Moving Beyond Description, Mark Johnstone

Scientist and artist alike have been mystified for centuries by the common physical sensation of sight. The human process called "seeing" has been partially explained through various scientific models and philosophical theories; yet alternative conceptions for the experiential phenomenon of sight have been endlessly created through the intuitive efforts of artists. Photography provided a practical and easy means for describing things. This invention complicated the conception of the eye as an experiential link between the human mind and the world. Photography was a new connective mediator — a way of indicating what was visually significant or important — and through specific practice it was also an aesthetic way of looking at things.

The act of photographing means to observe or describe something and as a form of pointing, conveys or implies a polemical position. The photograph is a synthetic visualization mediated through optical and chemical processes; it is concurrently a representation of things and an organization of abstract ideas. While a strength of photography appears to be its descriptive power, abstraction is a fundamental attribute of even the simplest photographic image. The elusive and abstract potential of photography is em-bedded in the word itself; for a literal translation of the Greek roots (phos-graph) of the word photography, as any history student knows, means "writing with light".

The photographs of John Divola set up a dialectical discourse between experience (what is known of the world) and visual sensation (what is seen in the image), and balance two endemic features of the medium. First, that a photograph has an unprecedented, unique and direct connection to the world as an indexical sign of physical traces much like that of a fingerprint or footprint. Second, it is a referential form of representation and is removed from experience itself. Divola’s work accepts the inherent limitations of the medium (an image is always the product of compromise), and the authority of photographic description, and uses the potential of these features to playfully and intuitively investigate the medium itself.

The black and white Vandalism photographs consist of the spray paint markings which Divola made on the interior surfaces (floors, walls, ceilings) of abandoned houses. These marks (dotted grids, short curving strokes) look like arbitrary graffiti or systematic conceptual gestures. They visually compound a perceived dimensional space in the photographic view, simultaneously appearing to be on the flat two-dimensional photographic paper, and within that "real" three-dimensional space of the original scene. The marks are both an alteration of the space and the visual residue of a physical activity. An indeterminate time frame is capitulated by his use of electronic flash and a relative neutrality of the locations. The photographs question the descriptive powers of photography as a medium, and the accepted concepts of reality. As the spray paint vandalizes the houses, so too do the photographs "vandalize" a tradition of straight photography.

The Zuma photographs utilize many of these same strategies, but are more complex through the incorporation of new elements such as color, the natural world, and an observance of how things change. The colors applied to the building interior appear bold and garish, particularly when compared to the serene atmospheric lushness of an exterior natural world. The cyclical appearances of the ephemeral exterior views, which in recent photographic history have assumed cliched proportions, are played in contrast to a linear disintegration of the physical man-made shelter. The house, ever present through the group of images, becomes a representation of man’s rational logic. There is a magic in the Zuma images for, despite the familiarity or shocking qualities of their parts, they retain a compelling and evocative visual mystery.

It is, perhaps, useful to digress for a moment, to better understand Divola’s subsequent work. His fascination with descriptive photographic representation is partially due to noticing many years ago (prior to the Vandalism photographs) that art reproductions as photographs — particularly of performance or conceptual art, but certainly including all forms — could be interesting images, but as photographs were a secondary form of information. He subsequently became interested in making — transforming, changing, constructing, investigating — a situation so that the photograph would be a primary form of compelling experience. There is an insistent visual quality in all of his photographs, whether as observations of atmospheric phenomena in the natural world or presentations of constructed symbols. His work after the Zuma photographs may be subdivided into three groups, although they are not codified as series, which are; diptychs; images of "sculpture" in the landscape; and studio constructions.

The diptychs embody a relatively pedagogical syntax and, as a deliberate juxtaposition of incomplete or fragmentary values, intellectually address photographic meaning. The nature of photographic interpretation and representation is investigated through a bicameral juxtaposition of representation (what things mean as an image) and strategically effect (how things can be changed). The visual orchestration of photographic conventions (such as the use of a colorful wash of light) pragmatically pushes an image to a fulcrum point where it teeters between specific representation (the image represents this particular woman at one time, one place) and symbolic representation (the image as a general description of woman).

The things appearing in the diptychs have a resonant physicality as: sensorial experience (fan/ice); anthropomorphic projection (woman/animal); rational intelligence (constructed geometrical shapes); and: the natural world (a raw tangle of bushy chapparal, or ocean edge). A fundamentally different use of things appears in the later, single views. There is a degree of opacity in the melancholic representation of a wolf as a cardboard cut-out — a blank symbol or sign. These later constructed shapes are a generic representation of things and, in contrast to the mysteries of the natural, assail representation itself. This devolution of "object meaning" in an image addresses how symbolic meaning may shift through a lapse of time.

In retrospect, an idea running throughout his work is the investigation of descriptive photographic representation. There is a progressive attention to marks, color and shapes, which are measured or balanced against the forces and qualities of a natural world. The landscapes in his Vandalism photographs are the private and hidden recesses of abandoned houses, and these images address the unseen potential of landscape as a subject. The Vandalism and Zuma photographs are visually connected to other visual forms of art, such as action painting, performance and sculptural installation. The diptychs expunge that narcotic visual wonder dominating the Zuma images and, as they are not fully abstract, use it as an alluring factor of sensorial familiarity. This sensorial familiarity — what is essentially an inherent and recognizable element of the natural world — is utilized as the basis for a further investigation of photographic process and seeing.

There is a consistent progressive investigation and phenomenological exploration of objects, symbols and signs throughout Divola’s work. In his most recent images, a viewer is assailed with the generic representation of a complete image. Things of the natural world, replete with the mystery of physical forces, are photographically reduced to a shell-like state. The images are an almost transparent form of representation — a reduced visual essence of matter, like the skin of a snake. Over fifty years ago Laszlo Moholy-Nagy marveled at the mysterious power of x-rays; materiality became transparent in the x-ray, and through this transparency structure became apparent. Moholy-Nagy’s untenable excitement about the conceptual implications of x-rays is applicable to Divola’s recent images. Viewer expectations are intertwined with the unique qualities of the medium and, under the aegis of art, neurological, sensorial and experiential approaches to the photographic image and the world are penetrated and reshaped. These images are a synthetic and modern dematerialization of photography itself, a morphosis of that process generated and governed by optical and chemical laws. The medium of photography has become a content in this imagery, for what is assumed to be transparent has become opaque and the invisible has been made visible. The descriptive power of photography is not immutable, for Divola has moved the realm of a photographic image beyond mere description; it has assumed new dimensions as a fact of the imagination.

© Mark Johnstone