Speaking Photography

Jennifer Bolande’s art is so fluent in the language of photograph that we may learn to speak it just by surveying her work. Jennifer Bolande Landmarks offers occasion to do just that. With much to say about the development of Bolande’s work over the past 28 years, this exhibition is equally conservant in photography, not only as a medium but also a mode of address a language with it own grammar and intelligence. As practiced throughout contemporary art, this language is present even when actual photographs are not. And what more productive place for learning photograph’s language than this show? Like any good classroom, it even has a globe on the windowsill. Make that 25 globes on 25 windowsills, for that is the number appears in Topology House, 2002 [100], a sculpture constructive from photographs of windows, like a greenhouse made of salvaged frames, each one taken wherever Bolande spotted a globe in a window from the street.

Photography’s materials and techniques are everywhere on display in this exhibition. We see all kinds of color photography: from standard C-prints (printed like any commercially developed snapshot and as fugitive over time) to cibachromes (archival prints, which use dye-soaked plastic and look as sharp and saturated as slides). Scrolling down the wall and crashing to the floor, where it curls up like a wave, is Cascade, 1987 [8], a duratrans (named for an obsolete Kodak plastic that as used when this printing technique first became popular). The printing and papers of photography are variously deployed and commemorated throughout Bolande’s art, right up to the present. In the Smoke Screens of 2007 [81], photographs of smoke affixed directly onto sheets of plywood that hand on the wall like giant sheets of paper, supporting images of the stuff that all vestiges of the darkroom have gone up in. This smoke is, of course, printed digitally.

The gesture of the curl–curling smoke, the curl of Cascade–seems deeply embedded. We encounter it again, for instance, in Stack of Shins, (with wire photo) 1987 [89]. A photograph of trees downed in a tornado hands above a stack of wooden slats that stands against the wall. This picture of an aerial view of disaster is a re-photographed newspaper image [83] that has yellowed, crinkled and curled at the corners. (And in case you wondered, as I did, about the title, note the illuminative wire service photo-credit.) The artist says the clipping was pinned up in her studio for a long time, like a peripheral point of reference, flagging exactly what, she was not sure. It’s as if it actually took the process of disintegrating, of slowly yellowing and peeling up from the wall, from the image to become an object, a thing that Bolande could pick up and use. And it is the thing-ness of photography that wires the gaps that are so much a part of Bolande’s art. Stack of Shims is riddled with them, gaps, between paper and wood, between trees seemingly at rest and shims resembling newspapers, between the spiraling distance to the ground in the aerial view and the abrupt immediacy of the object in front of you, between your head and the picture and your body and the stack of wood, between time captured in a photograph (which is always in the past) and time embodied in sculpture (which is always in the present). Nowhere is this last gap more efficiently collapsed and constructed at once than in Milk Crown, 1987 [57], Bolande’s iconic rendition of Harold Edgerton’s milk splash (captured with a stroboscopic camera) [58] into a sculptural piece of porcelain. As a thing, photography takes many shapes in Bolande’s work. There are framed and various forms of mounted photographs (mostly medium to small in scale), photo-objects, light-boxes, postcards. In Side Show, 1991 [76], for instance, a photograph of a spotlight on a tent peg is so succinct a pictorial statement that there might as well be a spot lit tent peg in the room. ([woman as object] [precious body] [this is what framing feels like]) by a beefy cardboard box of a frame that is packed at the corners with clumps of shoulder pads. The photograph in Orange Threshold, 1995, [67], of the back of a truck is perfectly parenthetical to the frame around it: both are orange and square.

