Brea Souders, Vistas @Bruce Silverstein

JTF (just the facts): A total of 27 photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the front gallery space and the reception area. All of the works are archival pigment prints (most with hand coloring), made in 2019 or 2020. Physical sizes are roughly 13×12, 15×12, 12×17, 22×30, or 40×56 inches. All of the works are unique, except for the four non-hand colored works, which are available in editions of 3+2AP. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: As 21st century photography has become increasingly computational, adaptable contemporary photographers have tuned themselves into the artistic possibilities created by a new world of algorithmic seeing. In some cases, the choices made by algorithms have led to unexpected visual glitches, blurs, pixelizations, and other effects (like the intentional and unintentional washouts of Google Earth); in others, the unpredictability of everyday life has interrupted the primary aim of various programs (like bystanders caught by the passing car-mounted street mapping cameras of Google Street View). Artists are surprisingly adept at finding the bugs, corner cases, and outliers in these tools, and then creatively exploiting those features/weaknesses to construct new kinds of photographic art.

In her recent works, Brea Souders has probed the functional edges of Google Photo Sphere, an app used to make 360 degree camera views. As the user turns a smartphone camera in a full circle, the software makes various exposures, which it then stitches together into one smooth panorama. The app intentionally removes any distracting remnants of people (like an interrupting arm), but what Souders discovered is that it leaves in place the cast shadow of the photographer. Depending on how the image fragments are assembled by the algorithms, these shadows are cropped, layered, merged with other shadows nearby, and otherwise distorted, creating strange disembodied silhouettes. While Photo Sphere can be used anywhere, Souders has searched out image examples made in the wilderness of the American West, and isolated the moment when the shadow of the now anonymous photographer is essentially centered in the foreground.

The lone figure (or small group of figures) placed in a landscape has been a consistent motif across the arc of art history. Figures have been inserted into paintings, drawings, photographs, and other artworks for all kinds of reasons – to give scale to natural vistas or pastoral scenes, to humanize the unforgiving severity of the land, or to amplify the Romantic drama of a single person faced with the perils of the unknown. The situation of the figure can be similarly varied – out for a pleasant (and non-threatening) afternoon stroll or picnic, on an epic hike or journey, or more ambiguously lost in the hollows of the wilderness. But in only a very few of Souders’s images do we actually get to see what the figure is looking at or surrounded by – one image looks across Yosemite Valley to Half Dome, and a few look down to less recognizable valleys and riverbeds, but for the most part, Souders has centered the shadow, which is most often cast directly down onto boulders, cliffs, rocks, and other overlook points underfoot or falls away down the nearby hillsides.

The shadow figures that inhabit Souders’s images come in a curious range of shapes and sizes. Given the changing angle of the sun overhead, some have become overly elongated, with extended legs and lower bodies, while others have been squished down to stumpy shortened forms, many with the legs and feet erased by the algorithm. The tallest figures start to resemble totem poles, sign posts, or sentinels, their dark verticality standing out amid the rocky terrain, and when the figure overlaps other nearby shadows, the algorithm can get confused, leading to ghostly spirit figures with dark wings, flowing cloaks, jittering arms, or ominously melting bodies. Certain wide brimmed hats create a mythical cowboy association that seems to match the rugged desert nearby, and other figures are more obviously female, evoking both an echo of Mother Nature and a more feminist claiming of the landscape. Still others simply dissolve into a jagged mix of black glitches and computerized misalignments, where silhouettes are divided, erased, and left hovering in mid-air, like unfinished thoughts.

On their own, as monochrome images of primarily rocky terrain populated with mysterious dark figures, Souders’s pictures might have felt strangely mediated, the tweaked technological residue of someone else’s experience. Souders brings herself into the conversation by adding in a layer of hand coloring to most of the works, inserting her own physical presence into the witness gestures of her various adventurers. Her color choices run from plausible replicas of natural tones (where forests and underbrush are shades of green, desert dust is reddish orange, and the like) to more surreal recalibrations, where otherwise muted rocks turn plucky shades of pink, yellow, purple, blue, orange, and other pastels. Her process connects back to the practices of the 19th century, while also thoughtfully upending the digital/virtual raw material she has chosen to reinterpret. One wall-filling grid of images on view here makes the tinting most obvious, with natural textures and surfaces given a spark of dreamily unnatural energy.

The only images in the show left in black-and-white are a set of four works where the dark silhouetted figure has been reduced to its limit – a single disembodied hand holding a phone. In each case, the hand hovers over the rocky ground like a slip in time, the moment of documentation seemingly peeking through the fabric of reality.

Souders’s project is a smart example of an artistic search for unseen patterns in the world around us. One discovered shadow glitch picture likely led serendipitously to another, and then to a directed search for more, and ultimately to an entire group of images that feels like a distant relative of the turned around selfie or the photograph of someone taking a photograph, further skewed by the rule-based intelligence of the surrounding software. Her results are simultaneously puzzling and somehow familiar, showing us just how far our experience of the world has been transformed by seeing with a smartphone camera lodged in one hand.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $3000, $4000, $5000, $12000, or $16000, based on size. Souders’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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