Thomas Albdorf, Body Double

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2022 by Same Paper (here). Hardcover with dust jacket, 210 x 280 mm, 132 pages, with 72 color reproductions. Includes an essay by Elisa Medde and an index of thumbnails. Design by Wolfgang Ortner and the artist. In an edition of 500 copies. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: On a recent trip to Paris, I somehow found myself sitting on the crowded wooden risers looking at the construction site that is now the rebuilding cathedral of Notre Dame. In the span of just a few minutes, I watched dozens of visitors around me stand up and take the exact same photograph of the scene, each trying to square up the frontal towers and eliminate the cluttered distraction of the cranes and scaffolding as much as possible. Notre Dame is one of the visual clichés of Paris, and so of course, we all want to see it (and document it) in the way we envisioned it, rather than the way it actually is.

I was reminded of this small but strange moment, and of the many patterns that structure our visual perception (and memory) of famous global cities, while looking at Thomas Albdorf’s recent photobook Body Double. Body Double (with its obvious nod to Brian De Palma’s 1984 film) takes as its subject Los Angeles, a city so often photographed that its clichés (from palm trees and the Hollywood sign to traffic choked highways and smoggy sunsets) have become a kind of shorthand visual vocabulary. For many contemporary photographers, this vocabulary can feel altogether constricting and suffocating, with seemingly no way out of the trap of making photographs of LA that look like what we’ve seen before. But for Albdorf, this conceptual trap is actually the starting point for a set of pictures that deliberately undermine their inherent obviousness and consistently force us to question what they appear to show us – in many ways, the stronger this visual picture of Los Angeles is in our heads, the better it serves to be upended by Albdorf.

Albdorf has been thinking about these kinds of sophisticated reversals for years now. In his last gallery outing in New York (in 2017, reviewed here), the Austrian photographer ostensibly offered us images made in Yosemite National Park in California. But Albdorf never actually visited the famous park; instead he used images scavenged from Google Street View and other Internet sources, as well as setups in a park near his home, to create the appearance of being there, which then became a visual backdrop for various illusionistic sculptural studies and clever visual manipulations.

Albdorf has essentially applied the same formula to Los Angeles, with the addition of actually making a few pictures on the streets there, which pleasingly serve to confuse things even further when mixed together with movie and TV stills, rephotographed magazine imagery, and other repurposed pictures of the city. What emerges is a pervasive sense of the impossibility of knowing the “truth” of what he has shown us – even though we are prepared to wrestle with images that may not be what they seem, the smart sequencing of the images in Body Double constantly wrong foots us, making us stumble as we see our own misinterpretations revealed.

After seeing ourselves reflected in the shiny glow of the photobook’s golden metallic cover – which perhaps should have been a warning that the seeing inside wasn’t going to be entirely direct or unidirectional – the contents of Body Double are bookended by the kind of warning/disclaimer text that comes at the beginning of movies. The first version is set against a waning orange sunset and tells us that everything we are about to see is true, with real names used; the second comes at the end of the book and is set against the same thick sunset a few moments later, when the sun is fractionally lower, and it claims that everything we’ve been shown is fictitious. Of course, given Albdorf’s approach, the warning motif cuts both ways, and depending on our vantage point, both statements might accurately describe the Los Angeles we’ve been shown.

Another scene-setting image of hazy yellow canyons and palm trees continues our introduction to the city, but then dissolves into a wash of textural printing dots, the image enlarged beyond its ability to stay clear. Other full bleed pictures mixed in here and there show us streets, highways, concrete canals, and classic Southern California vistas, many doubled or blurred into jittering motion by multiple or long exposures, making our grip on the crispness of visual reality rather tenuous. And still other seemingly straight photographs offer us closer in views of urban details – cracked concrete, corrugated fencing, stairway handrails, security grates, spray painted graffiti, electrical towers, empty streets, and an assortment of street garbage cans, fire hydrants, and yet more palm trees – but their mundane emptiness feels attentively anticipatory, like Albdorf is introducing his specific LA vocabulary and simply waiting for something peculiar to occur.

Which of course it does. Albdorf is an able and creative interventionist, using a range of software manipulations, physical stagings, sculptural constructions, layered rephotography, and other approaches to disrupt whatever imagery he began with, and many of his photographs seem to have been made in iterative sequences, with pairs and groups of images building from one picture to the next. One series starts with the graffiti-covered back of a forgettable metal road sign set in a concrete median; in the following image, the sign has dissolved into something more insubstantial, with the graffiti morphing and moving; by the third image, a sculptural pile of new stainless steel geometric blocks has coalesced to replace the sign, covered in the same graffiti; and in the last image, the sign is gone completely, the tonalities of the scene reversed into eerie negative. A related transformation is also discovered of a yellow fire hydrant, which eventually becomes a tower of crisp yellow blocks on the sidewalk.

Albdorf is particularly adept at making illusionistic frontal interventions and spatial mysteries, likely using clear Plexiglas as a surface on which he can interact, with the original imagery set behind or underneath. One view of the city is interrupted by four strips of clear plastic tape, while another street level scene with a red van in the background is broken up by the shattered glass of a broken bottle. Several images of highway underpasses and other less identifiable concrete structures have been decorated with blue or red tape, the wrinkled strips crisp and clear in some instances, and more blurred like hovering spots in others. In still other pictures, Albdorf makes trash cans seem to emit swirls of white smoke or clouds of red mist, and squiggly ribbons of color seem to drift in the air like sculptural gestures. And near the end of Body Double, a crumpled plastic cup has seemingly been taped to the sky in a warmly flared LA sunset, its corrugated lines echoing the electrical wires nearby.

Much of what Albdorf seems to be looking for in Los Angeles, and elsewhere in his artistic life, is a way to use a sculptural mindset as an entry point to his photographic image making. He builds blocky still lifes on hotel room windowsills, which he then slowly reforms as approximations of fruit. He looks at a garbage can in the street from two different angles, and then combines them into one shifting composite figure. He finds ways to make plastic bags hover in the air, either untethered or seemingly held up by the air coming from a fan. He constructs virtual sculptures made of clear cubes on the sidewalk, and then encourages them to dissolve into misty emptiness. And he continues to experiment with the possibilities of mood, from adding a car crash to a floral still life to having sparklers twinkle from shoes tossed over electrical wires. Each page turn of Body Double feels like an adventure, where our first impression is almost always subject to reinterpretation or revision.

In some ways, we might call Body Double a portrait of Los Angeles, but it seems to exist in its own interpretative space, taking the LA we know from the media stereotypes and purposefully reshuffling its formal signifiers to the point that we can’t really be certain of much, except Albdorf’s artistic intelligence. Albdorf’s work deserves to be better known in the United States than it is, and hopefully the LA subject matter in Body Double will help him reach more viewers here that are receptive to his unique brand of conceptual twisting and turning.

Collector’s POV: Thomas Albdorf is represented by Webber Gallery in London (here). His work has little secondary market history at this point, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.

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