Outthinking the Rectangle
2018 - by John MacLean
In 1963 Lee Friedlander took a photograph in which everything we might traditionally think of as subject matter seemed to fall tantalisingly just outside the frame, encouraging us to consider the edges of his camera’s viewfinder as subject matter rather than merely a container.
In 1969 in a field near Jersey City, the artist Dennis Oppenheim excavated a rectangular ditch whose dimensions exactly matched those of his recently assigned gallery space at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam. Oppenheim created an outdoor site that critiqued the confines and conventions of the official art space.
In 1974 Gordon Matta-Clark, an architect-turned-artist, bisected a condemned family house with a chainsaw. He also cut the corners off the roof, a gesture he later replicated by cutting the photo-negatives that documented the event.
In 1976 my father, a journalist, cropped a photograph of Vaslav Nijinsky so that, when the image went to press, the dancer’s leg was shooting defiantly out of the picture frame. Such a graphic ‘escape act’, he felt, was an apposite metaphor for the politically open-field ethos a newspaper should aspire to.
His Nijinsky story prompted me to realise that we have become inured to photographs constrained by four right-angled edges. We see cascades of photo-rectangles on our computers, lines of them across gallery walls and neat arrangements of them across pages. Each time a photograph is taken, the camera’s Procrustean viewfinder square-cuts the lens’s image-circle, imposing an unforgiving frame regardless of the photographer’s intent.
Modern culture continually reinforces the instinct to see rectangularly. Of course, we have developed a practical and economic necessity for straight lines and rectangles: our cities, houses, walls and windows use this format. We make paper rectangular… so the camera’s viewfinder, it seems, must be rectangular too.
However, psychological research such as Heider and Simmel’s beautiful animation of 1944, ‘An Experimental Study of Apparent Behaviour’, shows how a rectangle can not only be perceived as a place of refuge but also a place to be trapped… depending on whether it has a ‘door’ that can be freely opened and closed.
John Baldessari once complained that ‘the worst thing that ever happened to photography was the viewfinder’. He implored photographers not to be enslaved by the foursquare format but to crop, distort, skew, erase, retrace, and restructure to suit their purpose. Since the 1930’s a number of artists have become especially alert to this potential: by using photographs they found rather than made themselves, they gained a critical and emotional distance from the image, enabling them to imagine it not as a closed box but one waiting to be opened.
Thus the creative process entombed by the rectangular print made in the photographer’s darkroom was exhumed and brought back to life through reinterpretation and recontextualisation.
Taking photographs can be a deeply pleasurable activity. I think this may be because a photograph can offer ‘a momentary stay against confusion’. We live in a world that often feels unstable: the flux of chance and accident is a source of uncertainty. Taking a photograph frames, compresses and crystallises experience and this creates a sense that something tangible and valuable has been salvaged.
However, since Photoshop became available in 1988 it has become easier to ‘re-enter’ an image in a second phase of thinking, looking and making. Imagine a painting that never dries or a sculpture that can be endlessly reshaped: a digitised photograph has a plasticity which undermines its previously reassuring, shuttered finality.
Post-production is a ‘door’ back into the photo-rectangle. When opened, the photograph expands (unnervingly) with potential; the image decompresses, and what is created is a new ‘arena in which to act’. With this threshold crossed, stability is sacrificed, but what is gained is time and space—perhaps to evade traps of format or categorisation, to unsettle the picture plane or take sideswipes at the apparatus of the art world.
Unfailingly, the rectangle will close around the image again—in the form of a frame, a page or a screen—but the photographer need not be trapped by the inertia of rectangular thinking. Today a photograph is only ever paused mid-flow, mid-reformation: it is free to evolve as the artist evolves.