Charles Johnstone, 34 Polaroids @National Arts Club

JTF (just the facts): A total of 34 color photographs, framed in white and matted, and hung against fabric covered walls in the Marquis Gallery space on the lower level. All of the works are Polaroid prints, made between 2004 and 2019. Each print is sized roughly 3×3 inches and is unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: One of the consequences of the near perfect repeatability of digital photographic printing has been the gradual disappearance of chance and variation in photography. When photographers used chemicals and made their prints in darkrooms, each print was an adventure, with improvisation, uncertainty, and imperfection inherently becoming part of the creative process. But now with print to print variation becoming negligible (at least to the eye of the average viewer), that serendipity has been lost, and many contemporary photographers are searching for ways to get it back.

Experimenting with expired photographic papers is one method photographers have used to reintroduce some chance into their picture making. Since these papers are beyond their effective use dates, the chemical coatings have deteriorated or at least changed in ways that are invisible to the photographer until the prints are made. Some may ultimately be fogged or hazed, others may be flared or partially exposed, and still others may be even more degraded or dysfunctional, and all of these effects will then be combined (essentially at random) with the imagery, creating artworks that wrestle with their own environments.

Expired Polaroid stock is a particularly effective tool for upending photographic perfection. The instant Polaroid process was always inherently more malleable than most photographic processes (especially when still wet – think of the elaborate manipulations Lucas Samaras did with Polaroids in the early 1970s), and when the Polaroid stock is expired (original production ceased in the mid-2000s), even stranger and more unlikely outcomes become possible.

In the past half dozen years, Charles Johnstone has been actively exploring the overlooked back alleys of the expired Polaroid. Perhaps better known for his rigorous, squared off views of urban architecture from his early career, he has produced a total of seven photobooks between 2014 and 2019 that have gathered his Polaroid images into intimate book form. This tightly-edited show surveys these many projects, providing a sampler of imagery from each and offering an opportunity to make thematic and stylistic connections between the various series.

The first three projects on view have been collected into what has become known as the Walkup Trilogy. Libby (from 2014), The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walkup (2015), and Je ne sais Quoi (2017, reviewed here) are collaborations with individual women, as either friend, muse, subject, artistic co-creator, or some combination thereof. Libby is the most indirect of the three, with Johnstone’s portraits of the writer Elizabeth Schoettle often taken from the side or with her head turned, and many take advantage of nearby mirrors to double her face with reflections. Johnstone’s images of Heather Malesson in The Girl in the Fifth Floor Walkup are more overtly seductive, but in that same sense more mannered, her blonde hair and pink thong setting off nudes bathed in warm faded light, like aging memories of past fantasies. And when Johnstone turns his camera toward Lea Simone Allegria, the encounters seem more immediate, her quiet moments of contemplation – smoking a cigarette, drinking coffee, lounging in the bath – given attention that feels cherished and intimate rather than aloof.

The rest of the works on view come from a set of books which have collectively been titled the Muse series. Each photobook centers in (or better yet, fixates) on a single actress from the 1950s or 1960s, via Polaroids taken of films playing on television sets. Setsuko Hara, Monica Vitti, Moira Shearer, and Anna Karina each get the obsessive treatment, the images reframing their faces (and other resonant objects from the classic movies) again and again with Tichý-like voyeuristic persistence.

The images themselves are more compositionally interesting than most late night fan screen grab images. Johnstone is essentially recutting the eye of each celebrated director (Ozu, Antonioni, Powell, and Godard), isolating, unbalancing, and rethinking their original choices, the faces then further distorted by the scan of the TV and the squishing chemicals of the expired Polaroid chemistry. Many of the images have orange tints and striping as well as bulbous green intrusions, and these reformulations function particularly well in destabilizing the original cinematic raw material. The more abstract results are particularly successful, as if Johnstone had added a layer of groovy graphic design to these idolized famous faces.

Seen together, these projects by Johnstone provide a continuum of female fascination, where the real wanders into the unreal and actual experience fades into memory. While he could go further in encouraging the disruptions of the expired film, his works take advantage of a haze of flares and imperfections that serve to soften the imagery into something more ephemeral and expressive than usual. His photographs thus become akin to artifacts or mementos, seemingly tangible evidence of personal appreciations, infatuations, and hidden obsessions, where attention presents itself in a number of guises.

Collector’s POV: While this is a museum space, these prints are for sale, priced at $1200 each. Johnstone has recently shown with Julie Saul Projects in New York (here) and Joseph Bellows Gallery in La Jolla (here). His 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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One comment

  1. Suzette Bross /

    Great show!

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