We want to see more, know how, figure things out. Surface only gets us so far, so we look inside hoping the revelation of parts will illuminate the whole. If the mind and spirit spark this quest, then technology often drives it and photography has been along for the ride for nearly two centuries. In History’s Shadow from Nazraeli Press, David Maisel goes inside and out and finds another way to show us something we’ve never seen before. Maisel’s disarmingly beautiful past series of aerial photographs have belied their derivation from our despoiled environment. Now, he has found another uncommon vantage point from among the conservation X-rays of ancient objects at the Getty Museum in Los Angeles and the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco.
These seemingly modest images were not meant for a wide audience – a shadow collection offering their talismanic protection against the certain vulnerability of the museum’s cherished objects. Maisel brings them to light in layers of photographic capture that both consolidate and expand the full range of the medium’s history in digital manipulations born of glowing X-ray projections and slow burn exposures on film. They echo both the magical revelations and tangible limitations of the early days – spirit photography’s spectral apparitions as well as the blurred-out faces of babies who couldn’t sit still. Page after page of dense black fields set off a range of subtle color – photography’s palette when chemistry ruled and permanence was a tenuous notion. Blaze, shift, fade, and disappear.
Loss and repair unite this portrait gallery; yet we’re used to the damages of antiquities, the fractures of the past. The overt markers of age and intervention don’t limit our vision – surface and depth hum with all they contain. These bodies are carriers of past lives and portent, in the form of seed pods, wombs, and strands of DNA. Exterior boundaries are softly rendered as if in a heat-seeking vision while spines, coils and marbled flesh hint at a substance and structure within. Whole worlds form as land mass, weather patterns and whirls of smoke and ice. Figures emote in introspective miens, purposeful gazes and ecstatic repose. If photography’s technological advances sometime seem to sterilize the messy magic at its core, this book shimmers with its steadfast potential to open up the imagination, in images that beautifully overlap, blur and muddle.
A short story by Jonathan Lethem is a witty complement to Maisel’s photographs. X, Curator muses on the animate powers of chosen objects – how art and artifacts work to focus our vision and vie for their own survival via our selection and collection. A lifetime of favor (or at least respect) brought these ancient objects to the museum, but now what surface glint mesmerizes us and drives us to look closer, deeper, generation after generation? For Maisel, it was a happenstance discovery of the latent power of these X-rays, at once removed from and intimately tied to their companion bodies, that bestowed them with new (and larger) life. The result is a gorgeous, commanding book – an object to surely be chosen.
Karen Jenkins earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.