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Unphoto-graphable @ Fraenkel

Bruce Connor, Angel Light, 1975

Photography has the power to depict ‘true’ and direct images of reality as witnessed by the photographer, but it doubles as a tool capable of documenting that which eyes cannot see. Some of the most compelling images depict not just fact, but thoughts, emotions, scientific phenomena, mysterious events and unbelievable occurrences. Whether by accident or intent, photographs have the ability to give shape to the inaccessible, the invisible and the incomprehensible. In this expansive and impressive group show “odd, tingly and sometimes profound” photographs by artists and amateurs represent all manner of ‘unphotographable’ subject matter, pulling the viewer along for a deeply engaging ride through photographic history.

Occupying all three rooms of the gallery, this museum-like show of over 50 works excels in making connections between conceptual artistic practices, utilitarian images and chance phenomena. Juxtapositions within gallery spaces are often surprising but always deeply satisfying, such as the placement of Bruce Conner’s corporeal Angel Light (1975), a gelatin-silver photogram, its washy gray tones resembling a giant watercolor, across the room from Liz Deschenes’ more contemporary silver-toned photogram Front/Side #19 (2012). Alongside Deschenes’ abstract monolith, Swallowed Coin, Military Hospital (1918), by an unknown photographer, humorously depicts a jauntily-angled skeleton who seems to grin sheepishly above a perfect circle of metal lodged in his throat.
 
Images in the  first gallery move between representations of the body and sensory perception to large-scale historical events. Many of the photographs share a sense of sweeping motion, either a representation of time or the effect of its passage on the human body. Adrien Majewski’s descriptively titled Mr. Majewski’s Right Hand. Posed for 20 Minutes. Room Temperature. (1895-1900) resembles delicate and flowing weather patterns over a soft off-white ground. Alfred Steiglitz’s Equivalent (1931), one of a series the artist made between 1922 and 1935, depicts a sliver of moon seen through shifting clouds — a technically difficult image to capture and an evocative, nearly-abstract representation of movement that Steiglitz believed mirrored emotional and psychic states.
 
Adrien Majewski, Mr. Majewski's Right Hand, 1895-1900, printing out paper print

On my first passage through the show, I failed to recognize the Gerhard Richter pigment print as an image of the Twin Towers mid-disaster on 9/11. The zoomed-in image, blurred and obscured by horizontal brushstrokes, serves as an attempt to capture the violence and enormity of that moment. In contrast, Malcolm W. Browne’s iconic (but humbly-sized) photograph, Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc (1963), clearly represents a single moment in history that has come to stand for a much larger series of events, influences andstruggles.

In the second gallery, the narrative takes a more cosmic turn, representing small to grandiose phenomena and our lonely place in the midst of it all. Richard Learoyd’s eerie Empty Mirror (2012) resembles an icy otherworldly passageway through the simple representation of an old mirror on a black background. The print’s glazing allows for the imageless mirror to fulfill its original function, reflecting the viewer into the circle. Elsewhere in the gallery, we see photographs of the stars, the sun and comets. 
 
While many of the photographers included in The Unphotographable are household names, the individual selections are still surprising, revelatory works. One of the most powerful images comes from Diane Arbus, Blowing newspaper at a crossroads, N.Y.C. (1956). In this very dark and desolate image, a grainy newspaper acts like a tumble weed in the desert, projecting isolation and despair in the midst of its urban environment. In a brilliant pairing, Richard Misrach’s Untitled (Sandstorm) hangs alongside the Arbus, reinforcing the Wild West-like atmosphere of its partner.
 
Alfred Steiglitz, Equivalent, 1931, gelatin silver print

In the final gallery, the show turns towards the spiritual, featuring a salon wall of spirit photography from 1880 to 1977. My favorite of these often-silly photographic fakes is a gelatin silver print by SORRAT (Society for Research in Rapport and Telekinesis) of a closely cropped levitating table. Other seemingly unphotographable subjects in the room include a caveman, the Loch Ness Monster and an apparition of Christ. Balancing against the humor is Sophie Calle’s beautifully evocative Autobiographies (The Obituary), a careful combination of text and photograph. And concluding the show, Glenn Ligon’s pure white print, He Tells Me I am His Own, is a perfect bookend to the first work in the show, Adam Fuss’ solid black Untitled

The show’s organization is mindful and knowledgeable without being patronizing, bringing earnest attempts to manifest elusive thoughts and feelings together with pragmatic documents turned unintentionally humorous.
 
The Unphotographable channels these opposing currents into a cohesive, engaging narrative, never losing the viewer’s attention. The excitement of discovery is present in every step along the way, a rare experience in gallery group shows.
–SARAH HOTCHKISS
The Unphotographable @ Fraenkel Gallery through March 23, 2013.
 
About the Author:
Sarah Hotchkiss is an artist and arts writer based in San Francisco. She contributes frequently to the KQED Arts blog and Art Practical and her writing has been featured in essays for Southern Exposure, The Present Group and Gazzetta. She received her M.F.A. from California College of the Arts in 2011. Her artwork has been included in group shows in the greater New York and San Francisco areas, including Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, MacArthur B Arthur and the Popular Workshop. She has attended residencies at the Vermont Studio Center, the Esalen Institute and Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture.
 

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