An online introduction to the exhibit which ran May 13th through June 4th, 2016, at Studio 2091 — Mothersbaugh Gallery, in Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio.
in·fra dig \ˈin-frə-ˈdig\ adjective: beneath dignity. old-fashioned
In the mid-1970s, when Stephen Paternite began to incorporate black & white infrared photography into his artistic practice, photography itself occupied a precarious position within the art world. It was most useful — conventional wisdom held — for its ability to document reality. It was not a viable artistic medium — ran one counter argument — because it did not reveal the hand of the artist, nor could it tackle the important cultural, mythic, historical subjects and themes, as had painting and sculpture. One could not photograph the Adoration of the Magi, for example, without staging the event with actors, thereby circumventing the medium’s inherent mechanical truth telling ability.
Even with its history of great, inarguably artistic practitioners (Steichen, Weston, Strand, etc.), these contrary propositions held photography-as-fine-art in a nascent stage of skeptical acceptance for decades. In fact, infrared photography may have attracted Stephen, the persistent contrarian, precisely because it straddled the opposing concerns of the time: documentation and expression. An infrared photograph of a tree is undoubtedly a photograph but within it a tree appears surreal.
Today the argument seems quaint for its complete reversal. Photography is decidedly an art form for its artful combination of documentation and expression, its ability to express an artist’s concept, its narrative qualities when sequenced in book form, and its use as artistic raw material in collage, photogram, and the like. On the other hand it has become ironic to call oneself a photographer. Without benefit of technical or artistic training, we all have the basic ability to take, post, view, ponder, comment on, communicate with, and otherwise use photography. And with the proliferation of Photoshop, Instagram filters, and other forms of manipulation, photography’s truth claims are no longer a selling point.
In retrospect it is also obvious that mid-20th century art photography did not hew to a canonical definition of art because it was functioning far above the academic debate over its existence. The many artists Stephen admired — Lee Friedlander is a conspicuous example — simply pointed the camera at that which interested them. Form, composition, texture, shape, line, subject, or any combination of these elements, were the things that defined the style and vision of any particular artist. The hand of the artist was visible, not through physical brush strokes, but through aesthetic and technical judgments preceding the release of the shutter, as well as in the darkroom. Any claims to truth were revealed to be unapologetically subjective.
Recently, much of that 1970s approach has been replaced by the constraints of concept. To be a contemporary photographic artist is to photograph with a purpose, to fill-in the preconceived intellectual or socio-political outlines of an overarching project. These often take the form of a taxonomy, usually in portraits, of some small or disaffected subculture the artist has discovered somewhere in the world. These projects are not necessarily bad, on the contrary most are good — outstanding technically and aesthetically — but a striking feature among them, besides ubiquity, is similarity. Today the art photographer’s most common goal is to publish a photo book. The more common late 20th century goals, a portfolio of prints or a traveling exhibit, are decidedly old fashioned. And perhaps most importantly, the contemporary, taxonomic approach to art photography has surrendered to that old idea that art has to have a grand theme as well as show, through strength of concept, the unmistakable hand of the artist. To put it simply, pictures once worth a thousand words, are now more likely to derive value from thousand word explanations.
When Stephen Paternite and I began our collaboration in 2010, this kind of breezy and incomplete summary of recent photo art history was not on our minds. The immediate goals were more practical. Stephen was using a small, inexpensive, consumer grade, point and shoot camera, modified for infrared capture. Because he had already dismantled his darkroom years earlier he needed a way to make fine detailed prints of these digital infrared photographs. Luckily I had been dabbling in digital printing and was eager to take on the project, editing and printing his recent work. I liked what he was doing so much that I soon acquired a similar infrared camera and began to edit and print some of my own work. We corresponded by photograph through email, later Facebook, and began to discuss several projects including a catalog of Stephen’s recent work as well as a series of prints for collectors and various group and solo exhibitions.
In this, our first joint exhibition you will see thirty-eight photographs presented in pairs, and other groupings, demonstrating a similar vision — due in some part to Stephen’s influence on me — between wildly different subject matter. For the most part Stephen photographs northeast Ohio, more specifically Akron, in and around the neighborhood in which he has lived for most of his life — the few notable exceptions were taken on various vacations. I tend to photograph during my complex, repetitive, daily commute — which involves driving, parking, walking, waiting, riding a train, and the reverse — from suburban New Jersey to NYC and back every day.
Notice first the similarities between Stephen’s, Window Reflection, Camp Clarkmill, Norton, Ohio 2014, and the street reflection in my photo titled, Walking #72 (43rd Street) NYC 2015 (header image above).
Next, note the equilibrium created by the bench dwellers in Stephen’s, Lake Anna, Barberton, Ohio (09.27.14) and the lone figure in my, Untitled #35 (Times Square) NYC 2012.
Not to mention the formal symmetry between The O’Neil House (06.12.15) Akron, Ohio and Untitled #24 (Bus Window) NYC 2014.
One might be tempted to ascribe these pairings to town and country if not for the persistent formal similarity between my, Untitled #84, New Jersey 2014 — a fortuitous confluence captured in the country, through the window of a speeding train — and Stephen’s, Store Window & Reflections (08.05.15) New York City, an irreproducible combination of light, reflection, and shadow which Stephen photographed on my home city turf.
These examples are neither accidental nor deliberate. Despite the disparate environs, it is clear that we have both returned to that 1970’s anti-conceptual approach of carrying a camera at all times and simply responding to our surroundings, putting a frame — a visual and intellectual parentheses — around that which interests us. As the show title suggests we are unapologetically old fashioned — perhaps undignified — in our desire to enable the WYSIWYG(1) experience of standing before carefully crafted photographic prints, thoughtfully sequenced. They might be described as landscape, street, or something in between (candid landscape?) but my fondness for witticisms, puns, and other forms of bon mot, prompt me to describe some of them as a whirligig(2), others as a thimblerig(3), and a few as unadorned little jewels like a caprifig(4). In any case, this jury-rig(5) combining the accessible technology of digital infrared with easily available every day subject matter, and a deep dig into the intrinsic surrealism of infrared photography itself are hereby presented for your consideration. And it’s fun to say: Infra, Dig?
Ryan Paternite, May 2016
(1) WYS·I·WYG \ˈwi-zē-ˌwig\ noun: an artificial display that shows the exact appearance of a thing.
(2) whirl·i·gig \ˈhwər-li-ˌgig\ noun: a child’s toy that spins rapidly.
(3) thim·ble·rig \ˈthim-bəl-ˌrig\ noun: a swindling trick in which a small ball is quickly shifted among three small cups to fool the spectator guessing its location.
(4) cap·ri·fig \ˈka-prə-ˌfig\: a rare and beautiful wild fig of southern Europe and southwestern Asia.
(5) ju·ry–rig \ˈju̇r-ē-ˌrig\ noun: a built structure using available materials.