Uta Barth's photographs from the Ground series (all works 1994-95) recently exhibited as part of MoCA's 'Focus series' consist of blurred details of architectural interiors. Take a plain, straightforward snapshot of an individual in a vaguely familiar interior setting by a window, a curtain, or a lamp, against a bookshelf, a white or greyish wall. The focus is, quite appropriately, on the subject (your mother, your father, your lover), and due to the large aperture, everything but him/her is blurred perhaps a strip of a door might make it within the focus range, though it is very unlikely. Now eliminate the subject, not letting your camera rush its auto-focus to the background. Hold it still and shoot: that's what a photograph by Uta Barth looks like.
My sketchy directions should not fool you. I'm sure the German-born, Los Angeles-based photographer goes through great pains and care to construct her pieces. Even their apparent nonchalant framing mounted on thick wooden panels, no glass or passe-partout to interfere with them has a precise, slick finish which invests them with a Minimalist, stripped-down elegance, and also deliberately renders them somehow mechanical and sterile. The result is more picturesque than photographic. As Douglas Crimp has pointed out, 'picture' has a non-specificity in regard to its medium, and as a verb it may refer both to a mental process and to the production of an aesthetic object. Indeed, the Ground pieces have a distinctively painterly quality, and have been compared to the formal aspects and quality of light in Vermeer's paintings. Indeed, Vermeer shows up in Ground #42 in the form of two small reproductions which, of course, are blurred in the background. Yet despite their formal nuances, Barth's works seem to be concerned less with architecture (even in fragments) and light than with an absence, perhaps a lack, of a subject. One is led to think of what is not there. A second look at these works makes me wonder if Barth commands the subject to rush off location before the final shoot, or carefully peels him/her off after she's printed the actual photo.
In any event, there's something deeply melancholic about subjectless pictures which so poignantly calls attention to what is missing. One longs for what one cannot see, let alone have. The photographic settings are at once perfect and painful; they remind me of a vampire's mirror, ominously refusing to reflect and return the image of the living dead. At MoCA, Barth's pictures were carefully hung at different heights, roughly your eye level, evoking the familiar arrangements of domestic snapshots on household walls. Yet the museum's stark white walls and high ceilings and the pictures' premeditated sterility make it all overwhelmingly clinical this is hardly home. It is thus between the homely and the un-homely that blurred and subjectless pictures assume a distinctively fin de siècle mood. The subject is gone and nothing is going to bring it back. It's useless to look for what Barth is not willing to deliver. It's grim but one must face it there ain't no soul here.