Hybrid Photographers in Los Angeles

SOO KIM by George Melrod, MASOOD KAMANDY by Jody Zellen and KELLY BARRIE by Molly Enholm

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Photography has always been a uniquely curious medium, directed insistently out toward the real world: as much as a tool for mechanical documentation as a vehicle for artistic expression. With the advent of the photograph, the art object officially entered the age of mass reproduction, its uniqueness and authority put in question. With the new, ongoing explosion of digital and online imagery, photography is again undergoing profound transformation, as the very idea of film now seems quaint. Because of its collaborative instincts, photography has long been adapted by visual artists to be used with other mediums. In this issue, art ltd. looks at three emerging LA photographers who are pushing the medium in engaging new directions. Their work highlights the hybrid instincts of the medium, and how its own amorphous authority and language continue to evolve, both with technology, and in reaction to it.

(She recognizes him) by Soo Kim

(She recognizes him)
2012
Two hand-cut inkjet prints
27 ¼” x 42″
Photo Credit: Brian Forrest
Courtesy of the artist and Angles Gallery, Los Angeles

SOO KIM

Perhaps ironically for an LA photographer who in fact chairs the photography department at Otis, Soo Kim never studied photography herself. “I was in practically every school except photography,” says the CalArts MFA (1995). “My photo education was spotty, so it wasn’t habituated into my education early on. So that really helped me.” Kim’s practice is wide-ranging both geographically and conceptually, but it’s also as focused as an X-Acto knife, which is just the sort of implement that she uses to cut into her images, rendering them unexpectedly weblike and tactile, spacial and singular and doggedly hand-wrought. Yet despite her interventions, Kim remains first and foremost a photographer. And if her work edges into terrain that sometimes seems antithetical to those conventions that the medium is expected to reinforce, she remains acutely aware of what those preconceptions are. In a sense, her ongoing body of work can be considered an experiment in how pliant and plastic the medium really is.

“I started cutting up the photographs as a way of making the work literally unique, but also cutting away some of the legibility of the photograph,” she describes. Cutting away trees from their background, she saw herself as “inserting into the work a deliberate slowness,” while also bringing “this slowness to looking at the work.” While this meditativeness may hark back to the early days of the medium, when capturing a shadowy glimpse from nature or humanity seemed wondrous, it flies in the face of today’s digital photography revolution, wherein we casually sift through thousands of images every hour, absorbing and digesting them with voracious appetite. In fact, Kim describes her works as “revealing but also withholding,” as embracing both “full disclosure and complete withdrawal.” With her own labor-intensive subtractive process, excising volumes and elements from the spaces she presents, a viewer who might not give the image second thought is drawn in to its complexity and texture, to its nuance and mystery. While the image still seems to offer “the indexical quality” we expect from it, it also exists as something else more reticent and unknowable; to the degree that we assume photography to be objective and revelatory, Kim’s practice spotlights the medium’s ability to be subjective and elusive.

In 2009, Kim moved into depicting architecture in a set of works about Dubrovnik (in Croatia) and Reykjavik (in Iceland), cutting out the volumes of the buildings and layering the images atop each other in pairs. Transformed from panoramas of blockish volumes into open latticeworks, the images of these small but contrasting cities are unlike anything one expects of architectural photography. In fact, though one would not guess it, the Iceland images were photographed at midnight during the summer solstice. Kim’s fascination with architecture was continued in an ambitious artist book she created in 2012, depicting Arcosanti, the visionary utopian construction in Arizona started by Paolo Soleri in the ’70s. Laid out in pages of perforated scrims, the book is an astounding feat, spinning into three dimensions from the volumetric flatness of the page: at once narrative and non-linear, a fragmentary yet still intact Calvino-esque hall of mirrors.

In 2011, she returned to nature in a series of lush-seeming forest scenes, actually shot at a Buddhist cemetery outside Seoul, that examine density and emptiness as a form of camouflage, and Elysian, a series of detailed wooded scenes (inspired by the LA neighborhood). For these last pieces, she painted the backs of the images in metallic colors and let them fold forward in the frame so that they became overtly sculptural, and their backs became an active part of the works. In her dramatic 2012 series of scenes of Taipei at night, featured in her recent solo show at Angles Gallery, Kim removed the signage from beckoning nighttime urban vistas, leaving empty gaps amid the tantalizing effusions of color and geometry, in a sea of blackness. Although still expository, and recognizable as cities, the works veer toward giddy abstraction. And yet despite their emptiness and self-awareness, their allure is palpable. Hollowed out of specificity, they nonetheless draw the viewer into their layered spaces, in their evocation of “the consumption of desire, rather than objects of desire,” becoming “empty vehicles of desire underlying urban life.”

