JTF (just the facts): A total of 15 color photographs, variously framed/unframed, and hung against white walls in the single room gallery space. All of the works are pigment prints, either on Hahnemuhle Baryta paper or on folded Hahnemuhyle Rice paper, made in 2016 or 2017. Physical sizes range from roughly 17×11 to 65×43 and all of the works are available in editions of 5+1AP. (Installation shots below.)
Comments/Context: Thomas Albdorf’s conceptually sophisticated new show is tangible evidence that “photography about photography” after the digital revolution has emphatically moved beyond elementary single stage thinking. What I mean by this seemingly overwrought statement is that nearly all of the initial experiments we saw after the photographic switch to digital capture/workflow were primarily exploring just one new artistic pathway. There were those that were intrigued by the power of post-production manipulation and rephotography, those that reexamined appropriation in the context of an expanding smorgasbord of available imagery (both digital and archival), and those that dug into a reconsideration of physicality and staging, among the many new ideas that emerged from the busy transition period. In each case, we saw photography itself being unpacked and reassembled, the implicit rules that once governed its boundaries being both tested and brusquely overthrown. And given all the newness at hand, much of this innovation was effectively siloed, with each photographer working in his or her own area of uncolonized white space.
What Albdorf’s new pictures tell us is that this first wave of experimentation has now been thoroughly internalized, its lessons mastered and load balanced to the point that they are now second nature to a new breed of contemporary photographers. Each one of these previously discrete lines of thinking is now ready in the toolbox, available for a fluid kind of mixing, layering, and reuse that goes somewhere else. It’s as if the risk-taking cutting edge became the taken-for-granted foundation overnight, and now we’re starting an entirely new era where these approaches and conceptual methodologies are being combined in more complex ways.
The ostensible subject of Albdorf’s show is Yosemite National Park, and yet, the Austrian photographer never actually went there to make any pictures. Some of his images are variously drawn from Google Street View, from snapshots available on the Internet, and from other scavenged promotional materials. Others were taken in a local park (with a handy picnic table and rocky stream, plausibly similar to what we might find at Yosemite), or wholly constructed (or reconstructed) in his studio. Nearly all then descend into further iterations and recursions that spin off like chain reactions, one image begetting another, often dipping into software-based rework and extension.
The “visiting Yosemite” theme is upended almost immediately by a selection of images featuring a hand (presumably the artist’s) holding a phone displaying an image of a hiker or camper at Yosemite. While the background details behind the hand seem to imply that the photographer is standing in the same place as the person depicted on the phone (similar patterns of dappled light or matching horizon lines of trees/mountains), instead they are paper prints hanging in the artist’s studio – the whole scene isn’t a personal doppelganger landscape but in essence a staged studio performance. Then if we look more closely at the edges of the prints, remnants of software editing (extending, copying etc.) appear more visibly, further undermining the veracity of the supposed encounter. And finally, Albdorf has chosen to display some of the images in frames as photographic prints and others on rougher paper, which has been folded/unfolded and tacked directly to the wall, giving us two states of potential physical interaction to consider. This all adds up to a constant flow of visual misdirection that forces us to pay much closer attention than we might normally, for fear of being fooled.
Using images from Google Street View and other Internet sourced content brings with it the now predictable reality of digital blurs, glitches, and distortions, and Albdorf seems to revel in the conceptual possibilities of these nagging imperfections. In one image of a picnic table, the center of the picture seems to dissolve into the flares of white pixelization we have come to expect from garbled screen grabs. But a close look uncovers that the image is again a studio paste up, with actual shards of glass and clear plastic taped up in front of the image to create the shimmering effect. Nearby, just when we think we have figured out the formula, a completely straight river image dissolves into similar wavy distortion, its dappled flowing water surface looking almost exactly like software glitching.
While Albdorf’s works are scattered around the walls of this single room gallery space, they are often conceived of and executed in pairs or combinations. This creates a before-and-after or this-then-that relationship between the two works that echoes across the visual rhythms of the room, as if the artistic ideas were coalescing and then reforming in another guise.
In one image of a rocky riverbed, Albdorf has added perilously balanced sticks to a rotting log, creating a natural Fischli & Weiss homage against the white pebbled ground; in its pair, the sculptural form has been removed/erased, and replaced by copied and pasted versions of the pebbles in the foreground, the cloning adding a back and forth between blur and sharpness. Similarly, in another pairing, Albdorf has built a red circle road sign with wooden supports and placed it between two large rocks. Patient observation reveals that the shadows aren’t cast the way the light source implies, and parts of the image degrade into hard edged software-induced blur while others stay clear. In its partner, we seem to move by the same setup with some speed, creating all over fuzziness, but again the shadows are wrong, but in new ways. These kinds of inconsistencies and oddities fill Albdorf’s works, and while it’s tempting to spend all day trying to puzzle out each layer of illusion, it’s hard to say when we might understand them all. In one image of a man wearing a checked shirt with binoculars around his neck, the whole thing collapses under any kind of scrutiny – the shirt hangs flat (and too big), the small hands reach from weird angles, the shirt breaks down into areas of blur, and the binoculars hang from too many untethered ends.
The best of the works here push this conceptual mind bending into elegantly confounding combinations. In I Made This For You, a hand appears to hold a sparkling flare/firework near the still water of a river, the reflection of the grand landscape above and the nearby sparkles seen between two nearby rocks. I say “appears” because when we later encounter Remember When I Made This For You, our certainty about what the original image showed us is shaken. In the second image, we see a hand holding a paper photograph of the same scene, but the reflection is different and the flare is gone. And then we look again and there are actually two layers of paper photographs, and some software editing taking place. So what were we really seeing, either before or after?
Two images of foaming waterfalls offer a similar set of distractions, and neither is what it seems. In one, an old brochure image of the falls has been scanned and enlarged to the point that the colors separate into tiny spots, renewing Albdorf’s interest in surface and distortion – it is printed extra large on folded paper, giving it a dominant physical presence. Its pair also looks like tumbling foamy white falls, but this time, the scene was constructed in Albdorf’s studio, using steam to mimic the look of the water. And so we circle back to physical sculpture as a method for creating visual effects.
And so it goes with this show. Albdorf takes us around and around on a carousel of visual magic, where each picture is and isn’t what it seems. That he can do this with grace and intelligence and without the whole exercise feeling like overt trickery is a testament to his facility with all of the various tools he is employing. Mostly, the body of work just feels extremely well integrated and mindfully executed, the disparate ideas and mechanisms becoming interwoven into works that have refined depth.
In Albdorf’s second order world, appropriation, staging/construction, rephotography, post-processing, and end product physicality can all contribute to the aggregate message of a photograph. That actively multivalent approach to image making is what we should take away from these pictures. They argue that adding one new digitally-enabled idea to traditional photography isn’t the end game – instead, it’s about redefining contemporary photography as the confluence of many new tools and techniques that will be thoughtfully applied as the artistic (and narrative) circumstances warrant. What that fluid non-hierarchical flexibility implies for what will come next, for Albdorf and those photographers following a similarly open-ended path, is the enticing question that lies ahead.
Collector’s POV: The prints in this show range in price from $300 to $2000. Albdorf’s work has little secondary market history, so gallery retail remains the best option for those collectors interested in following up.