PHOTOGRAPHING “THE NOTHING THAT IS"
RICHARD LAURENCE DAVIDSON, PhD
For the third time in my not-so-young life, I find myself in a period of intense focus on artistic imagery. The first two times were as a viewer and a collector, but this time, it is as a creator.
The first of these periods involved medieval art and architecture, specifically the Romanesque and Gothic. During a three-year period while living in France (just recently married and with a postdoctoral research fellowship to study the molecular genetics of cancer), we spent much of our free time in visiting, studying, and photographing all the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe, as well as many of the extraordinary Romanesque churches of France. The second period, once back in the university research world in the United States, involved the study and acquisition of contemporary American realist drawings, stretching over 25 years and resulting in a collection of hundreds of original works on paper. Although this activity was undertaken solely for the purpose of putting together a collection for our own personal study, it led coincidentally to exhibitions of the new collection at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts (1) and the Art Institute of Chicago (1, 2). The third and current period involves the creation of largely abstract photographs.
At first glance, it appears that there is a large disconnect between the first and the second periods and between the second and the third. However, there is a constant of sensitivity to imagery and meaning and a way of looking at artistic imagery that runs through all three. In many ways, this began to develop in and evolved from the intense study of medieval art and architecture while living in Europe, including a detailed study of the complex symbolism in medieval sculpture and stained glass windows and an independent in-depth analysis of artistic styles in the sculpted figures across various monuments. The stylistic analysis of sculptures was of special interest to me as the work came from a period when the artisans/sculptors did not sign their work nor were they otherwise identified. These studies then established a way of looking and seeing with an independence from established dogma, which independence formed the basis of collecting contemporary realist art during a period when it was not in vogue. This way of looking and seeing now plays a central role in my photographic art. And this approach also relates to my professional career as a research scientist, contributing an experimental approach to the photographic activity, as I frequently generate photo series with progressive minimal variations to see how the images change in a controlled setting.
The title of this statement, Photographing “The Nothing That Is”, relates to the Fenestral Abstraction series of photographs, which involve the creation (in my kitchen) of abstractions that are not photographs of any object that has a concrete existence. These abstractions are NOT photographs of abstract paintings or drawings or anything else tangible, ie they do not depict any existing object. The photographs were generated solely in camera, without the involvement of any digital program or digital manipulation either before or after the exposure. For each image, the camera was pointed at the edge of a very old window in my kitchen, but these old windows do not look like the abstractions created. The abstractions presented are exactly as the camera framed and captured them, with a key factor being the angle at which I was holding the camera. Some of the images presented come from the exact same window edge area but with very differing results as shown in the photographs, the differences being largely attributable to the camera angle and time of day.
As these camera abstractions are not photographs of any object that has a concrete existence and do not depict any existing, tangible object, I have referred to their creation as photographing “the nothing that is”. This presents a photographic paradox in that the camera has been technically and faithfully accurate in its recording of the moment, but the resultant photographs do not depict any tangible object with a concrete existence. The phrase “the nothing that is” comes from the poem “The Snow Man” by Wallace Stevens (3).
After “focusing” on abstract imagery in an initial series of photographs, I began to perceive striking abstractions in the contorted reflections in car surfaces of buildings near where I live. These contorted reflections arise because of the variations in surface planes and raised linear elements in the hoods and other parts of cars. To my eye, these contorted reflections share visual aspects with the abstraction photographs taken in my kitchen. And as with the photographic abstractions, the surface contortion photographs were generated solely in camera, without the involvement of any digital program or digital manipulation either before or after the exposure.
The specific contortion of the reflected images that I choose to photograph is determined and dramatically altered by the geometry of the surface area off of which I take the reflection and by the angle at which I hold the camera. An example of the extreme contortions that are created in this manner is shown below, with the contorted reflection showing on the left and the actual source of the reflection on the right.
Another series of photographs is based on the trees in the park across from my apartment, and they are largely taken through only one window in the apartment. I see these photographs as closely related to the other two groups described above, in that they can generate abstract patterns and are highly dependent on the time of day and the angle of the sunlight, and especially for these photographs, the season (again, as above, without the involvement of any digital program manipulation). Some of the most dramatic photos come from a time of day when there are only long narrow traces of light across the park, and this use of light “beams” takes me back almost 45 years to when I was photographing ancient temples in Egypt. For one particular set of Egyptian temple photos, I waited for hours for the light to be such that the shadows of the columns on one side of the temple aligned perfectly with the columns on the other side of the temple (see below; photographed July 1972). Thus, although the photographs herein result from the very recent past, my interest in photographs emphasizing the effects of light and shadow in a structural sense dates back decades.
Overall, in a span of 50 years, I see a continuity of focus in moving from the study of medieval art and architecture to collecting late 20th century contemporary realist art and from there to the generation of abstract imagery through photography. And certainly there are commonalities, at least in approach and vision, across all three periods and throughout my scientific career which spanned across all of them.
1. Perspectives on Contemporary American Realism: Works of Art on Paper from the Collection of Jalane and Richard Davidson. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, 91 pages, 1982.
2. Contemporary American Realist Drawings: The Jalane and Richard Davidson Collection at the Art Institute of Chicago. Hudson Hills Press (distributor), 136 pages, 1999.
3. Wallace Stevens, "The Snow Man", originally published in Poetry, XIX #1, October 1921.