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Dennis Jelonnek: Inventory of Absence

Posted on July 09, 2015 - By Dennis Jelonnek
Dennis Jelonnek: Inventory of Absence
Dennis Jelonnek: Inventory of Absence
In TJ Norris' photographic series Shooting Blanks the title suggests a double meaning. The terse formulation may be understood as a declaration of what cannot be seen in these pictures due to its absence and at the same time makes a promise to render this absence visible. Thus the title not only plays with the notions of visibility and invisibility, presence and absence. It also comments on a fundamental feature of photography, its built-in imperative to represent all that is in front of the camera's lens - even a void being registered on sensitive photographic film by the agency of light according to the optical properties of the camera. Hence the series Shooting Blanks can be read as well on its iconic level as it can be considered a comment on the medium of photography within the medium of photography.

Each of the pictures shaping the series keeps the promise described: They all make visible an absence of something by presenting its leftover traces for the beholder to decipher. The black and white photographs show architectures and scaffold-like constructions, which used to present company signs, nameplates or billboards. The lack of the latter and of the information or advertising slogans they were bearing transforms the remaining architectural traces into emblems of a broken reference, which remain only to maintain their deictic prominence without referring to anything anymore. Some pictures even suggest that these structures are not only deprived of their content, but frame and literally highlight the epitome of nothingness, a square of clear or cloudy sky. It seems that these architectural frames against the backdrop of the sky might as well belong to a different order of signs, for they are not deferring their reader to external information, like the name of a company, an advertisement or a corporate logo. Rather they are monuments that tautologically point at themselves in an endless loop of self-signification. Freed from any denotative reference to their environment these built structures only stress their own material and aesthetic presence.

This self-referentiality is not only represented in the continuous motif of Norris' pictures, in fact these photographs become themselves affected by a quality of self-reference, for the attention is being shifted from the evasive objects of the photographs to the medium itself; which, due to its specific mode of recording has been associated since its beginnings with a potential to produce ‘complete' pictures of the visible world and even of the invisible to the naked eye. The representation of actual emptiness in Shooting Blanks might therefore be appreciated as an exact reverse to William Henry Fox Talbot's early photographic inventories of china and glass articles, which he included as bodies of evidence for the exactitude and completeness of photographic images in his Pencil of Nature [1] , the first commercially published book illustrated with photographs. Seen as solitary pictures, Norris' photographs do not show arrangements of objects like Talbot's, but rather the empty boards for their exhibition. In contrast, seen as a multitude in the series, the photographs add up to an impressive inventory of absence.

This absence is most strikingly pictured in Shooting Blanks, when a square-shaped piece of sky is framed by a detached construction, seemingly lending a special glow to the enclosed field and thus resulting in a gestalt effect that was interpreted as an essential feature of viewing pictures as early as in 1902 by the German sociologist Georg Simmel. In his aesthetic study of the picture frame [2] Simmel argues that there is an essential difference between the outer limitation of a picture and other kinds of borders, for the frame declines any osmosis, the passing of its threshold. Instead it excludes the outer world from the inner depiction, creating at the same time a strong internal pictorial cohesion. In this dual capacity of shutting the picture off from the beholder's sphere while at the same time creating its entity, Simmel pinpoints the source of aesthetic pleasure. In the case of Norris' photographs, this effect is being interrupted, for the represented frames enclose nothing, allowing one to look through them, thereby opposing the beholder's habitual expectations.

In this moment of disorientation by, and realization of, the empty frame, the changing momentum of these architectures is pointed out vividly - the now vanished signs. Thus it is the absence and not the presence of the fleeting, which is captured, represented and framed. At the same time, the resulting bright squares resemble unwanted phenomena during the infancy of photography, caused by long aperture times due to a low sensitivity of chemistry applied in nineteenth century photography: blurry portraits, empty boulevards, or fog-like water surfaces as results of the incapability of the medium to fix moving subjects and objects, partially evading their fixation and turning into shadows on the photographic plate.

This topos of the fleeting shadow as a state between absence and presence has been a theme in artistic photography time and again; for instance in the late 1970s, it was prominently used with Hiroshi Sugimoto's Movie Theater [3] series, which bears an uncanny superficial likeness to the white squares in Norris' pictures, although they were conceived in a completely different way: Using long-time exposure, Sugimoto went to a number of cinemas, where the screens provided the motifs like the former signs did for Norris' series. Sugimoto positioned the camera in the auditorium and adjusted its aperture to the length of the film shown, so as to capture every frame of it in one single photograph. Transforming the limitations of early photography into a conceptual given, the cinema screen - which is not only in its shape a close relative to the billboard but is also of the same modern descent - reveals the essence of the movie: a bright white square of projected light, framed by the dark cinema's interior, condensing a span of time into one picture. In this aspect Sugimoto's visual records differ radically from Norris' photographs of empty frames, emphasizing that the latter are actually devoid of time, for the represented constructions have been put out of service, now allowing for the view of a square of timeless sky beyond.

The aforementioned characterization of the series Shooting Blanks as an inventory challenges as well its comparison with the photographic typologies of German industrial architecture by Bernd and Hilla Becher, which they shot and arranged mainly in the late 1960s and 1970s. At first glance, there are some resemblances to them in Norris' series: the choice of built structures that are bound to disappear due to their obsolescence, the use of black and white as a means of aesthetic harmonization of the single pictures, and a certain seriality in which the pictures are exhibited or printed. But the differences to the Bechers' work are equally revealing.