Kim’s current work-in-progress promises to edge even further into three dimensions, into a sculptural realm. Involving photographs of landscape from Panama and Taipei, these works are still evolving off the walls, to an as-yet indeterminate form. “I’m folding those photographs, so they have more shape to them. I’m looking at origami, tessellations,” she says. “They’re too rotund to frame. The backs are painted and they’re folded out, kind of unwieldy now.” Pushing quietly but determinedly from photographic space into the viewer’s realm, her works continue to challenge preconceptions: not just of what photography can represent, but how it is experienced.

—george melrod

"Suspension" by Masood Kamandy

Suspension (from the Object Series)
2013
Pigment print
24″ x 20″
Photo: courtesy of the artist

MASOOD KAMANDY

There is no denying we live in an image-saturated culture. Although artists continue to make photographic images with and without a camera, digital media has broadened the practice. This proliferation has inspired artists to ask different questions and to push the boundaries of the medium in new ways. Masood Kamandy is one such artist. Kamandy began by using a camera to capture and frame events unfolding around him. These images fell into the documentary tradition and clearly showed he had a keen eye and a social conscience. He studied Photography at SVA receiving a BFA in 2004, worked as a photo editor at the New York Times Magazine and the agency Art + Commerce. A trip to Afghanistan after 9/11 led to his forming the first Photography Department at Kabul University, a relationship that continues to this day.

In his own practice, Kamandy began to explore ways of working that were not strictly photographic. He looked to the Internet as a way to make the work more collaborative. One project, “Words Become Images,” is a website that asks visitors to supply a word which he subsequently interpreted literally or poetically with a photographic image. In this project Kamandy recognized the power of the Web as a format for both collaboration and communication sparking his exploration of code-based works.

Relocating to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at UCLA (MFA Fine Art, 2012) furthered his interests in the possibilities of melding technology and photography. Still, for Kamandy, the initial image–the photograph–remains integral to the process and directs the outcome of the final pieces. Superpositional (2012) is a project that began with a question. After viewing Tony Smith’s massive sculpture Smoke situated in one of LACMA’s transitional spaces, Kamandy began to ponder how an artwork inhabits its space, how it affects the people who encounter it, and if he could write a computer program (a piece of software) to reveal how people engage with art over an extended period of time. Interested in how photography compresses space and time, he invented a way to explore issues of simultaneity. The idea of presenting many aspects of an object or moments in time at once is not revolutionary. Muybridge, Marey and Edgerton used photography to explore temporality and movement, yet Kamandy does it with software.

What does his software do? In thinking about what multiple images of a single object or space reveal as well as what happens when images overlap, Kamandy created a program that combines multiple digital files stored on a computer in a particular order. The software also provides mechanisms to filter the information contained within the digital image/s. The resulting pictures become denser than the observable eye can see, yet derive from acute observation. Many of the images in the Superpositional series begin as photographs of ordinary objects: crumpled paper, a light bulb, Christmas lights, The New York Times. Each object is photographed many times from various angles in Kamandy’s studio under controlled lighting that often includes the use of colored gels. The digital images are then placed in a folder on Kamandy’s computer desktop and run through his software. This is where magic happens, creating unexpected surprises from the program’s montaging. Able to control the results, Kamandy focuses on a particular effect; subtraction as in Cherry, where the overlapping produces dark negative spaces that make the bright red and orange cherries pop. Or difference, as in Source where he tracks the trajectory of a hanging lightbulb, allowing the movement created through the layering to generate heightened colors.

Kamandy believes in sharing and is pro open source. To that end he created Collapsus, an application where users can manipulate their own stack of images. On www.collapsus.org, a project commissioned and produced by dOCUMENTA(13), he makes the application available for people to download, suggesting users share the images they create by uploading them to the site. Kamandy is interested in where photography and software intersect and how, through digital technologies, a photograph can become painterly. Rather than mix colors additively (like in painting), Kamandy uses the algorithms in his software and digital printing controls to make images that while photographic, appear to be so much more.

