JTF (just the facts): A total of 36 photographic works, variously framed and matted, and hung against white walls in the divided main gallery space. The works consist of gelatin silver, chromogenic, archival pigment, inkjet, and electrostatic prints, in sets of 1 to 33 images, made between 1962 and 2005 and often printed later. Many are unique, or available in editions of 2 or 3. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: One of the byproducts of the newfound freedoms enabled by digital photographic technology has been a fundamental conceptual rethinking of what the medium really is and should be. Simple definitional questions that used to provide useful guide posts (like “what is a photograph”) have failed to generate satisfying new answers – the limits and boundaries that once framed the edges of the medium no longer seem to be entirely relevant, and contemporary photographers have jumped into that uncertainty with both feet, looking to exploit (and expand) the new modes of expression. As a result, in recent years, we’ve seen a plethora of photography about photography itself, a kind of clinical re-examination of every step in the artistic process. Some of the works reconsider the witty illusions of 1970s photoconceptualism, others are more appropriation-centric and deadpan or archly ironic in their mood, and still others dig into the quirks and powers of new tools themselves (cameras, printers, computers, and software). At their root, they are all thoughtfully questioning the assumptions we routinely make about the functioning of cameras and photographs, and are essentially trying to redraw the antique map of light capture for a new age.
What this new generation of inward-looking photographic explorers often overlooks is that versions of these same issues were of interest long before the digital revolution ever took place. For this group, the work of German photographer Gottfried Jäger ought to be on the required syllabus, as his images (many in series and iterations) have meticulously unpacked the underpinnings of photography for more than five decades, consistently applying rigorous experimental logic to common methods and techniques. His results are exercises in precise thinking and exacting execution, each end product a tightly controlled study of the mechanistic outcomes of photographic action.
One selection of works from the mid 1960s explores various arrays and structures made with pinhole cameras. Black and white patterns of dots become arcs, crescents, and overlapped clusters, each frame a deliberate progression (or chance alteration), as alignments are tweaked and orientations are rotated. As density is increased, the dots converge into shimmering fields of grey with subtle differences in apparent texture. When color is introduced, the individual red, blue, and yellow dots become additive, merging into a shifting matrix floating amid blackness. Seen together, the seriality of the project emerges, each work leading to the next, building on the discoveries and aesthetic conclusions of the prior efforts.
A second iterative group begins with an elemental top down photograph of a sink, its white porcelain cracked on the bottom. Jäger then gets up close, zeroing in on the tiny black lines and fissures, multiplying them out into stuttering replicas of themselves. Entitled Theme and Variations II, the images are filled with echoes and repetitions, each one drawn from the original image but transformed into something altogether new and often unrecognizably abstract. A single dark blob takes its own path, becoming stripes and undulations pushing the edges of optical resolution.
Other projects push iteration in alternate directions, each one testing the aesthetic options of a different facet of photographic production. A single image is multiplied to cover an entire wall, the prints executed with alternate polarizations, creating a rainbow of color combinations and hue intensities. Gradations of gray scale are investigated through paper prints, aggregating into step-by-step progressions, slashing spectrums, and layered interlocked collages. And some of Jäger’s more recent works consider computer-generated imagery, where image structures are broken down into telescoping arrays of mosaics and pixelated orbs of color. At every turn, Jäger is dissecting the guts of photography, trying to get a handle on how the technicalities of mechanical (or digital) optics can manifest themselves in artworks.
While there is an academic dryness that makes some of Jäger’s constructions and experiments hard to engage, there is no denying their meticulous innovative intelligence. This is photography as analytical mathematics, where what’s seen through the viewfinder is really the sum total of machine logic, a logic that can be programmatically manipulated once it is understood. The dividing line between photography and computer art has become increasingly fuzzy in recent years, and Jäger’s career further complicates a simple understanding of that history. What is clear is that his best work ought to be more consistently referenced as a notable precedent for the intermingled computer/photography we’re seeing today.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show range in price from $3000 to $85000, with the larger sets of images at the top end of that spread. Jäger’s works do not come up for sale at auction with any regularity, so gallery retail likely remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.