One main difference is that there is no process of normalization in the way a type of architecture is shown in Norris' pictures. While the Bechers always positioned the camera at the same distance, photographing a specific view of a building from a certain angle, Norris avoids this kind of standardization of objects in front of his lens, approaching each of them in a slightly different way. Thus every single photograph maintains its aesthetic individuality instead of merging in a homogeneous tableau or typology. Still, there are certain categories of subject and composition to be differentiated in the photographs of Shooting Blanks: There is a basic separation between detached constructions and buildings that used to bear a sign. Both are subdivided by either being pictured as a whole, showing minutely every detail, or by focusing on graphic silhouettes in strong contrast, abstracting structures' shapes from their former function, sometimes enhancing them by including additional details of their surroundings, like wires or birds.

While the former way of representing the whole structure in a kind of neutral, complete record is aesthetically closer to a documentary approach in photography as the Bechers share it, the latter way of using details of these architectures to create ornamental compositions refers to architectural photography in the vanguard New Vision [4] of the 1920s, resembling photographs, for example, by László Moholy-Nagy, Alexander Rodtchenko or El Lissitzky. While these artists were hailing photography as a new medium capable of revealing an aesthetic of contemporary everyday life by applying a modern gaze through the camera's lens, Norris' photographs seem to strip their formal visual language of any euphoric attribution. Like the aforementioned artists, he also chooses unconventional perspectives to alienate his conventional subjects, focusing on details to create abstract black and white photographs with dramatic lighting and shade. But other than in similar New Vision photographs of urban spaces, there is a simple and strict absence of human life, which sets Norris' pictures apart not only formally, but also concerning their stance on the subject they represent.

Accordingly, both references to the Bechers' typologies as well as to the photography of the New Vision movement are no random formal similarities - these positions as well as Norris' work have in common their aesthetic occupation with the rise and fall of the notion of modernity, in which photography itself played an important part: Whereas photography and billboard advertisement were getting more popular as well as increasingly associated in the 1920s - photos being used for advertisement as well as for propaganda, thereby establishing a visual language of modernity that is most prominently represented by the Bauhaus - the photographs of the Bechers from the 1960s and 1970s were intended to show the descent of this very period of modernity by saving its remaining industrial architecture on the verge of demolition in their typological archive. Photographing empty and derelict signs in ways that refer remotely to the modernist visual language of the 1920s as well as to the neutral aesthetics of the Bechers' documentary can thus be understood as an implicit comment on the continuing changes from late modernism to post-modernism, their effects on society and on emerging new ways of communication and consumption. It is within their unpredictable further development which becomes pointedly visualized by the empty spaces in Norris' photographs that may be read as potentialities, positive or negative.

Deprived of the contingent and changing information they were bearing, the static architectural structures represented in Shooting Blanks are basically sculptural monuments, referring again to the Bechers' understanding of their subjects, which they which they described in the title of a catalogue published in 1970 as Anonymous Sculptures [5]. Whereas the Bechers pictured intact buildings that were partially still in use, performing for example as water towers, headframes or furnaces, the structures in Norris’ pictures are out of order. Bereft of their respective texts and images they rather resemble torsos. In this respect, the work of TJ Norris and the process preceding it, his traveling and searching for suitable photographic subjects all over the United States may be compared to an archeological approach; For it resembles the quest for, and the excavation of, the incomplete remains of an era gone by, which create an alien and at the same time unusual aesthetic effect on their beholder. Sculptural torsos - be it antique statues or former signs - prove to be artifacts endowed with a cultural meaning for their respective epochs, and have to be made visible by uncovering them from soil or daily inattention. Both are gaining aesthetic and historical meaning not although they are fragmented, but because they are. Valued as condensed forms they do not convey an aesthetic intended by their creators, but have gained, by being subject to the course of time and their individual fate, an aesthetic of ruinous transformation: They are not anymore what they were intended to be, yet they are still present and thereby assert their existence. Now their aesthetic presence is additionally twisted by Norris' transfer of these sculptural torsos into photographic representations, resulting in an exchange of their statuses: The architectural structures which used to bear, frame and exhibit information have visibly lost their original images and texts - instead their remains are now pictured, framed and transformed themselves into the message of a photograph.

Dennis Jelonnek M.A., Researcher at the Center for Advanced Studies BildEvidenz. History and Aesthetics, Freie Universität Berlin, Germany.

Jessica Hodgkiss, Translator.

1. William Henry Fox Talbot: The Pencil of Nature, New York: Hans P. Kraus, Jr. 1989. Original publication: The Pencil of Nature, London: Longman, Brown, Green & Langmans 1844-1846 [published in six installments].
2. Georg Simmel: The Picture Frame. An Aesthetic Study, in: Theory, Culture & Society, Volume 11 (1): 11 - Feb 1, 1994. Original publication: Der Bildrahmen. Ein ästhetischer Versuch, in: Der Tag. No. 541, November 18, 1902.
3. Hiroshi Sugimoto: Theaters, Cologne: Walther König 2006.
4. László Moholy-Nagy: The New Vision. Fundamentals of Design, Painting, Sculpture, Architecture, New York: W. W. Norton & Company, inc. 1938.
5. Bernd Becher / Hilla Becher: Anonyme Skulpturen: A Typology of Technical Constructions, New York: Wittenborn 1970. Original publication: Anonyme Skulpturen. Eine Typologie technischer Bauten, Düsseldorf: Art-Press 1970.
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