Wolfgang Staehle, Ludlow Street @Postmasters

JTF (just the facts): A total of 10 photographic works, shown on black-bordered video monitors in the darkened single room gallery space in the back. The works consist of sets of between 6748 and 15872 individual digital color photographs, each set representing a 24-hour cycle of time (in roughly 5 second intervals) and sequenced/managed by custom software (the overall process is called “digital chronophotography”). The works were made between 2005 and 2016 and are unique. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: Given the mechanical reality of the instant of the shutter click, photography has always had an inherently complex relationship with time. From the stop motion imagery of Muybridge, Marey, and Edgerton and the famous “decisive moment” of Cartier-Bresson to the extended once-a year studies of Nixon and Christenberry and the time-based illusions of the photoconceptualists, artists have explored and extended photographic time in countless ways, often turning what appears to be an invisible continuum into a series of discrete instants.

Wolfgang Staehle’s contributions to this sprawling genre push the traditional constraints of the single frame to unexpected extremes, employing sophisticated technology to reimagine its limits. Each work in this show uses literally thousands of frames taken from a fixed vantage point to capture the busy life on a single block in Ludlow Street (near the corner of Stanton Street) in the Lower East Side. The images were taken every few seconds (using automation) for an entire 24-hour cycle, capturing the quiet of street-lit darkness, the bustle of early afternoon, and everything in between for a full day, the scene changing in minute but discernable ways every few seconds. Using custom software to synchronize the frames, the works track the cycles of the clock with meticulous precision, so that a visit to the gallery at noon finds all of the works (from ten different years) displaying images from the same exact time.

Staehle’s time-based cityscapes are markedly different in experience than the straightforward obviousness of a surveillance video or unattended webcam. Time moves in halting but regular jumps, removing all of the in-between activity. The result creates tiny narratives that feel open-ended and mysterious – will the woman with the stroller cross the street or continue down the block? Will the guy having a smoke stay awhile or move along? With the delivery truck double park or find a spot? If we are patient, in just a few seconds, we will be rewarded with an answer, which offers a certain kind of satisfaction – Staehle has cut everyday life into thin slices, but there are stories to be watched (admittedly a bit voyeuristically) if are willing to allow them to unfurl. The rhythms of the city present themselves slowly, but persistent looking becomes almost meditative as patterns of neighborhood life recur and build back on themselves. The abstractions of snarled traffic and knots of pedestrians become somehow immersively personal, like gentle waves of activity that ebb and flow in natural harmony.

With ten separate years all running at the same time in the same gallery space, the history of this one block of Ludlow Street becomes a dense, information-rich matrix. Scan around the room and time elongates, a decade collapsed into ten simultaneously occurring moments. Indirectly, Staehle’s works are proof positive of creeping gentrification. Ground floor shops and restaurants turn over again and again, the signage of the old school Mexican joint El Sombrero transformed from bold (but dated) lettering to a more modern and understated combination of subtle neon and distressed boards. Construction cranes come and go, as do nests of temporary scaffolding, and the strength of the light wanders through the different seasons. And if we look with an anthropological microscope, the changes are literally everywhere, from the kinds of people on the streets to the advertising pasted on the buildings, even the graffiti.

The black-bordered monitors used in this installation remind us that Staehle’s works are akin to magic windows – when we look through them, we see a modified version of the outside world, where time operates in altered ways. Staehle’s works are not composites, but countless instants organized by a complex mathematical calculus, at once serial and not, both smooth and jagged. The artist has used photography to reconstruct the flow of time using his own constraints, inserting the equivalent of rests into the musical score of life. The result is a stylized facsimile of existence that demands our attention. Each frame transition gives us one more piece to the puzzle, and one more tiny overlooked vignette to unravel.

Collector’s POV: The works in this show are priced at $18000 each. Staehle’s photographic 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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