ADAM FUSS: LIGHT AND DARKNESS
Photography is a dialogue between the natural and the unnatural. Born of the camera obscura, transformed by the photogram, and ultimately developed into a chemical process, photography has traveled the distance from the phenomenal to the scientific. Today there are artists whose work reminds us that photography is prized equally for its ability to capture reality and to transcend that reality.
The debate that has consumed photography from its inception was encapsulated in the title of one of the medium's earliest masterworks - William Henry Fox Talbot's "The Pencil Of Nature." Talbot may have wished to provide exact, scientific renderings of nature, but he hedged the promise of his new medium by suggesting the images would provide an experience of versimilitude. Photography has always harbored an inherent contradiction: Is it Science or Art? Do photographs represent the authority of reality, or are they subjective phenomena? Photography has continually questioned the legitimacy of its endeavors. There is a level of self-doubt to photography which differentiates it from other artistic mediums such as painting or sculpture.
An awareness of this fundamental schizophrenic quality about photography is useful when considering the work of Adam Fuss, an artist who challenges the traditional definitions of the medium. Fuss, born in England in 1961, raised in London and Sydney, Australia, now resides and works in New York. In 1985 he began exhibiting his first attempts at "embarking on an odyssey of using photography while abusing the camera." Unlike many of his contemporaries, who work with the technology of the their times, Fuss eschewed the 35mm camera and opted instead to return to the origins of photography, using a pinhole camera, one of the earliest means invented of recording an image.
In China during the 5th century BC, Mo Ti first observed that the light passing through a hole into a darkened enclosure yielded an exact image, albeit inverted, of an illuminated object. Aristotle later described a similar experience during an eclipse, and in the 10th century the Arabian scholar Ibn Al-Hazen furthered the understanding of the principles at work, noting that the clarity of the image was dependent on the aperture of the hole through which the light filtered. These principles served as the basis for the camera obscura, developed during the Renaissance and described by Leonardo da Vinci, Vitruvius, Giralamo Cardano, and Erasmus Reinhold, among others. As the historian Naomi Rosenblum points out, "scientists and artists regarded it as both a device for aiding graphic representation and a means of ascertaining basic truths about nature." The Dutch philosopher Canstantijns Huygen called the camera obscura image "life itself." With the discovery of the light sensitive properties of different silver-based chemicals, the creation of paper that would receive and fix an image was possible. The two combined - a box with a pinhole and light sensitive paper secured to record the image - yield the pinhole camera.
Fuss used the pinhole camera to "reject photography but still hold onto it." His work makes photography the partner of history. His images of statuary have a haunted, spectral quality that speaks of another time, another age. This is partially a result of the mechanics of the pinhole camera. But these images elevate a set of values different from those held by other photographers. Because the time needed to record the image through the pinhole requires a long exposure, Fuss' photographs are the antithesis of Cartier-Bresson's "decisive moment." Rather than capturing a single moment, these images speak of prolonged, protracted moments, of elapsed time.
Fuss' choice of subject matter in these photographs is determined largely by his need to depict stationary objects. Rather than dealing with contemporary socio-political issues, these images are referential, looking backwards at the history of photography, in which the earliest images were still lives, and back further still, to antiquity. In subject matter these images call to mind the work of Eugene Atget, the great French photographer of the turn of the century. Fuss' photographs, however, are more evocative and less documentary.
Fuss further distances himself from many traditional contemporary photographers. His prints are unique. Again, this is due to the nature of pinhole photography. By choosing to work with the pinhole camera, Fuss deliberately moves away from the concern with mass reproduction that is endemic to both modern photography and the Pop Art movement.
In his next body of work Fuss continued to subvert modern photography's relationship with the camera by reinventing the photogram. Made by exposing sensitized paper to light, without the intervention of a camera, the photogram again represents a return to the origins of photography. Yet unlike the pinhole photographs, Fuss' photograms are not so consciously retrograde. While the process has its roots in the past, the subject matter and presentation place the work in a contemporary context.
Beginning in 1988, Fuss began to explore studies of abstracted light and color. The images are done on a larger scale - generally 76x101 cm, occasionally as large as 101x140 cm. Although these pieces are not executed on as monumental a scale as has been seen recently in the work of several German artists who work with photography, they still constitute a shift away from the more intimate proportions of the pinhole images. This impression is reinforced by an outward radiating composition in place of the enclosing parameters of the pinhole imagery. While the pinhole created a dark penumbra, these images are determined by a flash of light.
Initially, these images were made by exposing the sheet of photographic paper to colored light. A subsequent series involved placing the paper in a tray of water and recording the concentric circles caused by disturbing the water or dripping droplets of water into the trays. These pieces, done between 1988-1990, have an eerie, spatial quality. Infused with bright, vibrant colors and blinding white light, they resemble some hitherto unknown solar system. Interestingly, Thomas Ruff was exploring outer space in his grand series of astronomical photographs during roughly the same period. From very different starting points and by totally different means, both Fuss and Ruff study the role of light in photography. But where Ruff's work is still about photographing reality, Fuss is more concerned with the metaphorical qualities of light.