A grammar takes shape around Bolande’s use of photographs as subjects, objects, punctuation, verbs. This grammar leads us into a realm of language that is articulated by photography even when there are no photographs in sight. As if reaching for terms by which to understand it, photography has been known by its metaphors ever since its invention: “light writing,” “light drawing,” and most poetically, “the pencil of nature” as Henry Fox Talbot, one of photography’s originators, defined the “character of truth and reality which that art so eminently possesses.” Keeping these metaphors in mind, consider these works by Bolande: Movie Mountain, 2004 [75]is a photograph of props and objects in a constructed tableau, a sort of Philip Guston night studio, in which an anthropomorphic mountain poes in front of a blank screen, casting upon it the perfect shadow. The screen, in turn, casts its silhouette onto another screen, making for a double portrait of mountain and movie. Hence, one supposes, the title, since this is no film. Nor, for that matter, is Movie Chair, 1984 [77]: a sculpture of a mountain plopped on a chair, posing under bright clip-on lights, the accouterments of every photographer’s studio. Bolande’s art is ever encompassing of shadow plays and moving picture, just as photography’s history is bracketed by them.

Working like a postmodern Maid of Corinth, whose classical legend is to have made the first drawing when she traced her lover’s shadow by lamplight, Bolande uses photography to draw and drawing kind of photography. Central and Mountain, 1985 [5] is a sculpture made from a big marching-band drum with a drawing on the skin. The drawing shows three mountaintops that seem to crouch, cautious and curious, in view of a mallet that is strapped to the drum, ready to strike. (This striking, of course, transpires in the mind’s eye-or ear—where the thunder rolls around and around them there hills.) So where’s the photography? Sepia in tone, soft to the eye, tentative yet certain in touch, the drawing can be seen as photographic in a pictorialist sort of way. More importantly, there is something about Bolande’s drawings in general that makes them, like spirit photography, appear irrefutably part of the world as she sees it. They don’t seem so much drawn as developed on paper.

Unlike a depiction or rendering, the drawing on the drum appears to be the thing itself. Because image and object are equivalent in Bolande’s art, each is interchangeable when it comes to cobbling together and transmitting a sense of pictorial intelligence. To spark a similar gap, Alfred Stieglitz titled his small photographs of clouds “Equivalents” because he saw no difference between photograph, cloud, and their mutual capacities for experience and meaning. Another Modernist, Edward Weston, deemed it photography’s goal “to render the very substance and quintessence of the thing itself, whether it be polished steel or palpitating flesh.” Temperamentally on the cool side, Bolande once made a series of photographs that study her hand and its reflection flatly hovering over an aluminum elevator door.

This photographic notion of the thing itself seems key to the simultaneously straightforward and elliptical nature of Bolande’s work. As she told the artist David Robbins in an interview, “I study things over time, sometimes for years, to understand what it is, and what its attraction is for me.”1 Accruing over decades, these things have been theater curtains, movie marquees, mountains, globes, speakers, microphones, flags, pictures of the planet Mars, the moon, tornadoes, smoke. And while each subject yields a specific understanding that can only be gleaned from the individual work, collectively they may be understood as follows. Abstracted from the sphere of the public domain—which is her elected terrain–Bolande’s things all seem to evoke a sense of encroaching obsolescence. Whether it’s due to technology, the weather, the end of the space race, or beginning of a new global era, this vision of things falling under scrutiny even as they fall from view is as emphatic as touch in Bolande’s art. She works in order to grasp her own understanding and in the process creates a gulf in comprehension, a gulf filled with such intensely focused time and study that it is as sublime to behold as the reach across any great distance.

Everything is touched in a photograph: touched by light. This is what makes a photograph an indexical object, a conceptual proof of something that is not really there. Like the sound of that bass drum, for instance, and sound in general. Bolande’s work is filled with images and objects that make noise or amplify. The opposite of symbolic, indexes embody. And so does Bolande, who comes to art by way of choreography and dance, seek to embody forms of understanding through her work. Thus I have come to see her index of circling and conical things–traffic cones, tornadoes, cones of light (which could also be cones of sound, sight), Milk Crown, skydivers holding hands to form a circle in the air—as funneling the power of concentration, which is also essentially invisible and yet profoundly physical.

