John Gossage: There and Gone

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through October 31

In the early 90s, John Gossage would stand on a southern California beach and train his camera, equipped with telephoto lenses and high-speed surveillance film, on a beach in Mexico. The resulting pictures–taken in 1993 and 1994, they comprise about half the 124 photographs in his exhibit “There and Gone” at the Museum of Contemporary Photography–usually show Mexicans standing in the water, swimming, playing ball; often a bit fuzzy and mostly in silhouette, the images don’t always reveal what the people are doing. But the very last one in a grid of 55 on one wall appears to show a person climbing a fence.

Born in New York City in 1946, Gossage compares the crowded Mexican beach he photographed, a Tijuana recreation area, to the Coney Island he remembers from childhood. But his choice of subject and technique evokes an entirely different theme. These are not ordinary street photographs: their perspective suggests the viewer is spying on potential illegal aliens, perhaps as a member of the INS. The result is deeply disturbing. In a museum one expects to see “fine art” photographs, with the aesthetic distance that implies; but here one glimpses shadowy forms–barely defined humans, often captured in the middle of a movement, who look oddly menacing. At the same time these figures also seem trapped, defined, enclosed, and dehumanized by their reduction to almost featureless shadows.

In a 1996 interview, Gossage gave several reasons for his approach (he also gives a lecture here Thursday, October 15, at the museum). His background in street photography caused him to question the way the photographer’s presence often influences supposed documentary pictures, and he didn’t want “to be a presence [or] a factor in the equation.” He also finds that, today, “every intrusion of the photographer is suspect, as is every intrusion by the hand of the media.” Instead the public trusts more anonymous records: “The more a picture looks like it’s been taken with a surveillance camera in a convenience store, the more likely we’ll believe the images in it.” Mentioning his U.S. citizenship, Gossage also suggests he wouldn’t feel comfortable telling “an individual Mexican story,” so his method rules out “the specifics of personality,” concentrating instead on “the gesture of a hand [and] other, subtler information.”

Reading Gossage, one would expect profoundly modest photographs, as the photographer documents his subjects in a supposedly objective medium. But these photos produce an effect quite different. It may be true, as Gossage says, that we “believe” surveillance-camera images above all others–but what do we believe? Most often we see such images in the context of news reports of serious crimes like robbery and murder. Gossage’s images encode his subjects as potential criminals even before his prints dry. Nearly featureless, they’re like animals trapped in the flat field of a telephoto lens. And because they’re often caught in motion, it seems as if they might be moving here soon.

All these very un-PC thoughts are what make these images powerful–and troubling. A committed liberal will quickly see in these photos how our culture wrongly dehumanizes the “other.” Cast in the role of a spy, such a viewer will recoil and realize how the culture of surveillance convicts without evidence–in this case, without seeing these people as people. But the views of a racist who already sees darker-skinned foreigners as somewhat less than human might be just as readily confirmed by these images. In typical modernist fashion, Gossage states that his work will be interpreted differently by different viewers and seems to think of that as a good thing. But I have trouble believing he would welcome the interpetations of a Pat Buchanan–who has referred to Mexicans as “Jose.”

Gossage’s various modernist devices come across as aestheticizing interventions. In the mats surrounding the surveillance photos, for example, are small pieces of cutout brown paper whose shapes often mimic the dominant forms in the image. A prominent head is accompanied by a small rectangle, a horizon by a thin horizontal strip of paper. These little collage additions tend to formalize the pictures, to suggest that they should be seen as essays in shape. But everything else about them, not least their provocative content, makes this impossible.

It is true that a racist interpretation is less likely if these effects are taken into account. And the exhibit’s two other types of photos hint at Gossage’s sympathies. One gives us routes likely taken by illegal immigrants on the California side of the border, shot with a normal lens by a photographer who appears to be standing on the paths. This series could still be part of a training presentation for federal agents, showing them where to look, but it also places the viewer in the position of an illegal immigrant. This ambiguity tends to humanize the work, as do the details of the rough back roads–makeshift wooden planks serving as steps, a clump of barbed wire. A large boulder lies in the middle of one road with a piece sliced off, so that it has one flat facet–a powerful metaphor for the artificial divisions of national borders.

The third type of image is a large photo of an outdoor object, often miscaptioned in Spanish: a cracked wall is “El Alacran,” or “The Scorpion;” a ball in the street is “La Ara–a,” or “The Spider.” These single objects in sharp focus surrounded by fuzziness–torn paper in an empty street, a vacancy sign–are metaphors for isolation and displacement. And the language dislocations, the frequent misnamings, suggest the linguistic difficulties faced by non-English speakers. But these misnamings–a trick as old as surrealism–also come across as arbitrary and artificial, an art-school game reinforced by Gossage’s book There and Gone, which groups the show’s images differently and switches the captions: the ball becomes “El Catrin,” which he translates as “The Gentleman.”

Paul Seawright: Cages, Fires, Walls

at Rhona Hoffman, through October 17

Political art risks not only preaching to the converted but, worse, confirming the views of the unconverted. How can the artist avoid both propagandizing and fostering an odious misinterpretation? Like Gossage’s surveillance photos, Paul Seawright’s 11 large-format color prints at Rhona Hoffman flirt with this danger.

Born into a working-class Protestant community in West Belfast in 1965, Seawright grew up aware of boundaries and barriers, coming of age amid Northern Ireland’s often murderous “troubles.” He now lives in Wales, but Northern Ireland has been a subject of his photos for years. These images, shot in Belfast, mostly show barriers–walls and cages and wire mesh. In Gate we look through a frame covered with mesh a bit finer than a chain-link fence, partly torn away. The frame’s thick beams dominate, denying the viewer entry. But through the mesh can be seen the hint of an out-of-focus landscape, including some greenery as well as barbed wire and a distant high wall.

What’s strange about these physical and metaphorical barriers is how sensual they are. Printed almost to the size of a human body and intensely tactile, they’re seductive, inviting, bringing each detail to life. Fence, showing a wall of blue corrugated metal with vertical striations that almost blend with the bare branches above it, not only encourages the eye’s caress but seems to unify this most unnatural barrier with nature.

Yet Seawright’s images never remain simply sensual. Fence is troubling because its beauty never effaces what it shows; instead this detailed surface creates a kind of attraction/repulsion. Seawright’s sensibility is intelligently divided. He recalls the Belfast of his youth as a place of tedium and decline where little of interest was happening. And while his images invite sensual contemplation, they never let us forget the subjects’ fundamental emptiness, even absurdity. Cage #1, for example, presents the entrance to a pub, located at the corner of the building and inviting entry from two streets. The doorway looks out on the sidewalk, but projecting even more is a wire cage completely surrounding the entry. Three video cameras allow a gatekeeper inside to open the door to a visitor deemed safe. But in Seawright’s image, the irony of a completely blocked entry is unmistakable.

These works are enriched by Seawright’s divided vision. Fire #3 shows a burned stick, heroic and absurd at once, pointing toward the sky from a desolate plateau. A remnant of the bonfire Protestants light annually, it suggests both a monument towering above the city visible beyond the plateau and a pathetic emblem of the final outcome of all human construction. Seawright uses beauty to transform such endings into a new beginning.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): John Gossage; “Cage #1” By Paul Seawright.