Andrew Smith Gallery is pleased to introduce the work of New York artist Jerry Spagnoli to Santa Fe. Jerry Spagnoli (b. 1956) is best known for making photographs in the daguerreotypes process, a technology invented in 1839 that was the first permanent photographic print. Daguerreotypes are photographic images made on highly polished, silver clad copper plates. Their highly reflective surfaces convey elusive, fugitive images utterly unlike the steady state of almost any other photographic process. Spagnoli infuses the antique method with a postmodernist sensibility showing us the contemporary world as if we are seeing it anew and through the lens of time. "Jerry Spagnoli: Recent Daguerreotypes" opens Friday, July 20 and runs through Aug. 10, 2012.
Spagnoli sees the daguerreotype as "a potential image until it is presented under the correct optical/spatial conditions…and the light from a scene in the past strikes your eye like new." Among other things, his work investigates the tension between a photograph's "simple transmission of facts, its objectivity" with the viewer's conditioned perception of what they are seeing and how that experience is "heavily mediated by our training, past experiences and patterns of thought." He is fascinated by how people photographed at great distances onto small pieces of film and enlarged many times are readable as human forms despite the minimal information given.
If Spagnoli's conceptual approach is postmodern his method of taking photographs is laboriously old school. He often shoots his street scenes, figure studies and portraits using a wooden camera with a bellows that sits on a tripod. As he composes scenes through the camera lens he imagines how his images will appear to people 150 years from now, much in the same way that we comprehend the past through nineteenth century daguerreotypes. With this in mind he has photographed historically significant events including the destruction of the World Trade Center on 9/11, Times Square at midnight on the eve of the new millennium, and the inauguration of President Obama.
As physical objects Spagnoli's shimmering daguerreotypes encased in substantial black wood frames are as coolly elegant as a piece of Bauhaus furniture. The mirror-like images do not reveal themselves at first glance, but once drawn in viewers will be compelled to stay awhile, studying a familiar world distilled through elaborate chemical processes into a fascinating microcosm.
Alex Novak and Matt Damsker have said of Spagnoli's daguerreotypes: "At their most dramatic, as in shots of New York City sky and sun above skyscrapers, Central Park, or the East River, the azure and cobalt blues that result from intentional overexposure convey a dreamlike beauty seeping through the austere sepia of the daguerreotype. This effect, at its best in subtle yet startling slivers of blue light that activate the stolid architecture and solid geometry of the subject matter, makes a seamless connection between photography's beginnings and its postmodernist project."
"Congress Leaves Federal Hall" (JSP/1019)
In the camera's long exposure required to make this image people moving up and down the stairs of Federal Hall have been registered as ghostly forms. By contrast, the stationary objects of a massive American Flag, a statue of George Washington on a pedestal, and Greek style architectural columns have a hyper-sharp clarity. The title "Congress Leaves Federal Hall" opens the possibility that the artist is contrasting the transitory nature of current members of Congress with more permanent symbols of American Democracy. But Spagnoli may just be mirroring back to us how conditioned perceptions can distort a simple transmission of facts.
"Dedication of the 9/11 Memorial" (JSP/1021)
A crowd of seated people observes a ceremony, taking place on an open-air stage. Skyscrapers loom in the distance along with sky-high construction cranes. An American flag hanging from the adjacent building flaps in the breeze, blurred almost beyond recognition. Knowledge of what this ceremony signifies adds a powerful emotional dimension to this compact composition.
"Manhattan Looking West" (JSP/1013)
A city skyline on the banks of the Hudson River occupies the lower portion of the daguerreotype, flanked by a large section of building on the left. The title of the photograph describes this as the great city of Manhattan. But the actual focal point of the daguerreotype is a patch of deep blue sky in the center of the image that stands out against the otherwise monochromatic sepia and yellow-gray colors. The artist achieved the deep blue in the sky by overexposing this portion of the daguerreotype.
"Central Park Tree" (JSP/1011)
A slender tree sprinkled with small leaves or blossoms fills the entire frame of the picture with its spider web of branches. Below it individuals and groups of people relax on a wide, grassy lawn, clearly enjoying what must have been a perfect spring day in the city. They appear as so many flecks of white, and at the same time are described with incredible precision in this small daguerreotype.
"The Manhattan Bridge" (JSP/1017)
The highly defined shapes of two dark gray bridges span silvery waters below. Their cool architectural geometry is sharply distinct from the soft clouds in the sky that Spagnoli has emphasized by giving them a metallic blue color.
"Bethesda Fountain" (JSP/1015)
At first glance this scene of people milling around the circular Bethesda fountain in Central Park might easily be mistaken for a photograph taken a hundred years ago in Paris during La Belle Époque or in America's Gilded Age. The sense of order and pleasure conveyed by the sunny, tree lined river on which boats float, the decorative banners flanking the fountain, gaily striped umbrellas topping souvenir stands, and the elegant, multi-tiered fountain in the center of the picture bring to mind the lines of Baudelaire's poem that defined another transitory age:
Là, tout n'est qu'ordre et beauté,
There all is order and beauty,
Spagnoli is not above indulging in a few visual puns, as in his photographs of glassware. The glassy surface of the daguerreotype literally mirrors its subject of transparent drinking glasses that rest somewhat precariously in three tiers separated by glass dividers. Part of the fun is that the glasses on the lowest tier are probably a reflection of the real glasses above, although this is cleverly ambiguous. In the predominantly silver colored image tiny reflections in the glasses appear as speckles of pure cerulean blue.
Jerry Spagnoli lives and works in New York City. His most recent projects are two historical documentation series: "Local Stories" and "The Last Great Daguerreian Survey of the Twentieth Century" which deal with the interplay between information and knowledge. As a leading expert in the revitalization of daguerreotypes Spagnoli has collaborated with artists Chuck Close and Adam Fuss on their explorations of the daguerreotype process. His work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum, the Nelson Atkins Museum and the Museum of the City of New York. It has also been exhibited at the Boston University Art Gallery and the George Eastman House. He has published two books of his work, Daguerreotypes (Steidl, 2006) and American Dreaming (Steidl 2012).
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