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Review: Michael David Murphy explores instability of photographic truth

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Sometimes it seems that it could not have been an accident of history that photography and writing fused to form photography’s very name, which conceives of camera-made images as inscriptive illusions made using light, “light writings.”

It isn’t just that so many important photographers have been writers, but that photography as a medium is deeply solicitous of language. What is more natural in response to a picture than to broker it with words — to talk about it, to it, around it, to position and reposition it in terms of “stories” that it exclaims and hints at, prompts and doesn’t quite finish? Is it wrong to say that a photograph is a disquieted form of language, language displaced from grammar and usage, expelled from words so that the surfaces of the world might be made to beckon names and identities, and be reconstituted as sound and the logic of speech?

“Certainty Principle,” Michael David Murphy’s smart new exhibition at Spruill Gallery, offers a droll and philosophically rich meditation on the complications of photographic thinking as the mutual searching of words and pictures.

The show consists of four rooms, three containing photographic works and one with video — each room conceived as an autonomous statement in a larger, dialectical project. The first in Murphy’s suite of inquiries, Spruill’s front gallery contains gridded clusters of untitled, undated pictures all made in public places.

Taking on the guise of an everyman with a camera who appears anywhere and everywhere without explanation, Murphy approaches the commonplace as a field of random connections, or more strictly, random connections that seem ineluctable once made. He is a conceptualist alternately chasing and being chased by his own observational acuity, an artist for whom clear-sightedness is enigmatic. He is deeply concerned with photography as a power to heed.

Many of the photographs in this room deal in Americana and Americanism, intervening by turns gently and archly into culturally unself-conscious events and locations, both high and low. With what seems like remarkably consistent good luck, Murphy throws out vision upon vision of American normality coughing up its contradictions, as, for example, the picture above of a suburban idyll, in which a neighborhood proclaims segregation as the very name of the road leading home.

To see the picture is to read it, to be launched into an effort to explain it, or explain it away. How could it be? Who is responsible? Who lives here? Who would live here?  But do we really want to sit in the judgment seat that the photograph lures us toward? What is this photograph asking from us, anyway? To read the picture is tacitly to consent to a guessing game with few if any acceptable answers.

Another photograph (at left) bends us down to study noontime earth packed flat by human stepping, bright brown earth denuded of flora except for scraggly stalks of crabgrass, onto which religious pamphlets have been dropped or strewn, demanding to know whether Jesus is our savior — feckless questions, perhaps needed — beside the white-clad feet of a figure who either does or doesn’t notice. The special virtue of the picture, however, is the deliberate ambiguity of the encrusted shoes. It’s not that we are asked to resolve whether we are looking at mud or excrement, but to entertain that we are looking at both inasmuch as we imagine both. And how not to imagine both? Has anyone made a better picture of what it’s like to step into dogma? If a bit more flamboyant (and bordering on the grotesque) than most of the show, this picture, like many of Murphy’s pictures, works by using symbols against themselves, that is, for decidedly non-conclusive purposes.

Or to put it differently, Murphy is a witticist who understands the power of photographs to speak in unscripted revelations. He understands how to make pictures whose constitutive elements talk to one another in quirky conversations particular to themselves. In his pictures, de-situated fragments conjure and do not reliably confide whole worlds. What can be photographed both confirms and denies what can be experienced. Truth and deception both have a share in illusion, for different reasons.

If Murphy had offered only a collection of sharp-eyed, well-earned pictures, it would have been enough. If he had offered only a collection of sharp-eyed, well-earned pictures in subtle combinations and nuanced relays, that too would have been enough. His show offers all these things in abundance. His ambition, however, is to my eye more difficult.

The dialectics in Murphy’s opening room morph into a related set of problems in the second room, which presents an installation of his ongoing project “unphotographable,” known to many in its blog form on Murphy’s website. For those new to the work, “unphotographable” presents a series of writings all beginning with “This is a photograph I did not take of … ,” followed by a description of an incident, scene or encounter. In themselves, these vignettes are terse, often poignant, and sometimes melancholic, without the overlay of mirth in so many of Murphy’s pictures. For the exhibition, Murphy has written them on the walls of the gallery in pencil in his own hand and linked each with a line to an empty picture frame, as if to underscore the conceit that the writings represent pictures we don’t see. In contrast to the gridded installation in the first room, here we find a free-floating configuration in which the texts, the empty frames and unattributed photographs — of much the same character as those in the first room — hover around one another in a sort of weightless assemblage.

We don’t know whether these writings represent actual or imaginary observations, or belong in the category of fact or fiction, and this is Murphy’s point. He wants to inaugurate an impossible act of transference, in which his texts displace themselves into other (photographic) forms of seeing and imagining that do not and perhaps cannot exist.

Ultimately the texts approach the glowing or abject predicament (depending on our perspective) of imagelessness as the ground of their illusion, as represented by the empty frames to which they are linked. Forcing witnessing and wishing for witness to change places, “unphotographable” offers photographs in non-photographic form — much as the first room of photographs offer stories in non-written form — while raising deeper questions about the ways that our inner imaginings are both extruded from and projected onto appearances. As a band around the top of the room, like a crown molding made of letters, Murphy has inscribed these words:

This is a picture I did not take of a promise, a repeated photographic promise, the kind I usually make when I’m out in the city with my camera, when I see something I want to photograph and say, “I’ll get that on the way home,” but as far as routes go, I prefer loops instead of out-and-backs and rarely return home the same way (even though I know there’s a string of pictures to take if I did), but inevitably, there are new things to see, new shots to take or pass by, and after a few months of this, the city becomes not just a visual map of all the things you’ve photographed, but of all the places you haven’t — the views you’ve passed by because you were running late to meet a friend you hadn’t seen in months, or because you wanted to save something for next time (if you didn’t save a shot for next time, perhaps there’d be nothing to shoot next time), or maybe it just feels better to know that there are places out there waiting for you, waiting for you to arrive when the light is a little bit better, when the wind dies down, when you put the viewfinder to your eye and everything looks exactly perfect.

To read this statement requires more than two complete revolutions in space, leaving you slightly dizzy, and with the urge to whirl once or twice more at the sheer pleasure of the text.

The third and fourth rooms of the show present Murphy’s earliest and latest work respectively.  “Moonshot” is a remarkable series of geospatial photo-performance acts in which he raced once a month through the streets of San Francisco in search of the perfect location from which to photograph the full moon perched above the Transamerica pyramid. A broken clock, the saying goes, is right twice a day, and likewise there are special places from whose vantage point the moon can only be called an incomparable architectural accessory.

Murphy is a refreshing type of artistic strategist, a conceptualist for whom paradoxes are not matters of esoteric knowledge but the very stuff of our everyday lives. Notwithstanding that we are saturated with photography and its effects (would we recognize ourselves, our fantasies, our own minds without it?), Murphy reminds us that photographs do not offer a language at one with the world, and this is precisely their value. Photographs beget rather than tell stories, and stories beget and misbeget confirmatory images constantly. Carefully distinguishing prosthetic from false forms of knowledge, Murphy puts his trust in the improbable and the unverifiable as the sources of our certainties.

Editor’s note: Jason Francisco, a photographer and a writer on art and photography, is chairman of the Visual Arts Department at Emory University.

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