JTF (just the facts): A total of 12 color photographs, framed in white and unmatted, and hung against white walls in the single room space at the front of the gallery. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2015. 10 of the works are from the Emergent series and range in size from 30×21 to 30×43. The other 2 works on display are from the Reassemblage series and these prints are each sized 30×62. All of the images from both series are available in editions of 7+3AP. (Installation and detail shots below.)
Comments/Context: In the purist analog days of yore, the world was so much simpler – a photograph was always just a photograph, nothing more, nothing less. But in our futuristic digital age, this is simply no longer the case (and happily so, say the aggressive artistic boundary breakers). An image is still an image, of course, but it is now also undeniably data, and that data (visible and invisible, algorithmic and meta) is increasingly becoming the jumping off point for additional layers of thoughtful analysis, transformation, and sharing, ultimately leading to the now muddy border between photography and net/computer art. A picture is now so much more than just what we see – it’s a complex, multi-layered information system, full of its own hidden structures and characteristics.
Mark Dorf’s newest works are perched right at the photographic tipping point between image and data, brusquely intermingling the two in ways that force us to oscillate back and forth between alternate modes of thinking. On one hand, his landscapes couldn’t be more obvious or mundane – majestic vistas taken in the Rocky Mountains of Colorado, full of snow capped peaks, broad valleys, rocky hillsides, evergreen forests, and rushing mountain streams. They effectively capture the glory of nature in its unspoiled wildness and tap into our innately human responses to patterns of beauty in the natural world. But that’s just the surface – we’ve seen these kinds of images countless times before, so much so that we are slowly becoming numb to their power.
What’s different here is that Dorf has gone on to superimpose a separate view of the underlying data of the image on top of each picture itself, in effect merging the visual and the analytical frames of reference and breaking down the primacy of the original vista or landscape. In some works, he was reordered all of the image pixels into smooth rainbow gradients that diffuse across the compositions. In others, he has highlighted particular elements of the landscape (the curve of a hillside, a fallen tree trunk), mimicking the natural undulations with perfect machined precision. Several works take the source image and then slice it into multiple repeated planes, which are then twisted on axis and turned into overlapping layers like floating stacked playing cards (one breaking up into larger cubed pixels); perhaps they point to the way the land can be broken down, systematically divided, and reassembled. A few take visual cues from the source and then replace them with icons – a meadow of yellow flowers becomes an array of yellow dots and patches of water in a marsh are marked with blue squares and circles; in these works, the landscape is being categorized and measured, diversity being reduced to more easily manageable statistical symbols and representations. And in one final work, the data layer has been corrupted, turning it into a dense hiss of wavy static lines that disrupts the original picture.
In each of these images, Dorf seems to be showing us that underneath each grand landscape lies a set of photographic data structures, interpretations, transformations, and abstractions, in short, systems that lie far removed from the original sublime subject. Using this data, we can tabulate and count, organize and taxonomize, pinpoint and timeslice the natural world in rigorous scientific ways, but our perspective is now conflicted by these new data points. Do we appreciate the glories of the land any better? Or are we more distracted by the duality we now see? Dorf’s Reassemblage series seems to confront this confusion directly – two towering mountain images are actually digital composites of a single valley, the craggy peaks simply a reorganization and reordering of the visual data. It’s not so much that we can no longer trust what we see (that’s a given), it’s that there are now multiple simultaneous ways to comprehend the same image/data set, some of them testing the limits of our own comprehension. The proverbial mountain of data has taken a surprisingly solid form.
While Dorf’s visuals are remarkably straightforward, that economy of expression underplays the dry cleverness of his layered constructions. He’s smartly unpacking the traditions of landscape photography and updating them with the split-mind dichotomies of the digital age. As the underlying workflow of photographic image production becomes more data driven, we may soon reach a time where data visualizations of imagery may take center stage in certain circumstances. Dorf is already thinking intelligently about the questions of what data looks like and what original insights it might offer. He’s long beyond the features and functions of digital data, and onto the thornier questions of how photography can evolve to incorporate a new layer of intelligence.
Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced as follows. All of the prints from the Emergent series are $2000 each (regardless of small size variations), while the prints from Reassemblage are $3000 each. Dorf’s work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.