In his newest body of work, Objects, Kamandy has backed off from the saturation and heightened effects of the software used in Superpositional, and is now creating small sculptures that he photographs in his studio. Pushing beyond how to make a photograph painterly, he is now exploring how to make it sculptural through a more subtle use of his computational software.

—jody zellen

"Down Hill Pipe, Circa 1978" by Kelly Barrie

Down Hill Pipe, Circa 1978
2013
Archival Lightjet Print
48″ x 75″
Photo: courtesy Marine Contemporary

KELLY BARRIE

Performance and mark making are not among the usual concerns of a photographer, nor is powdery dust usually a welcome addition to the darkroom, but for England-born and Los Angeles-based artist Kelly Barrie these have become central components of his practice. Barrie creates drawings built from loose luminescent pigment which he documents in multiple photographs. Though at first take there is a disparity of subject matter addressed by the CalArts graduate, the works are united by a concern for the past, evoking notions of time both in subject and his hybrid technique.

Among the earliest examples is Tree of Tenere (2008), a haunting image of a single tree set against a pitch-black background. The image was inspired by a photograph of the lone tree that stood in the Sahara Desert where an ancient oasis had once existed. The long-isolated tree stood as a landmark for travelers for time immemorial until it was struck down by a drunk driver in 1973. This also happened to be the year Barrie was born–the son of internationally recognized conceptual artists, Mary Kelly and Ray Barrie.

Standing in his studio surrounded by preparatory sketches for his upcoming exhibition, Barrie describes the inspiration for his multi-step process, which began with an image of the tree of Tenere that he had reproduced on a transparency. “There was a 10-foot roll of black seamless hanging on the wall,” Barrie recalls, “about four feet of which had curled out onto the floor. I gazed past the transparent tree image to my feet below, positioned on the black seamless amidst a bunch of other dusty footprints… The floor became the background to the transparent image I held in my hand.” From this moment of inspiration, Barrie pulled more of the rolled black paper onto the ground, scattering the pigment onto its surface and began to “walk the tree” from memory, the movements of his feet dragging the pigment across the paper’s surface creating the organic patterns that evolved into the image of the tree.

Then the documentation begins. Instead of taking one photograph of the entire image, Barrie captures the image section-by-section, which also effectively destroys the work as Barrie physically moves over the performed drawing. During this process, he welcomes “traces of daily events that enter into the process” such as the breeze of the fan or air conditioner, the soft landing of an insect, meandering cat tracks, the imprint of a cup of coffee, or even a chance footstep as each interaction leaves a slight–or not so slight–trace in the fine powder.

As he photographs the image, the slight difference in the amount of light filtering through the blinds of Barrie’s makeshift studio over the course of the day, is responsible for the subtle dance of soft blue, yellow and pink hues reflecting from the textured surface of the luminescent pigment. “The camera tries to document the ambient light in that moment, that time of day, that focus,” he describes, “Everything is specific to that shot.” Consequently, Barrie moves beyond the traditional notion of photography capturing a single moment. Instead, as he combines multiple shots, digitally “stitching” them together in Photoshop, he effectively merges many moments (up to 150) into one.

Since Tenere, Barrie has delved into his own memories as well as issues of larger social consequence. He re-imagined the vanquished urban playgrounds of his native London–a rope ladder, cement pipe tunnel, a pyramid–in a solo exhibition “Negative Capability,” at the nonprofit LA>Mirror House, commissioned by the Santa Monica Museum of Art in 2011, long after coverage had vanished from popular media. Moved by an old newspaper photograph of a house submerged in the surging floodwaters, Barrie recreated the image using his performative process to depict a large sturdy tree in the foreground and the fine edge a common squeegee to depict the flooded home. The final effect is haunting, as the ghostly form and reflection of the house seem to dissolve into the soft-black background.

In his current body of work Barrie reaches into the history of skateboarding in Southern California, combining his own experience with lore of the 1970s and ’80s, when skaters traveled to remote desert locales to skate in deserted pools or huge Ameron cement pipes. “The pipes were larger than anything I’d ever seen,” recalls Barrie of the 24-feet diameter 50-feet long structures which were part of the project to route water from the Rocky Mountains to Arizona and left out in the desert sun to cure. Like his series depicting urban playgrounds before the days of rubber padded footing and safety monitors, Barrie’s images of these graffiti-ridden monumental structures also represent a lost type of youthful adventure and freedom, through a technique that both depicts and depends upon the effects of time.

—molly enholm