Try to reverse-engineer the effects Miriam Böhm creates in her photographic series and you’ll most likely become frustrated puzzling out the source of their illusionistic depths. So you’ll find your gaze coming to rest on their surfaces again, which contain strange combinations of complexity and modesty, precision and conceptual humour. Before turning to photography, Böhm studied scenography, a field that requires a kind of artificial world-building, which is visible in her work. Just as in stage design, even if we know how the illusions are created, our eye and brain are no less confused, or delighted. Böhm’s photographic series are self-contained, intimate, hermetic studies which reveal slight variations in composition, complexity and scale from one picture to the next. Each series maintains a constant tension between the two-dimensional quality of the photographic prints and the three-dimensional spaces they represent.
Böhm cleverly chooses to photograph generic, unrevealing objects against blank surfaces: folded pieces of paper or card stock against jute or unprimed canvas: marble surfaces on which her hand is seen painting; tree-lined landscapes printed from the internet; white paper on white backgrounds. The original source material tends to be purposefully non-referential; her point, rather, is to suggest how each object becomes transformed through her manual manipulation of the material (folding, cutting, balancing, scoring) and, equally important, through the analogue and digital processes of making physical, photographic prints. Picturing this work, for Böhm, is the work.
Match (2012) – shown recently at Ratio 3 in San Francisco – comprises eight variations on a single generic found photograph of trees, folded and photographed against a green fabric. Through what Böhm calls a series of manual and digital ‘irritations’, figure and ground become confused. In each image, we see the folded object shadowed by the green fabric it sits on, like a ghostly trace or a double-exposure, though it is neither. Characteristically, Match draws attention to the photograph’s status as a document of an object in space, as a physical object itself and as a flat surface, while at the same time curiously seeming – for a brief moment, at least – to defy all of these properties.
In Archive (2008), Inventory (2010) and Set (2011), Böhm photographs her own photographs to form a sort of infinite regress of pictures within pictures. Set, for instance, is a series of nine different configurations of similar photographic prints of paper, pencils and other drafting tools on a raw canvas background. The prints – becoming objects in the still life themselves – are then leaned, tilted, manipulated, adjusted, re-positioned and re-photographed, appearing and re-appearing in slight variations from image to image.
Böhm’s method of photographing intimate, self-made constructions meticulously arranged as still lives belongs to the particularly current wave of studio photography, for example in the work of Annette Kelm, Alexandra Leykauf and Kathrin Sonntag. A series like Set or Inventory – with its clearly defined blank background, discrete number of objects, and multiple configurations of those objects – has a hermetic, intimate feel particular to the studio still life. But Böhm is also interested in the moment in which photography transforms an object – whether a folded piece of paper, a blank card or even the print itself – into a model, or a sculpture.
Böhm’s technique of photographing photographs, turned into paper sculptures, may recall the work of Thomas Demand, for whom she was a studio assistant for several years. For me it’s hard not to see traces of that daily work seeping into her practice. The comparison between the two artists is actually expansive rather than reductive: both artists see the infinite sculptural possibilities between a piece of paper or cardboard and the camera. It’s not only that: Böhm’s series loosely replicate her working space, invoking the artistic and administrative activities that the studio represents: Set echoes the neat arrangement of her working utensils on the table, while Inventory is a reminder of the photographs that leaned against the wall beside the door, wrapped neatly in Kraft paper, bubble wrap and clear packing tape, waiting to be shipped, inventoried or archived.
The neatly wrapped parcels in Inventory remind us that the photographic print itself, no matter how many illusionistic layers or allusions to process are visible with it, is a surface that refuses to yield more information about what’s behind it. Still, in Böhm’s series, the surfaces seem to contain multiple layers and meanings which unfold before our eyes. The tension she creates between her laboured, exacting process and its playful and surprising results keeps these images defiantly leaping out from the paper surface that contains them.