Photographs have always served as objects of memory: distilling moments of time, faces, and places on material surfaces that may be revisited until the fragile material wears out. Yet in this digital age, when photographic prints are all but obsolete, the very fact that they are objects of memory serves as the subject matter for some artists, as well as the theme of the thorough and fascinating show currently exhibited in Eastman Museum's Main Galleries.
Eastman Museum Curator in Charge Lisa Hostetler says that the first room exhibits work that fits this theme but was created before the onset of digital technology. And here, some of the most engaging works were made without use of an actual camera. For example, the movements of two life-sized figures are the subjects of the enormous 1965 gelatin silver photograms by Floris M. Neusüss. He created each image by placing a model on light-sensitive sheets of paper and exposing the arrangement to light.
In particular, Neusüss's "Figur Bewegt auf Weiss (Figure Moves on White)" reads like a documentation of a dance, as a woman's twisting form and whipping hair was recorded in multiple exposures as she moved on the paper. And swirling texture from the brushed-on developer and fixer resembles patterned garments. Like shadows pinned to a page after the figure has walked away, the work contains both the impression of a presence and sense of absence.
Long before millennials began posting pictures of their brunch and dinner plates on social media, Robert Heinecken created his 1971 "Documentary Photograms." This series of offset photolithographs were made by placing complete meals atop light-sensitive photographic paper and exposing the arrangements to light. The resulting images are abstract and murky, with bright shapes that are vaguely recognizable as food, and are paired with a fake menu itemizing the contents of each meal.
In the second, sprawling space of the Main Galleries, the show shifts focus to the playful and profound ways that photographers have explored materiality of photographic media since the onset of digital tech. In works by Marco Breuer and Chris McCaw, the "memory" of the physical materials has more to do with mark-making than recording subjects — the capacity of the physical material itself becomes the subject.
Breuer scratched into the dark surface of chromogenic development paper to create his 2003 work "C364," which is displayed with others of its kind made between 1998 and 2010. The resulting sliced or burned flat surfaces achieve a great deal of depth and sometimes resemble records of the pathways of light particles, though they aren't actually images.
McCaw's "Sunburn" series began as a mistake that he transformed into a new technique. When he slept through his dawn alarm — set to stop an overnight long-exposure shot tracking the movement of stars — the sun burned a hole in his film. So he began to load photographic paper directly into his camera and allow the sun to burn and slash what becomes the final work.
McCaw's stark 2013 print, "Sunburned GSP#737 (Santa Cruz Mountains)" is a triptych of gelatin silver prints that form a vague vista, but the star of the images is the focused violence of our star. A document of the sun's great sweeping arc across the sky from sunrise to sunset, the paper is slashed as if with a hot knife: edges of the gash cauterized and curling.
Diane Meyer's work in her series, "Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten," deals in the past becoming less distinct as it rushes further away from us. By hand-embellishing inkjet prints with embroidery, she obscures critical details, such as the faces of subjects in family photographs. The pixelated effect of the cross-stitching also references degrading digital information, Hostetler says.
For Meyer's "Berlin" series, she took snapshots along the route where the Berlin Wall ran through the city and surrounding areas and embroidered the barrier back into the scenes by "pixelating" each image's trees, buildings, and people with needle and thread.
Supplementing the show in the final room is an installation of Jason Lazarus's ongoing project, "Too Hard to Keep." For the past six years, Lazarus has invited people around the world to set down heavy burdens by sending him images and photographic ephemera that is too hard to keep but too important to throw away. For each installation, he selects some images from his growing "T.H.T.K." archive of in-limbo memories of strangers.
It's difficult to refrain from building a narrative in your own head while considering this repository of people and scenes that are so crucial to the donors, but presented here entirely without context or comment.
On Saturday, January 14, at 1 p.m. William Green, curatorial assistant in the Department of Photography will give a guided tour of "A Matter of Memory." This event is included with museum admission.
Check out the online version of this story at rochestercitynewspaper.com to view a video of "A Matter of Memory" curator Lisa Hostetler discussing the show.