by David M. Roth
It may be presumptuous to declare winners this early in the year. Nevertheless, I’m sticking my neck out to predict that one of 2023’s most engaging photo shows is the one now on view at Chung 24 Gallery. It’s titled A History of Photography. At first blush, it sounds like a case of overreach, given the 184-year history of the medium, the storefront gallery’s limited space and the fact that the show consists of only 31 images.
They belong to a Bay Area group called the Rolls & Tubes Collective. It arose at the start of the pandemic when its members, who met regularly to discuss each’s other work, wondered how they’d continue operating during the lockdown. The idea they hit upon was using toilet paper (then a scarce commodity) as the basis for images they could share via Zoom. Their efforts are now the basis of a traveling exhibition that debuted in 2021 at the Philadelphia Photographic Arts Center before opening here; it moves next to the Griffin Museum of Photography in Boston.
While TP-based imagery may seem like a slender peg on which to hang an exhibition, it works spectacularly owing to the ingenuity and imagination of the artists involved: Christy McDonald, Colleen Mullins, Jenny Sampson, and Nicole White. For these photographers, all of whom possess enviable track records, that meant putting their own practices (primarily documentary and street photography) aside and exercising different skills: studio lighting, set-building, location scouting, modeling, collage, make-up, costuming and so on. It also demanded that they conduct research to find suitable pictures, a task that entailed scouring their own libraries and the Internet to determine what images could be credibly rendered from cardboard tubes, rolls and tissue paper.
The exhibition operates along a continuum that ranges from faithful reproductions to radical departures, employing everything from street photography and elaborately staged scenes to digital manipulations. Some of the sources for these pictures – iconic shots by Man Ray, Josef Koudelka, William Wegman, Diane Arbus and a great many others — are instantly recognizable. Many others, however, are not, even if you know the creators. As such, the show plays out as a kind of high-level parlor game, ably assisted by a QR-coded checklist that displays the originals, allowing you to test your knowledge in real time and assess relative degrees of fealty to (or deviation from) the sources.
At first, I gravitated toward images whose sources I recognized. But as I got deeper into the show, I found myself drawn more toward photos whose origins I couldn’t identify. Take Harry Callahan’s shot of his wife’s posterior, titled Eleanor, Chicago (1947). Could there be a more apt subject for this show? Colleen Mullins nails it with Charmin, San Francisco (2020), two adjacent stacks of three TP rolls, spatially flattened (like the original), with a sliver of a shadow running down the center: a one-shot masterclass in abstract “figuration.” More abstract, still, are the perception-bending set-up photos of Canadian artist Erin Shirreff, whose 2019 show at SFMOMA slipped my memory. Mullins revived it with a pyramid-shaped construction called Squ. 9 (2020), re-creating the spatial ambiguities of the original with near-perfect fidelity.
For a spell, Chicago photographer Barbara Crane (1928-2019) engaged in serialism by shooting 36 images of a single subject and arranging them in grids. From that portion of her oeuvre, Nicole White chose Whole Roll Saltines (1975), remaking it using different brands of TP whose imprinted surface shapes mimic those seen on crackers.
Not everything in the show aims for such literalness. White’s riff on Kenneth Josephson’s photo, Chicago (1964), for example, employs Josephson’s photo-within-in-a-photo concept, but instead of situating multiple images of tree bark one-inside-the-other, as Josephson did, she uses a bathroom as the backdrop for a pair of interlocking photos that, when superimposed on the scene, draw our attention to a lone TP roll, framed as if it were a distant object of desire.
Politics seep into the exhibition through several images. Jenny Sampson’s version of a Margaret Bourke-White photo from 1947, picturing a civil servant who, the title informs, covered her head in the presence of men, resonates in light of the troubles facing Middle Eastern women today. Where the original outlined the shape of the subject’s head, Sampson’s version masks it entirely, indicating an erasure of personhood, something the Bourke-White’s only hinted at. (Viewers may remember similar efforts Nina Katchadourian undertook a decade before the pandemic in which she wrapped her head in Kleenex and paper towels to transform herself into a character out of a Flemish painting.) Christy McDonald applied a similarly transformative approach to Robert Frank’s iconic Parade, Hoboken (1958), taking an already dark image of working-class Americans hidden by a billowing flag and darkening it further by replacing the obscured subjects — people in windows — with packages of toilet paper: a perfect metaphor for the shortages felt during the pandemic and the attacks on democracy instigated by Trump during that period.
The canniest bit of appropriation in the show? It may also belong to McDonald, who puts a fresh spin on Noir et Blanc (2020), Man Ray’s 1926 surrealist masterpiece. The original shows his lover Kiki de Montparnasse clutching an African mask with her face pressed to a table, eyes closed. McDonald employs a similarly adorned model grasping a roll of toilet paper as if it, too, were an emblem of subconscious desires.
One could walk through the show again and pick several more sets of equally impressive images – a measure of the exhibition’s strength and the resourcefulness artists muster when operating under duress.
# # #
“The History of Photography” @ Chung 24 Gallery through March 11, 2023.
Cover: Christy McDonald, San Francisco, 2020 / after Josef Koudelka, Prague, 1968, archival pigment print, 10 1/2 x 14 inches.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor, publisher and founder of Squarecylinder, where, since 2009, he has published over 400 reviews of Bay Area exhibitions. He was previously a contributor to Artweek and Art Ltd. and senior editor for art and culture at the Sacramento News & Review.