Bolande’s work is also consistently filled with apertures and chambers; these loom as empty as the darkroom, the negative, the camera obscura of photography itself. Take for instance, the five gaping big-rig truck beds in Holding Pattern, 1995 [63] (a masterful piece of semi choreography, conducted in a parking lot); the open van and manhole in Held Open Space, 1991[66]; the filmic frames of Green Towel Sequence #1, 2004 [7]; the filmstrip construction of Appliance House, 1999 [120]. Each chamber stands ready to be filled, Iike the slots in an empty slide carousel, or the frames of an incipient picture collection.

Turning from the exhibition Landmarks to this book, e finds clues throughout as to what pictures might be slotted into these chambers. Bolande has already inserted a few. Spotted amidst the flow of her own works of art, these pictures signal various uses. There are historic paintings as pictorial points of reference: Bruegel’s Tower of Babel, 1563, [82] with its craggy profile and Magritte’s Time Transfixed, 1938 [10] (the original title of which, La Durée Poignardée, or “time stabbed by a dagger,” resonates disturbingly with Bolande’s embodied sense of language). A postcard of Times Square [106] and NASA footage [9] appear as source material. Finally, nothing less than commemorative of an artist she knew and deeply regarded is a picture of a set of 45-record albums [85] by the conceptual artist Jack Goldstein, who died in 2003. Of the night they met in 1976 (at a performance by Jack Smith who threatened that he had to mount a mess of slides on stage before he would begin), Bolande, who was deeply immersed in performance and questing her way through the downtown scene, wrote, “That night changed my life. I knew what was possible and I was inspired to be an artist.”2 She describes going back to Goldstein’s studio and seeing his looping 2-minute film Metro-Goldwyn-Meyer, 1975, in which the appropriated lion logo grew stranger, more detailed, and finally by Bolande’s estimation, “irretrievably suspect” with each repetition. He gave her a set of records, since lost; represented in this book, they appear to hold a key place in Bolande’s picture archive. (Just read the titles: The Tornado, Three Felled Trees, The Burning Forest.) Another artist, whose work Bolande memorably encountered in her early days in New York is the sculptor Ree Morton; her untitled assemblage of 1972 maps emblems of mountains into just the sort of theatrical terrain that Bolande has come to so readily inhabit.

Like most contemporary artists, Bolande speaks of photography as a tool. “Photography is generally my first line of approach to any subject,” she recently wrote in Artforum.3 And while making photographs is not her object–Bolande actually considers herself a sculptor—the language of photography has proved instrumental to the understanding of her work. This understanding, in turn, grants one a great deal of fluency in the bigger conversation emerging around photography today. Significant expressions of which can be engaged through work of such artists as Trisha Donnelly and Erin Shirreff, as well as The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today,4 a recent survey at the Museum of Modern Art, New York. All expound on photography’s language as we have gotten to know it through Bolande’s art. Her work also shows us that, no less vital for being already partially dead, this language grows increasingly historical, critical, and expressive with each new entry into the digital lexicon. Of all the obsolescent things that Bolande’s art points to, photography is the most paradoxical. Even as the thing itself vanishes, the language remains rich and widely spoken.

This essay synthesizes and builds on two past curatorial projects, Constructing Images (1991) and The Photogenic (2002). Both group shows featured work by Bolande, whose work continues to shape my own.


  1. Robbins, David and Bolande, Jennifer, "A Conversation..." Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, May 35, 2010.
  2. Bolande, J., "Remembering Jack Goldstein." Afterall #7, Spring/Sumer 2003, republished on June 30th, 2011, www.EastofBorneo.org
  3. Bolande, Jennifer, "Jennifer Bolande Talks About Plywood Curtains," Artforum, New York, Vol. XLIX, No. 3 (November 2010), pp. 210-213.
  4. The Original Copy: Photography of Sculpture, 1839 to Today, curator Roxana Marcoci, took place at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA), New York, August 1-November 1, 2010.