Analogue photography has entertained a very special relationship to the world and its objects. William Fox Talbot called it "the pencil of nature;" Walter Benjamin ascertained its ability not only to record reality, but to actually permeate it; Roland Barthes claimed that the referent "adhered" to the image in a wondrous and almost mythical way. Again and again, photography is accorded a strange hybrid status situated somewhere between nature and culture. It is thought to produce as though by magic an image of reality that is the "most real;" it is suspected of having an inner complicity with the objects it depicts. This notion stems from the apparent objectivity of the apparatus and its photochemical means of producing images—but it applies to analogue photography alone. Things have become completely different in the age of digital technology—and a widespread awareness of how just simple it is to manipulate even the most detailed photographic image.
On the threshold to a new era in photography, one artist who has dedicated herself heart and soul to the analogue technique is the American Zoe Leonard. Although the self-taught artist, who was born in New York in 1961, has been photographing and exhibiting for over thirty years, she only became known in Germany after the 2007 documenta, which was in fact her second participation in the comprehensive show. Now, following its start at the Fotomuseum Winterthur, her work can be seen in a major retrospective at the Pinakothek der Moderne in Munich. What becomes evident after even a brief initial survey of the exhibition is that Zoe Leonard’s photography is imbued with a striking sense of history and the roles her medium assumes—as well as with the above-mentioned complicity between photography and reality.
This is palpable, for instance, in her series of aerial views from the second half of the 1980s that document the tremendous Niagara Falls or the monotonous, cleanly laid out stretches of anonymous suburban developments, trains, and train tracks. Her pictures of well-known cities like Paris and Washington are unsettling; like the aerial view of a residential settlement in Istanbul from the Deutsche Bank Collection, they are impossible to locate, while the way they are cropped seems arbitrary. In the absence of titles or precise information on the sites of the photographs, these works prove indecipherable and the motifs depicted impossible to locate. Leonard has often juxtaposed photographs of models, globes, or city maps with her aerial views, which recall military reconnaissance photography; her approach clearly reflects upon the implementation of photography in the fields of surveying, exploration, and documentation. Beyond the mere representation of reality, Leonard’s works address the role of photography itself and locate it the larger history of its various different forms of use, ranging from photojournalism and aerial reconnaissance to the casual snapshot of the hobby photographer.
Leonard’s museum photographs of the early 1990s are laden with gender politics; of all her works, these particularly demonstrate a vigilance for the medium and for the act of photographing, combined with an awareness of the special relationship to reality photography enjoys by virtue of its technical attributes. The works depict anatomical models, wigs, ancient chastity belts, horrific instruments of torture, female dolls displayed in glass cases, and obscene conserved objects such as the head of a bearded lady in a bell jar. These specimens are powerful enough in themselves, but Leonard does not stop here; she also shows the glass vitrines, frames, and casings they are presented in. Hence, she not only presents the things of the world as they are gathered together in a museum and arranged for posterity, but also the conditions of exhibiting, the act of showing itself; in doing so, she reflects upon the conditions of her own photographic activity.
When Leonard looks out at the world through her camera’s viewfinder, she is always looking at the modalities of her own seeing. She is aware of the constituting power of the gaze and the complicity photography has always shared with a variety of dictates of visualization—whether in the form of military reconnaissance or the analytical, classifying male view of the female body. Leonard’s photographs are striking in the way they demonstrate that the eye is not merely directed at reality, but also contributes in equal measure towards constructing it.
While this level of reflection is already implicit in her choice of motif and crop, it finds its most obvious expression in the printing process: each of the photographs shown is framed by the black edge of the negative. It becomes apparent that Leonard’s works are about photography itself and not merely the act of looking and pressing the shutter release; in particular, they address the act of creating an image as an object, a thing in itself that is a part of material reality every bit as much as the motif it depicts. This awareness in creating photographic images, this dual view both of the world and of the mechanisms of its representation is best manifested in her "opus magnum," the series Analogue consisting of 400 photographs, 40 of which are on show in Munich. Using an old Rolleiflex camera over a period of almost 10 years (1998-2007), she recorded the effects of globalization right at her own doorstep. Realizing they would soon disappear, she photographed the facades of small stores and shop windows on New York’s Lower East Side and produced a seemingly endless series of storefront window views, some with stacks of clothing out front, some with lowered blinds, t-shirt piles, paper cups, sewing machines, and other sundry things.
Hung together in a long row, the result is a kind of documentation of Leonard’s neighborhood community, represented by small corner stores and mom & pop businesses that have long since ceased to exist. In the end, she began accompanying the wares from these stores—all the battered shoes and old T-shirts crumpled up into tight balls—on their path around the world to East Europe and Africa. Leonard quietly and laconically succeeds in lending a face to what is for the most part painfully abstract talk about global interdependence and the inextricably tangled world economy in the age of globalization. Yet Analogue is not merely a requiem for a world of local micro-mercantilism doomed by gentrification, but also—and the title itself alludes to this—a mourning for the medium of good old analogue photography. Analogue is one last act of resistance, one last demonstration of the power of old photography and its privileged proximity to reality, its special relationship to time and history. The photographs in Analogue not only remind us of vanished things and realities; they can be read as a requiem for the remembering force of analogue photography itself.
Thus, Zoe Leonard seems to have arrived at a kind of turning point with this work—a point that calls for a radically new orientation. This is only logical, because she can no longer reconcile her stubborn adherence to analogue photography with her constant awareness of the medium’s constraints. In today’s world, photography is digital. Analogue photography’s unique relationship to the world, its complicity with the object—or to put it differently, analogue photography’s wondrous, nearly mythical way of rendering a naturalized image—would today seem too deliberate a gesture and no longer a mere documentary concern. And so it hardly comes as a surprise that Zoe Leonard has not picked up a camera again since completing Analogue. Instead, she now works with old found photographs and postcards. In this light, this retrospective has truly come at just the right time.
Zoe Leonard, Photographs.
April 1 through July 5, 2009,
Pinakothek der Moderne, Munich.