Outthinking the Rectangle

2018 - Artist's Statement

732 Words


In 1963, Lee Friedlander took a photograph in which everything we might traditionally think of as subject matter seemed to fall tantalizingly 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, Dennis Oppenheim excavated a rectangular ditch whose dimensions exactly matched those of his recently assigned gallery space at the Stedelijk Museum. Oppenheim’s outdoor site was implicitly set against the conventions and context 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, while working as a journalist, my father cut 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. He felt this graphic freedom was an apposite metaphor for the politically open-field ethos his newspaper aspired to.

When my father recently retold the story of Nijinsky’s ‘photo-escape-act’, it occurred to me that we have become inured to photographs constrained by four, perpendicular 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 on an image 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 adhere to 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 be perceived as a place of refuge or 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 to the foursquare format but to crop, distort, skew, erase, retrace, and restructure to suit their purpose. Clearly, artists since the 1930’s who have appropriated photographs have been especially alert to this potential: by using photographs that were not made but found, they gained a critical and emotional distance from the image, enabling them to imagine it not as a closed box but as a box waiting to be opened. The thought process entombed by the print as it was fixed in the photographer’s darkroom, was exhumed and given a new 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 in our lives is a source of uncertainty. Taking a photograph frames, compresses and crystallizes experience to give a sense that something tangible and valuable has been salvaged.

However, since Photoshop became available in 1988, it has become easier for the photographer’s hand to 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 digitized 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’ (1). With this threshold crossed, stability is sacrificed, but what is gained is time and space—perhaps to step over traps of format or categorization, take sideswipes at ingrained habits or tease the absurdity of art context.

Unfailingly, the rectangle will close around the image again—in the form of a screen, a page or a frame—but photographers need not be trapped by the inertia of rectangular thinking. Today, a photograph is only ever paused mid flow, mid deformation: it is free to evolve as the artist evolves.

(1) Harold Rosenberg, 1952. ‘At a certain moment the canvas began to appear to one American painter after another as an arena in which to act—rather than as a space in which to reproduce, re-design, analyze or ‘express’ an object….’