Taking Pictures: on Marc Lafia's Gowanus Showroom Exhibit, #image

Marc Lafia's show, #image, is at the Gowanus Showroom April 4 -20.

On the walls hang large prints of images. Upon closer inspection, we realize that they are screen shots of Tumblr posts, notes and all. Are they photographs? What are we looking at?

Many bristle at the idea that these could be photographs. They imagine the photographer as the master behind the lens, the soul in the machine, the author of a pure creation. So Lafia must be doing something else.  

But what is it to "take a picture"? The expression itself already suggests a posture other than creator: the photographer takes a picture, takes an image that in some sense already exists. He just puts a frame around it — which is not to belittle the act. On the contrary, all we're ever doing is framing and reframing the world. To frame and reframe is to create.

From one angle, Lafia is a realist or even naturalist photographer — only his domain is not Yosemite or the slums. It's the circulation of images through social digital proliferation. His desktop is a viewfinder onto the world of digital images; when he hits control-shift-4, he is opening and closing his shutter. He is taking the picture.

Well, doesn't everyone do that? Can't anyone do that? Yes, of course. We are all photographers, taking images and showing them off to the world — on Instagram, Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest. Some of us are, alas, better than others. Just as anyone and everyone can take a picture of Yosemite, some people take nice pictures of Yosemite, more interesting pictures of Yosemite. So it is with Lafia: he is a terribly keen photographer of the natural virtual landscape, giving us the emotionality and beauty and provocation that abounds. This is nothing if not an exceedingly elegant show.

Lafia is not just appropriating images he finds. (How the art world glommed on to that word, appropriation, and never let go. Oy! Appropriation has some value as a figure and function within the socio-political economy, such as when a marginal group takes a word of their oppressor and uses it differently. But in the world of images, it is bereft as all art is necessarily appropriation, a taking up of the world.) He snaps these images in their native habitat so that we see the "notes" that circulate with them. These are not just framed images from the web; these are snapshots of images making their rounds, moving through the world. Just as a nature photographer halts the cheetah's movement as it blazes across the savannah, Lafia halts the image as it streams through the virtual sphere. 

The effect is uncanny, at once familiar and unfamiliar. We look at these and think: Hey, I know this. And then, in the same breath, What the heck is it doing here hanging on this wall? It is this double take that splays the very apparatus, the very function, of photography. This tension is the very movement from everyday-everywhere images to the prescribed practice of what we call photography. Images that make their rounds so unassumingly, unceasingly, are snatched — taken — from their natural environment, blown up, framed and hung in the inevitably white cube of the gallery. Such is photography and that, as much as these images, is what Lafia is displaying. That is what is hung on the wall: photography itself. 

Meanwhile, punctuating your movement through the gallery are transparent plexiglass cubes that house what seem to be paper sculptures but upon closer inspection turn out to be books sawed, cut, (re)framed into elaborate postures and juxtaposed with other books and objects. The cubes are not just tasteful containers: they themselves frame these unbound books, creating a new kind of image.

Books, of course, were the original interweb; the printing press, the pre-digital digital. Books were the way to reproduce the same images — even if just words — and disseminate them in these discrete containers. Then along came the digital and literally blew the covers off the books, undid their binding, sent the images within every which way. (The individual book sculptures are quite elaborate, their content inflecting their arrangement, what they sit with, how they've been framed such as when stills from Antonioni's Blow Up sit with a tennis ball and an apple. Each cube is truly an exhibit unto itself. Follow them and you'll experience an entire history of the image.)

Walking around Gowanus Showroom, I kept thinking that these plexiglass books sculptures were explosions of books, of the printing press, that unloosed their images onto the walls and into the ether. The book is not dead: it's been taken up, reframed, by Tumblr. 

And then you notice on one wall a large, two-frame glass door leading outside. Frames are everywhere, taking images of you, of me, of everything. Beyond the door, you see these incredibly elegant swaths of what turns out to be colored silk, blowing more or less gently in the wind, framing and reframing the trees within the billowing cube. These swaths become digital camera filters à la Instagram or the iPhone. Walk inside the soft cube, and the world outside becomes recast, filtered, framed. This is your iPhone camera only you can walk around and through it.

The image doesn't just hang on the wall, to be looked at when you go to galleries and museums. Images are everywhere, everything, all the time (pace Henri Bergson). Images are social, circulating, morphing, constituting and reconstituting themselves always, relentlessly. Images abound. All is #image.

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