In an interview with Ross Bleckner conducted in 1992, Fuss explained the role of light in his imagery: "Light is a physical sensation. If you look at it with purely scientific eyes, its a particle that behaves like a wave or a wave that behaves like a particle. No one knows exactly what it is. It travels very fast. It has something to do with our perception of time... When one works with the idea of light, one's working with a metaphor that's endless and huge and unspecific. because you're talking about something that's almost just an idea, we can think about it but we can never grasp it. The light of the sun represents life on Earth. Light represents the fuel that is behind our existence...It's a mystery."
Fuss has continued to explore variations on this theme. In each case, the description of the making of the image is prosaic. The resultant images, however, are profoundly beautiful. Snakes swim through water or slither over photographic paper covered with talcum powder. None of these compositional elements are identifiable in the photograms. Instead, Fuss shows us a strange and wonderful world of craters and valleys, tides and constellations, forces of nature which feel as if they were deeply rooted in some collective pre-consciousness.
In the beginning of the 1990's, Fuss created a series of biological studies which seemed infused and informed by a sense of spirituality. Placing plants and flowers on the paper, the reaction of the organic and inorganic reads like a stained glass window. At the same time, Fuss executed a series of photograms of stained glass. The relationship is obvious and intentional. The literal images suffer in comparison with the more metaphorical ones, though. The real mystery lies in the botanical images, which pulse with life. In comparison, the photos of the colorful glass are devoid of their original context and meaning. Consequently, they fail to assume the new level of meaning which the botanical imagery achieves.
The plant series has a parallel in the Fox Talbot botanical studies of 1859. The historical allusion is conscious, but the intention is different. Talbot's calotypes were meant to be viewed as records of reality. They functioned as documents in an age of scientific inquiry. Fuss' work, on the other hand, is less about the appearances of things and concerns itself more with possible meanings. Fuss' return to early image-making processes suggests an affinity with the concerns of an earlier period, when actually his use of simplification and abstraction more closely allies him with the Abstract Expressionist painters, or even the Minimalists. Employing the pinhole camera or photogram techniques serves as a challenge to the mechanical nature of modern society. In Fuss' hands, the use of these inventions of the industrial revolution serves to undermine that period's legacy by emphasizing the phenomenal in lieu of scientific exactitude.
Fuss' most recent series of photograms makes his work's relationship to the Abstract Expressionists more readily apparent. Rabbit entrails, hearts, livers and innards are strewn over the print surface in a approximation of a Jackson Pollock or Sam Francis painting. The body heat, fluids and blood react with the chrome chemicals, producing a bold, colorful tableau of vibrant reds, yellows, and indigos. This work is an extension of the plant pictures but the result is more painterly. Fuss admits "I approach photography in the same way [an artist would] approach painting, with the same ambitions. Describing the work, Fuss uses the words "feeling," "yearning," and finally, "epiphany" in a way that confirms his affinity with the Abstract Expressionist movement.
A case could also be made for claiming Fuss as the spiritual descendant of the Pictorialist photographers of the late 1800's and early twentieth century, whose romantic images were meant to evoke similar emotions. Photographers like Stieglitz, Dubreuil, Evans, Sutcliffe, Demachy and Kasebier shifted the focus of photography away from factual representation and towards expressions of individualism. They were among the first to consciously manipulate the print. Their work was designed to stimulate the sensory experience and minimalize the record-keeping aspect of the medium. Yet there remains a fundamental difference between Fuss' work and that of the Pictorialists. His images are most successful when they are completely disassociated from their literal existence. The Pictorialists were still dependent on a degree of recognition. Fuss is not depicting a snake crawling across the print. That describes how he creates the image but not what it is about. It is as if a magician, in revealing how a trick was performed, reveals the mechanics, not the magic.
Instead, a better case might be made for allying Fuss with the Surrealist photographers of the 1920's - Moholy-Nagy and Man Ray. Like them, he subverts the primacy of the camera and celebrates the print as an independent object. The Surrealists were equally concerned with the role and effect of light in photography. However, Fuss is at least a step removed from the Surrealist sensibility due to his focus on the metaphorical qualities of his images.
The historical analogies all bear a kernel of truth. Ultimately though, Fuss' colorful abstractions represent something new and different. In the debate between the experiential and the factual, Fuss presents an amalgam. Not one or the other, but a fusion. In the tension between photography's representation of fact and its metaphorical capabilities, Fuss creates a uniquely post-modern vocabulary. Over the course of a young but prolific career, he has demonstrated a constant vision. In 1990, Fuss used a 20x24 camera to produce an amazing group of portraits. Impossible to reproduce and difficult even to see, these images of children read as dim black outlines against a black background. Like an Ad Rhinehart canvas, they are imbued with a depth and profundity which belies their simplicity. Yet prolonged viewing reveals the literal likeness embedded in the field of black. Here Fuss gives the clearest indication of the synthesis he seeks to achieve in his work. "Light is a metaphor: where you have a dark place, and where that place becomes illuminated; where darkness becomes visible and one can see. The darkness is me, is my being. Why am I here? What am I here for? What is this experience I'm having? This is darkness. Light produces understanding."