I am frequently drawn to occasions when artists arrive at similar results in response to very different modes of inquiry. To use a term from evolutionary science, this might be called convergence.
Both Etienne Chambaud and Lisa Oppenheim have recently created work using the publicly accessible Farm Security Administration archive of the Library of Congress, specifically appropriating “killed negatives” by Walker Evans. Killed negatives were those rejected by the Farm Security Administration (early on program administrator Roy Stryker was primarily responsible for editing contact sheets); often variants of other images, these negatives were punched through with a hole to destroy their reproductive capacity.
Chambaud’s recent exhibition A brief history of the twentieth century used one of these killed negatives as the turn key to the rest of the show. Titled Personne, 2008, Chambaud sees the subject as a (now) nearly 100 year old child, and says that the exhibition is made for Personne. The artist has re-presented this killed negative, but has chosen to print the negative as a lenticular print. Seen from one angle, the scar of the punched hole is black. Seen from another the hole is white, dissolving in the bleached out details of the child’s shirt. As if by magic, the photo editor’s bullet hole seems to disappear. Chambaud performs a resurrection of the image. Personne as object and as protagonist provide a framework for entering an exhibition which takes a series of fragments and interrogates their representational capacity. In the press release Chambaud writes, “the question is of the object of the objects presented here, in the way these objects unveil or hide, conceal or expose theirselves, in the way some are reflected in others, luminate or simply regard them.” (sic, translated from the French)
Lisa Oppenheim’s series Killed Negatives: After Walker Evans similarly works from the abandoned negatives. Oppenheim re-photographs at or near the location of the original image. She then apparently re-enacts the killing of her own negatives, leaving a punched out hole. This is then printed, with the “chad” placed in the same position as its inverse in the original Walker Evans image that Oppenheim prints. This process of reconstruction creates a complex circuit of temporalities. In contrast to Chambaud she is not “resurrecting” the image; in fact she performs the same violence on the negative, but then rescues the inverse space—the excised chad. This is further complicated by a number of strategies. Oppenheim sometimes presents multiple variants of her modern exposures. Evans’s images are from black and white negatives, Oppenheim’s are color. And of course, by analogue means she could never arrive at a perfect replacement for the excised chad of the original negative. Oppenheim’s presentation acknowledges this as she does not attempt to overlay the two image fragments—rather than a purposed unity, multiple possibilities are invoked. The title of the works quotes Sherrie Levine’s now canonical series, but one senses that the “after” of the title emphasizes a temporal relation, as well as suggesting the artist “chasing after” Evans.
Both artists clearly share an interest in the archeology of visual culture and highlight the subjective processes which have left these images out of the dominant, official histories. But Chambaud is less concerned with material (or medium) specificity than in the overall theoretical underpinnings put into play by the constituent parts of an exhibition. By contrast Oppenheim’s investigations are explicitly photographic. The checklist information explicitly notes that the photographs are “hand printed,” another anachronism in comparison to the technological sophistication of Chambaud’s lenticular print.