There a famous quote, alternately attributed to George Burns, Jean Giraudoux, or Groucho Marx, the gist of which goes: “The key to success is sincerity. And if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” A related statement of sorts might be made about photography and verisimilitude. Or at least it could, at one time: with a not-so-subtle nudge from digital FX, the medium has finally outgrown any expectations of documentary truthfulness. Yet history can be a stubborn thing, so photography still bears the legacy, and implicit burden, of depicting reality, even when we know for a fact that it doesn’t. Alia Malley’s recent show of photographic works titled “Captains of the Dead Sea” plays havoc with those expectations, to create a sort of dual universe straddling fact and fiction. On the surface, they determinedly appear to depict forlorn extraterrestrial vistas such as the surface of Mars, or views peering out of space capsules, in a range of formats that would seem familiar to any NASA enthusiast. But Malley, an LA-based artist who received her BA from USC’s School of Cinematic Arts and her MFA from UC Riverside, did not fly to Mars to take these photographs; rather they were shot in nearby Death Valley and other earthly locales, mostly in the Southwest. Thus, these images are both a factual depiction of certain aspects of our own planet, and also a dismayingly plausible invented narrative, in which the viewer willingly collaborates.
By presenting what we experience as forged evidence of space exploration, Malley’s work recalls the 1977 Hollywood thriller “Capricorn One,” (starring Elliott Gould, James Brolin and O.J. Simpson, in a very ’70s cast) which imagined a conspiracy around a faked mission to Mars. Malley has enormous fun riffing on this concept, playing it out in various skillful ways. Some of the photos depict aerial views of craggy mountains and valleys, while others show imprinted evidence of humanity’s presence, like dirt roads, or, in one witty example, solemn close-ups of patterned footprints. The fact that many of these photos are printed on newsprint adds to their seeming texture of immediacy and truthiness. A few teasing pieces show what look like views from above the earth’s atmosphere, or through a circular space capsule window, amidst blurs of refracted light. Beyond mere gimmickry, her images linger, despite the questions they provoke. Although fully aware of the charade, ultimately we do see the earth with renewed sense of wonder through her craft, and eye.