Ann Hamilton, Sense

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2023 by Radius Books (here). Hardcover, 8.75×12 inches,
176 pages, with 110 color image reproductions. Includes an essay by the artist and a detailed caption list. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: Every photobook is, in some sense, a reflection of the artist’s particular worldview, but Ann Hamilton’s Sense feels much more fully articulated and immersively conceived than most collections of photographs in book form. Sense brings together half a dozen different photographic subprojects, each with its own individual interests and ideas, which Hamilton has then interleaved and meticulously reimagined as one integrated flow. The resulting photobook isn’t really a dutiful summation or catalog of works recently completed, but is instead its own expressive exploration of the possibilities found in sequences, relationships, and interconnections, using her own photographs as raw material. Given the breadth of Hamilton’s artistic practice, which includes installation, performance, and other experiments with various media over several decades, it isn’t entirely surprising that Sense has been crafted to be so intimately and innovatively experiential.

All of the photographs in Sense share a common aesthetic palette, one that finds Hamilton thinking closely about the feel (or touch) of textures and surfaces, the appearance of things veiled or blurred, the recovered meaning of fragmentary texts and individual words, and the ways photography (and iterative rephotography) can recalibrate those realities. Hamilton has called her work “act of finding, of following one’s attentions into form”, and her photographs resonate with a consistent feeling of directed discovery, of actively using various human senses to patiently engage with her subjects, in an effort to uncover some of their overlooked grace or resonance.

One of Hamilton’s interests is the subtle relationships between people and animals, and her attempts to reach across that divide have been characterized by her as “looking across an abyss of non-comprehension”. Her images of birds seem to compassionately grasp at this unknown. Starting with specimens from various natural history collections, Hamilton has loosely scanned the undersides of the birds, placing their stuffed bodies directly on the glass, creating images that reveal delicate feathers and silhouetted beaks but also drift into uncertainty, finding a kind of poetry in the gently textural bodies of sandpipers, warblers, plovers, roadrunners, puffins, and woodpeckers. She has used a similar approach for making images of her finds on her daily walks, scanning the curled and dried leaves and petals of maples, sycamores, cottonwoods, and magnolias, and discovering lyrical sculptural forms hidden in plain sight.

Hamilton’s portraits of people are similarly ethereal and fleeting. Anonymous figures pose behind a white scrim of semi-opaque film, like ghosts or memories emerging from the mist. A shoulder, an arm, the knotted back of sweater, or a splash of blue hair offer clues to potential identities, but largely drift back into soft tactile essences or contemplative isolations; the veil strips away broad detail, bringing singular attention to whatever is near or touches the curtain. Hands are a repeated motif, echoed by a few archival images sprinkled throughout the photobook, the preciousness of human touch explored in different guises and signifiers.

From hands, Hamilton bridges to things made by hand or marked by a tangible sense of physicality. Fabric swatches are given affectionate attention, with Hamilton’s camera brought up close to drink in the weaves, the undulating wrinkles, the scissored edges, and the individual unraveling strands. Even the gravelly words themselves feel textural – silk, organza, linen, flannel, gauze – and some of the selected scraps feature muted colors, printed patterns, plaids, and polka dots, adding another layer of mood-setting interest. Hamilton replicates this approach with images of various paper stocks, from soft Japanese gampi to rougher blends, exploring the tactile nature of folds, wrinkles, edges, overlaps, and surfaces, the paper itself the subject rather than just the substrate.

Still other photographs revel in the sensuality of words. Hamilton isolates cut paper words and short resonant phrases, like “origin”, “go on looking”, “bearing”, “vanished”, “without speaking”, the fragments taking on new meanings and relationships when separated from their usual context. Other short texts and snippets, from authors like James Agee and Virginia Woolf, are allowed to wander in and introduce related ideas. And a series of what Hamilton calls “concordances” physically align alphabetized sentences from Charles Darwin’s writings, creating visual repetitions of words like HOLD, FEEL, BODY, CLOSELY, and TOUCH, which run vertically and emerge from the enveloping sea of type.

While each of these mini projects contributes adjacent and interrelated visual ideas to the atmosphere Hamilton is creating, in its design and construction as a photobook object, Sense goes much further to weave the images into an integrated whole. It’s as if Hamilton sat down in her studio with all of these different bodies of work and then put herself through an entirely different artistic exercise of reshuffling the photographs in search of echoes, parallels, and other subtle relationships. In many cases, Hamilton has introduced a layer of iterative rephotography and reinterpretation, where pictures of pictures, enlargements, rescans, and other croppings confuse or reorient the tactile qualities we might expect of the originals. Sense also employs various paper thicknesses and sizes, with pages cut down by both width and height in different cases, allowing Hamilton to control the overlaps, see throughs, and layers that are created by the sequenced images. Each page turn not only reveals another image, but offers a new opportunity to make a connection to other images nearby, almost like a scrapbook or a mood board. Links pop up between like color palettes, between words that encourage us see images with a different frame of reference, between variations of touch, and in a constant stream of crossovers between human and animal, photograph and paper, and thinking and seeing. The result is a satisfyingly lush and revelatory book-in-the-hands experience (even the cover is enclosed by a loosely tactile paper wrap), with the intention and care behind the decisions that make up each and every page turn entirely apparent.

In this way, Sense, as a total photobook experience, is much greater than the sum of its parts. It successfully blends seeing and touching into the equivalent of a single sensory experience, where the two modes of perception build on each other with nuance and subtlety. Doing this within the constraints of photography and book making was clearly a challenge, but Hamilton’s results speak for themselves. Sense is filled with visual lyricism and complex harmony, and is a durably memorable and quietly profound example of how a photobook can be both richly multi-dimensional and intimately personal.

Collector’s POV: Ann Hamilton is represented by Gemini G.E.L. at Joni Moisant Weyl in New York (here) and Elizabeth Leach Gallery in Portland (here), where a gallery show of Sense was on view in 2022 (here). Her work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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