quality that has separated itself from any evidentiary-photographic or depictive function. This black signifies space, expanse, and a disorienting (and unrepresentable?) sense of the beyond that Wright felt in the Arctic. Nox Borealis peels itself unevenly away from the walls of the gallery in an uncanny, undulating emergence from two-dimensionality. As in Still Water, Nox Borealis affects viewers’ engagement with place through their presence in the exhibition space, more than through a photographic evocation of a distant place and time.
If these works emphasize and impose themselves upon the present and presence of the viewer, Flare focuses on the presence and qualities of photographic materials. Before the appearance of any figurative or depictive evidence, photography is constituted through exposure: photography establishes a connection to place by virtue of the exposure of photo-sensitive materials to light at a given place and time. To produce Flare, Wright drilled a hole through two twenty-sheet boxes of large-format positive colour transparencies. The boxes (now apertures), along with the plugs from the drill press (‘negatives’), were packaged and shipped to the Thames Art Gallery with instructions that the boxes and plug be placed on a windowsill over a given period of time. The materials were returned to Wright, who processed and mounted the transparencies for display.
The photographic event in evidence here unfolded over time. Time is an element in photographic processes that photographers usually aim to control and limit according to precise technical operations. Here technical concerns have been dispensed with in favour of a consideration of the most elemental dimension of photography: the writing of light on sensitized materials. Flare is a series of cameraless images, a set of conceptual photo-objects revealing the effects of traces of light that have seeped through the edges of the hole Wright drilled through the box of film. The differences are minor but engaging: one can follow the path of light as it works its way through the sandwiched transparencies with varying degrees of success.
Photography’s multiplicity here is tied not to the reproducibility of the image, but rather to the industrial production and packaging of photographic supplies. Industry has adjusted to the ascension of digital photography by reducing and in many cases eliminating product lines. The film Wright used to produce Flare, Fuji Velvia 100, was prized by photographers for its highly saturated colours. Along with many ‘analogue’ film products, this film is no longer produced. While the minimalist-conceptual approach used here explores the properties and alters the uses of photographic materials, this series is also informed by the changing nature of the photographic industry.
(2 Identical Silver Prints, 1 Stained) considers damage, indifference, and the strangeness of the neglected and found photograph. The photographs themselves show very little: the camera has been turned towards an asphalt surface and we have lost the bearings offered by a horizon. The silver prints differ slightly from one another and waiver between formal abstractions and indifferent or accidental snapshots.
Aside from the differences between the prints, one photograph has been damaged. A non-photographic dimension has infected this print and transformed the surface. Wright’s own found photographs trigger the memory of a failed project, the challenges of printmaking, and the always possible infection or syncopation of meaning by an unexpected, non-photographic element.
More than a pictorial-depictive art, more than simply the autonomous impression of nature on prepared surfaces (to recall the rhetoric of the early photographers), photography is a technique that opens a relation between modes of production and conventions in representation. Photography is a putting-into-relation that always works to conceal this very labour. For philosopher Jean-Luc Nancy the relations opened by photography constitute an exposure to alteration, alterity, and estrangement that have broader implications in the context of thinking of the ethics of image-making.
Between the subject of the click and the subject grasped, there is a coexistence without coincidence, or there is a coincidence without contact, or a contact without union.
Wright’s work is an effort to open and dwell in these processes of photographic grasping and putting-into-relation. This contact without union, this grasping, may be the name of the properly photographic.
 Jean-Luc Nancy, “Nous Autres,” in The Ground of the Image, Trans. Jeff Fort (New York: Fordham UP, 2005), 106.
Randy Innes has published on contemporary and historical photography, contemporary art, museum practice, and visual theory. Innes is particularly interested in figures of ruin, disaster and failure in visual art. His recent research on war, photography, and image theory is forthcoming in the Canadian Art Review. A visual and cultural studies scholar, Innes teaches and writes in Ottawa.