The Genetic Wars by Barbara Confino

Experimental Photography

Sheila Pinkel and László Moholy-Nagy

Photo by Sheila Pinkel . Source:
Sheila Pinkel, "Folded Paper" c. 1974-1982

Remember when photography was a science experiment? It need not even unfold in a laboratory, not when Modernism was itself an experiment. Sheila Pinkel conducted her experiments with little more than glass rods and folded paper. Still earlier, László Moholy-Nagy chafed at the limits of box cameras and black-and-white prints. Who can say which looks closer to today?

Even when art meets science, Modernism was about more than the triumph of pure reason. Of course, past experiments had included photography's origins, in the confluence of chemistry and optics to capture sunlight. They included stop-action photography for Harold Edgerton at MIT.

Think instead, though, of the 1920s and 1930s, when a photographer's studio could resemble an eighth-grade science fair — with simple equipment and a child's wonder at the strangeness of life. Think of the very image of a child in its mother's arms for Alexander Rodchenko, on a grand stairwell reduced to alternating strips of black and white. Or think of Man Ray, with his only lens the mind's eye, for whatever came to hand on photographic paper exposed to light.

Photo by Sheila Pinkel . Source:
Sheila Pinkel, "Glass Rods" c.1974 - 1982

Sheila Pinkel looks back to their uncanny mix of naiveté and sophistication, and she could hardly mind if the results seem awfully slow in coming. She emerged slowly herself. Born in 1941, she began her experiments as an MFA student at UCLA—where she studied with Robert Heinecken, for whom technical and cultural innovation meant television. After years teaching at Pomona, she is having her first New York solo show, at Higher Pictures through February 21, with photograms from between 1974 and 1982. One series records patterns of light and color refracted through glass rods in tight parallel. The other ditches everything but the treated paper itself.

The glass series revels in the look of an earlier avant-garde, including cold reds and greens from early abstraction and strong contrasts of black and white. Jaromir Funke had based his photograms, too, on bottles and glasses—and another Czech photographer, Jaroslov Rössler, started as a lab technician during World War I. Pinkel's diagonal arrangements are obvious enough, and their interruption by shadowy clusters are almost inexplicable. For the second series, she crumpled paper, gave it the impression of circles from, I imagine, a drinking glass, and folded it neatly in quarters. Then she had to flatten it again in order to make prints. Sheets can look as palpable as trash or as smooth as geometric abstraction.

Photo by Lszl Moholy-Nagy . Source:
László Moholy-Nagy, "Untitled" 1936-46

If Pinkel looks back, László Moholy-Nagy looks to the future. Born in 1895, he left Hungary to teach at the Bauhaus, where all of modern life was an experiment, but he stands curiously apart from the everyday. His color photograms have no recognizable subject beyond themselves, in looping traces of light like a fireworks display. He might have executed them just the other day. And so in a sense he did, for the technology did not then exist to make these prints. Liz Deschenes has brought them to completion, at Andrea Rosen through February 28, and they now belong to her and others now working on the strange magic of art between photography and painting.

The entire show has as much to do with today as with Moholy-Nagy, sometimes at his expense. The curator, Erik Wysocan, calls it "Production / Reproduction" after a 1922 essay by the artist, who died in 1946, but its focus is not the fabled "age of mechanical reproduction." It is about changing technology as a means less of reproduction than displacement. Moholy-Nagy wrote of wishing "to receive and record various light phenomena (parts of light displays) which we ourselves will have formed," but then he did not fully form the images. He must have taken three slides of his family, left out on a shelf as if by neglect—but not his portrait in a striking color print seated at a table in an open field. He appears as a creator, but also as a subject for history.

It is not an easy history to follow. Another shelf has several Leicas, one a garish gold, because Moholy-Nagy adopted the hand-held camera fifteen years after his essay—and because Soviet knockoffs of Leicas later flooded the market (as, I presume, production / reproduction). The shelf also holds a chunk of silver bromide, because photography was a chemistry experiment, but photos here are way too few. At least one can contemplate them from a four-sided bench that he himself designed, again in reproduction. It is not in galleries and museums everywhere, Wysocan argues, because it looks too much like a swastika, but you could have fooled me. The only certainty is that photographers will always be experimenting, while looking both forward and back.

Photo by Lszl Moholy-Nagy  . Source:
László Moholy-Nagy , "Untitled" c. 1936 - 1946

Experimental Photography

Sheila Pinkel and László Moholy-Nagy
by John Haber

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