Photography is so regularly dissected and autopsied as a conceptual visual medium, so often poked and prodded to reveal its hidden assumptions and innate inconsistencies, that it deserves a stately funeral. Matthew Schlagbaum’s ruminations on photography aren’t quite that, but rather an intelligent and relentless exposure—with a little help from paint and sculpture—of its ambiguities and fissures. From the age of about two or three, when we’re taught—against our will at first, perhaps we instinctively sense something awry happening—to sit still and look at the camera, we enter into a lifetime of a complicit staring contest with an image machine that can freeze time. The myriad ways it can and does do that are cleverly turned this way and that here, from the sense of beauty being captured—whatever ‘beauty’ means—to an image of our head as the core signifier of self, and more. In the first of those, A promise, a hope, a dream, an aspiration (all works 2017) Schlagbaum frames a digital print of a lovely vase of flowers, a mixed bouquet that will never age or wither. But he photographs the vase from its back, it’s mostly stems and leaves with just a slightly obscured crowning of flowers, teasing and denying the privileged frontal view one would expect. And really, how many photographs of you and your own privileged frontal view do you actually like—10 percent? 20 percent?
In The labor of making you feel a certain way, Schlagbaum parodies the only shooting of ourselves with which we cooperate, with a complicit chap having his face literally adjusted to strike the ‘correct’ pose. So many ways to parse this, photography is such a piñata that any solid poke sets its innards spewing, dependent as it is on so many shared assumptions that don’t make much sense. Schlagbaum really does hit a lot of telling blows here, and in turn he ruminates on various strategies of obscuring an image, black and white and color issues, images as sculpture, the genre of photographing works of art, and more. In the aggregate, he provides a thoughtful and cautionary tale here, that what we think is the answer is often just the question jumbled about, and that, as Derrida famously noted, “meaning is endlessly deferred.”