Christopher Anderson: Approximate Joy @Danziger

JTF (just the facts): A total of 21 color photographs, framed in black and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2017-2018. The prints are sized either 30×20, 40×30, or 40×50 inches, and are available in total editions of 9. (Installation shots below.)

A monograph of this body of work was recently published by Stanley/Barker (here). Hardcover, 120 pages, with 68 color reproductions.

Comments/Context: The street photography subgenre of passing pedestrian faces seems, at first glance, to be a subject with little potential innovation left in it. Catching the fleeting expressions of ordinary (and extraordinary) people as they walk by on the bustling streets of cities around the world is as old as the portable hand held cameras that initially made those pictures possible, and influential bodies of work have been made by plenty of photographers, including Rodchenko, Callahan, Winogrand, diCorcia, and Gilden, among many others.

One of the trickier technical challenges faced by those that want to shoot up close portraits in the street is how to deal with low light situations, especially at twilight or in the evening – it has generally been extremely difficult to achieve the necessary sharpness and clarity with so little available light for the exposures. But recent improvements in digital technology have made working in low light conditions somewhat more possible, and Christopher Anderson has taken advantage of that newfound freedom in his new series Approximate Joy.

In the past two years, Anderson took to the streets of Shenzhen and Shanghai in China, largely looking at the faces of the inhabitants of these mega-cities. These are places in the midst of wrenching transformation, where the ultramodern contemporary world tangles with updating the old ways, with challenges of immense scale and broad inclusion making the ongoing movement toward newness even more complex. So it isn’t entirely surprising that the citizens of these cities might naturally harbor their share of quiet anxieties and insecurities.

Anderson often shot at night, where the ambient light from the streets mixed with the smog and smoke in the air to create a kind of gentlely expressive tinting that colors many of the images. And while a few of the pictures in the project capture theatrical washes and flares of eerie colored light as they bounce off walls and other nearby surfaces, most of the photographs nestle into the intimacy of passing faces, where enveloping shadows and gentle darkness soften the intrusion.

Most of Anderson’s faces are cropped down to include just a profile or the slow motion of a full-frame face turning away. Even in the extremely dark and mottled conditions, his pictures are remarkably clear – the textures of flowing hair and lips, the reflected shine of light on skin, and even tiny individual hairs caught in highlight are made distinctly visible. Given that we can’t know the inner lives of these strangers passing by, Anderson’s images often feel like masks (especially when the tinted light turns red lips and white skin into echoes of fragile porcelain), the blank expressions giving us few clues to their thoughts (leading to the wonderfully open-ended title of the project Approximate Joy). The muted tones enhance this sense of distance and uncertainty, the process of looking so closely made more subtle and vulnerable by the ambiguity. Stylistically, the moodiness and sensual melancholy of Anderson’s faces recall the deliberately shadow-filled work of Bill Henson, as well as the aching still views of Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung in Wong Kar-wai’s atmospheric In the Mood for Love.

The edit of the Danziger Gallery show is in many ways preferable to the wider selection of images seen in the photobook of the same name – the tighter focus on the shaded faces keeps the attention centered on the central strength of the series, rather than letting our interest be diluted by less memorable views of walls and city textures. The best of Anderson’s faces quietly draw us into intimate dialogues and fleeting interactions, and it is these ephemeral human moments that stick out as original in this body of work.

There is an elusive in-betweenness to Anderson’s photographs that feels like a welcome antidote to the self-perfected images of identity that now circulate through social media. Here, his subjects are unguarded and unposed but somehow protected by the surrounding darkness, their veiled authenticity seeping through even when it is wrapped in gauzy light and sensitive loveliness. With these images, Anderson has found an unexpectedly elegant perspective on an old genre, singling out individuals as they meander by on the streets of a thriving metropolis, opening a window onto the surprising intimacy of those alone in the crowd.

Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced $5500, $6500, or $7500, based on size. Anderson’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail (or the Magnum Photos site, linked in the sidebar) likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

Read more about: Christopher Anderson, Danziger Gallery, Stanley/Barker

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