Before photography was “straight”, it was fuzzy and imprecise, struggling to become fixed. Early practitioners were scientists, methodically experimenting with combinations of decisions leading to small discoveries. It is hard to say how far art was from those early ambitions, but the excitement of “fixing reality” drove the technology onwards. The very first photograph, View from the Window at Le Gras, by Nicéphore Niépce took around eight hours to expose, and within that time, the light had shifted so dramatically that the resulting image is hazy and atmospheric. The continuous changes of light and shadow accumulated on this single, still image, obscuring one another as a simultaneous event, a phenomenon actualized by the camera.1 Niépce’s goal at the time was to produce a direct image, a faithful representation of the view of his eye, but like more recent images of distant galaxies, this first instance of photographic technology stirred other mysteries instead. The entire early history of photography contains invisible, latent struggles that contradict its goals – moments of trying to perfect process and chemistry for verisimilitude that instead takes the eyes where they cannot go/see; dancing in the dark.
John Opera’s exhibition Technical Images at Document circles back to the spirit of those early days of photochemistry with the benefit of hindsight. The contemporary vantage point offers an awareness of both the effect that the medium would have on painting, as well as the similar fate that analog photography faces with the advent of the digital. Gazing at the whole show comprised of Opera’s quiet cyanotypes, a viewer is struck by the work’s austerity. With deeper observation, it becomes clear that Opera is using the formal modes of modern painting and exacting photochemical technique to evoke something far less comprehensible and enigmatic. All of the works in the show call attention to the signifying power of depth of field, focus, and framing – hallmark tools of the photographic – but when deployed in combination with formalist painting, the signifier and index become subject.
Many expectations are placed on photographic indexicality to reveal something, and even at its most abstract, a photograph still represents something, some real thing in the world. Within this “truth” it is also possible to withhold or to make felt but not visible. There is an “liquid intelligence” 2 in photography – the wet, the dark, and the unpredictable – something that, according to Jeff Wall, must be controlled in order to produce a successful image.3 Though it is clear that Opera has mastered the skills of the craft, he also embraces that liquid intelligence. The resulting works evidence time spent letting the materials to do what they do naturally before guiding those observations in predictable ways – the index here is as much the liquidity of the material as it is light.
The double circles of Opera’s Double Lens series become celestial bodies, double moons in various stages of wax and wane, as though, like the very first photograph, the chemistry can capture something that the unaided human eye is unable to see all at once. They also reference the body’s binocular vision, but in a pointed move, Opera rotates the view from horizontal to vertical. Binocular disparity, the difference in the image between what each eye sees, allows one to perceive depth. By literally flipping that on its side, Opera maintains the images’ flatness, despite the roundness that the gradation of the cyanotype implies. Opera utilizes paint’s straightforward ability to be opaque and flat; there are no flourishes of the hand as the paint serves as backdrop and frame, greatly impacting the perception of the cyanotype, through both the formal compositions and chromatic juxtapositions. The Oval series, by using a shape that references the conventions of photographic portraiture, elevates light itself to the status of a sitter. As a genre, portrait photography especially surpassed painting in its usage to depict reality. In Double Slit (oxide), Double Slit (pale blue), and Double Slit (yellow), the power of the cyanotype is dependent on the extreme framing of the painted border, acknowledging the complicated and sympathetic entanglements of the two mediums. With apparent empathy, Opera abstracts the cyanotype in order to pay homage to the similar identity crisis experienced by analog photography over the last 15 or so years.
The binaries of mastery and subjectivity, of reason and intuition, liquid and solid, are so often pitted against one another, however, Opera argues for a space of coexistence rather than contradiction. It would be a mistake to write these works off as simply decorative. Ultimately, Opera is willingly at the mercy of these fluid camera-less processes, complicating ideas about what is possible to see. Some 190 years later, the magic of light, time, optics, and chemistry still dazzle.