Liz Deschenes’s tin-coloured photograms, Stereograph 1–16 (2012), are designed to change over time. For the nine weeks they were mounted in the Secession’s basement – in addition to their future stations in New York and London, where they’ll travel next –they’ve been rusting and discolouring, perhaps deepening in shades of grey, because of temperature. Owing to their mysteriousness – even up close, they neither resemble nor perform like photographs: they’re irreproducible, they’re difficult to photograph, and they’re so abstract, they don’t actually depict anything – they’ve also been accumulating fingerprints from tactile-oriented visitors unable to resist the delicate, silvery strips that resemble folded metal sheets.
But these are made of light-sensitive paper, not metal. And they look like reflective protection strips for walls, as if someone had clad the exhibition room with matte elbow guards and introduced new corners; or as if the space had been politely marked with bracket notations, modestly concentrating an area here or implying new, subtle intervals there. Deschenes says the corner shapes, made of two photograms, each seven feet long and five inches wide, are like the folds of camera bellows; but the result is so slight that it feels less like walking into an imaginary room-sized camera than simply spending some time in the Secession’s unglamorous basement, which was last remodelled in the ’80s and is lit with fluorescent tubes, with very little to contemplate.
One hint Deschenes gives for the use of the folds relates to their size. The dimensions of the strips are roughly based on 2 × 4 inches, a common size of building lumber, which was used to build the Secession in a time at the end of the 19th century when timber construction was rare. Then, most buildings in Vienna were laid with brick and mortar with an eye towards permanence; meanwhile of course the original intent behind a temporary Secession has been long forgotten. Likewise, Deschenes’ photograms is a reaction to a sort of temporariness. Her work is less derived from single moments than her working conditions, the resulting monochromes suggesting seemingly endless possibility as well as the dumb limits of our perception.
The camera-less images were made using only paper and chemicals. They were exposed to the moonlight in Vermont where Deschenes teaches at Bennington College, and then fixed with toner and mounted. Spots, striations and other traces left by their handling remain visible, forming a literal manifestation of how the photograms were made. Since the works contain nothing concrete, they give way to something mystical in spite of Deschenes’ pragmatic approach. Studying the greys and small hints of colour and tones is like entering a beautiful cloud: it’s Deschenes as photographer-alchemist, radiating painterly, subjective fumes. But the realization that what looks like abstraction is actually something very real – this is the Vermont sky and how it came to be recorded – eventually sinks in. As Ruth Horak notes in the exhibition catalogue: ‘Only when the photograph is “bare” – before it is clothed in an image, so to speak – and only when it finds itself in a state of advanced reduction can we begin to expose its parameters.’
Deschenes used a similar approach in her Green Screen works from 2001, a series of green screens representing the backdrops onto which images are projected but by themselves are never seen: by reducing her focus onto single, material components, the image-making process suddenly becomes visible. It’s also rendered in a way that feels slightly historical. Stereograph 1–16 conjures a pre-photographic era while also prompting the question of why stereographs were originally made. As it turns out, one of its early and most eager promoters, physician Oliver Wendell Holmes, thought it might enable us to see around images, and it’s in the spirit of this delusion that the works are named, as Deschenes has explained in an interview. Her stereograph doesn’t refer to double images merging into one, but images and afterimages, including ones from future exhibitions. In other words, photography as it has functioned and as it might come to function.