Barbara Ess: Inside Out @Magenta Plains

JTF (just the facts): A total of 8 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in a single room gallery space on the main floor. All of the works are c-prints, made between 1984 and 2000. Physical sizes range from roughly 43×33 to 53×78 inches, and edition sizes range from 3+1AP to 5+1AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: When a sophisticated contemporary photographer deliberately decides to employ a homemade pinhole camera to make his or her images, we can assume that we are dealing with an artist who wants to push back on the traditions of the medium. While virtually any digital camera purchased today will nearly automatically deliver a consistent set of crisply perfect exposures, a pinhole camera is inherently makeshift – depending on the mathematical proportions of the simple box and its aperture and the way the camera is then used by the photographer, all kinds of distortions, blurs, and dark tunneled effects are possible (and likely). By choosing an artistic tool that delivers such unstable and improvisational aesthetics, the photographer is signalling that he or she wants to explore ideas and moods outside the ordinary.

This show gathers together a selection of Barbara Ess’s pinhole photographs from the 1980s and 1990s, giving us a taste for how her conceptually-savvy and experimentally-rich photographic mind leveraged the atmospheric qualities of such a simple camera. Each of the images on view feels both intimate and uneasy, expressively probing emotional terrain that doesn’t entirely want to give up its secrets.

Ess’s 1986 pinhole image of a woman in a kitchen picking up the shards of a broken cup turns a mundane moment into something fleetingly ethereal. The scene itself is straightforward – a woman bends down to pick up the fragments of a broken white cup which has fallen on the kitchen floor; the setup includes the checkerboard tiled floor of the kitchen, the nearby cabinets, the dark legs of a disembodied man, and the woman herself, crouched down in a black dress decorated with white splotches. But Ess’s vision of this forgettable moment feels altogether surreal. Echoes of black and white jump and swirl around the frame, from the dress to the broken cup to the wildly distorted tiles of the floor. The scene is both sharp in some areas and blurred in others, with the light flared along the edges of the cabinets and behind the legs of the man and the form of the woman dissolving into darkness on the right. Seen as one integrated instant, the effect is strangely Alice in Wonderland magical, with time and whatever we might call reality being bent right before our eyes.

Several of Ess’s photographs are steeped in a sense of hazy memory, of instants captured that are then refracted through the distorting mechanisms of the mind. In one image (from 1984-1985), a mother holds the hand of a child, perhaps on a walk in the park or backyard, with both figures seen from below and blurred almost into faint recognition. The low angle puts us in the mind of the youngster, with the towering mother overhead looming like a protective superhero (or ominous monster). In another (from 1984), an anonymous kiss on the sidewalk in New York seems to have been caught by a passing pedestrian, the unlikely passion of the moment somehow seared into the fleeting glimpse; the darkened edges of the picture seem to pull us right into the urban romance, the kiss taking place with dismissive disregard for whatever might be going on nearby. And a third image (from 2000) is called a self portrait, but all it reveals is a partial sighting of the artist, her face pulled into a distorted blur as the camera focuses its attention of the whorl of grassy meadow in the background behind her; Ess becomes an insubstantial ghost in this picture, a sunny day version of a self in a particular place perhaps now lost to the passing of time.

Many of the other images included in the show turn further toward a darkly haunted mood, skirting the aesthetics of gothic tales and horror movies. Ess’s mysterious pictures force us to imagine what’s happening beyond the edge of the frame, as though in a dream-like narrative state. What’s hiding in the tunneled darkness surrounding a sickly green view of patterned carpeting? What’s going on in the red-tinted image of a baby (or a doll) in a bathtub? And why is the young girl staring into the corner of low ceilinged room (perhaps an attic), hemmed in by the darkness? These visual stories are pleasingly elusive and open-ended, leaving plenty of room for our own invented possibilities and emotional transference. In Ess’s hands, even an up close face can be turned into something almost alien, the features washed out into a mask-like, flat eyed blur in misty orange.

Images like these can often drift into a literalness that drains them of their mystery, but the best of Ess’s pictures settle into uneasy psychological territory, leveraging the aesthetics of the pinhole camera to wrap her subjects in enveloping darkness and insubstantial blur. Are they images from the world around us, or fantasies (or memories) bouncing around in Ess’s head? That we can’t quite know is what gives these images their durable bite – their expressiveness wanders from exterior to interior without a defined border, making perception something more malleable than usual.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced between $22000 and $38000, based on size. Ess’s 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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