JTF (just the facts): A total of 84 black and white and color photographs, displayed unframed and pinned directly to the walls in the main gallery space. All of the works are archival pigment prints, made in 2020. Each print is sized 11.4×9.6 inches, and is available in an edition of 3. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Back in 2005, at a time we now understand (with the benefit of hindsight) to still be early in the adoption of digital manipulation in photography, Matthew Porter made a few images of flying cars that felt altogether revolutionary. Drawing on the nostalgia of 1970s era car chase scenes from television and film, particularly the moment where a sports car crests the top of a hill in a place like San Francisco and then catches some air on the other other side, Porter recreated that kind of scene (including the muscle car and the steep streets), but quietly amplified the amount of soaring space underneath the car. Instead of a couple of feet of stomach churning air, the car was now seemingly ten, twenty, or even thirty feet off the ground, boldly hovering like a UFO. His images smartly used digital manipulation to exaggerate for effect, but without drawing direct attention to the process – the pictures looked plausibly real, like something we might remember, at least for moment or two, which made their subtle trickery all the more satisfying.
Given the popularity of these images, Porter has continued to make versions of aggressively gravity-defying cars in the years since (many of the photographs were collected in his 2019 photobook The Heights), and even in this most recent gallery show, some 15 years later, his soaring car motif makes several cameo appearances. What’s different now is that the hovering cars are now part of a broader visual narrative, one that steeps the streets of both Los Angeles and New York in a mood Porter calls “sunshine noir”.
Porter’s project straddles both the streets and the studio, liberally mixing the found, the staged, and the manipulated. Outside, the skies are filled with a hazy afternoon yellow, the kind that drifts towards orange as the sun sets and seems to glow when seen from the right spot. Porter points his camera at familiar skylines and notable buildings in both cities, as well as those under construction, isolating them against this saturated yellow, turning them into dark looming silhouettes, often accompanied by a tiny passing airplane or helicopter in flight. Down at the street level, Porter catches the action at corners, where layers of traffic lights turn from green, to yellow, to red, and distracted pedestrians wait to cross. Construction is taking place here too, with chain link fencing and corrugated tin sheeting intermingling with palm trees and flares of light. This world is largely empty, aside from a few people venturing out here and there, the buildings and intersections cast in dark relief – even without referring to the wildfire imagery we have seen of late, these thickly yellow scenes have a deliberately eerie undercurrent of end of days ominousness.
When Porter gets in closer to people, they are often dwarfed by the buildings and traffic signals, and seen in ways that turn them into dark silhouettes. They head to work, go for a run, protectively walk with their children at their sides, carry rolled up yoga mats, and shield their eyes from the sun, killing time waiting for the lights to change. Mostly, they talk on their phones and check their messages, or try to, putting their fingers in their opposite ear, hunching down trying to listen, squinting at the screen, waiting while the other person talks, or seemingly talking loudly over the traffic noise. Porter has captured a parade of public distraction, with people on the streets but cocooned in their own internal worlds, so much so that an arm reaches in from the side now and again to pull someone back from walking into the street.
Porter then moves into the studio, taking these visual motifs from the streets, paring them down, and restaging them in fashion-ready high contrast black and white. In this way, the traffic lights, road signs, chain link fence, barbed wire, and palm fronds become even more stylized, almost symbolic rather than descriptive, their edges, patterns, and formal elements highlighted for dramatic effect. The same can be said of the portraits, where the gestures become more nuanced and controlled, and the layers of seeing (through setups of fence, near traffic signals, flanked by corrugated tin and angled signage) get more obviously arranged. Porter creates just enough interplay between the street and studio images to successfully intermingle and overlap the two, muddying the line between fact and fiction and creating one continuum of atmospheric mood.
The prints themselves are presented in an unusual manner, shown small and unframed and scattered across the walls in an undulating wave that circles the gallery. This requires the viewer to get up close, making the experience more inmate and personal. The movement up and down on the wall also helps mix the street/studio and color/black and white, swirling all the images into one flow and creating repetitions and refrains across the space of the gallery. It’s an installation rather than a typical show, and it reinforces the continuity across the project.
Seen in the context of our current COVID-isolated world, it’s hard not to see this body of work with an edge of gloom – the sky seethes, the people are alone, desperately trying to connect via their phones, but hemmed in by fences, traffic lights, and grimly gorgeous emptiness. Maybe that’s a projection of my own pandemic-battered mind, but even in its stylized sleekness, the links to the present seem all too resonant. Even the flying cars feel a little different now – they still soar with satisfying swagger, but their recklessness feels that much more perilously out of control.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show are priced at $1800 each. Porter’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.