Last Chance: Marcia Vaitsman’s photos so retro they look new in “Small Acts of Kindness” at Whitespace

Marcia Vaitsman: Abu Simbel-Nevada archival pigment print, 2015
Marcia Vaitsman: Abu Simbel-Nevada archival pigment print, 2015
Marcia Vaitsman: Abu Simbel-Nevada archival pigment print, 2015
Marcia Vaitsman: Abu Simbel-Nevada, 2015, archival pigment print.

Marcia Vaitsman‘s photographs in Small Acts of Kindness, at Whitespace gallery through December 5, diverge almost completely from that of today’s fine-art shutterbugs. Much of contemporary photography is so clean, precise and hyperreal, it feels like the artist is not present in the work at all. In contrast, Vaitsman’s surreal images more closely resemble collage, and her fingerprints, so to speak, are everywhere. The result is a fresh take on classic photographic techniques.

Vaitsman used a Holga, a plastic-bodied medium-format film camera, to produce this body of work, masterfully turning the cult-classic camera’s idiosyncrasies and imperfections into her advantage. The cheap plastic lens and unhelpful focus ring produce images that are soft — not quite in or out of focus. Its body never quite fits together precisely, leading to light leaks on the film. There are only two shutter options — sunny or cloudy — which makes for wonky light and dark exposures. Holgas even create a signature vignette effect, in which the image is encapsulated in a dark, circular frame.

Marcia Vaitsman: Tokyo-Kyoto-Lisboa, 2015, archival pigment print
Marcia Vaitsman: Tokyo-Kyoto-Lisboa, 2015, archival pigment print.

Vaitsman uses the Holga’s “problems” to make superb images. The soft-focused Bear looks neither real nor unreal; even after examining it many times I’m not sure if it’s a photograph of a real bear, a diorama or a poster. Tokyo features a light leak streaking from top to bottom on the right of the frame. It balances a delicate sliver of darkness opposite a jumble of burning light fixtures. In many of these works, vignetting gives the impression we are viewing these images through a keyhole in a door that opens into a dreamscape.

In Abu Simbel-Nevada the artist constructs a balanced, thoughtful image through double-exposure process. The first thing you notice is a pair of seated Egyptian-style sculptures flanking very large palm trees. Double-exposed over this is a series of lights, like an airport runway, dotting along up and to the center of the frame, which creates the effect of a barrel-vaulted palace ceiling. The artist also included the film registration at the top, a reminder that she is taking us back old-school with Kodak Ektar 100 Film.

I enjoy the fact that you can see the artist’s touch here, and that it’s clear Vaitsman composed this image through double exposure. She “breaks the fourth wall” in order to remind us of her presence as the artist who composed the images: In a few of the photos, you can spot her hazy reflection in the windows and surfaces she shoots.

Small Acts of Kindness, installation view,
Small Acts of Kindness, installation view.

The photographs, fitted tightly into thin frames, are hung frame-to frame, creating an effect of a continuous reel of film — another reference, perhaps, to the fact that these are film rather than digital. Continuing that theme, the two large-scale works, Parisa in Rome and Polar Vortex NY-MIA (30 x 75 inches), feature long strips of film scanned, printed and mounted on metal. You can see the frame breaks and understand how Vaitsman composes her work over a series of exposures. A pair of video installations with a “cut ’em up” editing style that transposes words and images over each other are a lovely interpretation of her photographic style.

Vaitsman borrows techniques and styles that were once popularized decades ago by photographers and surrealist artists, but that have fallen out of favor in our current artistic landscape. All in all, this body of work feels completely unlike anything I’ve seen lately in other galleries — not just in form but in theme. While many photographers, such as Jill Greenberg (crying children), Christopher Herwig (Soviet bus shelters) and Toni Greaves (nuns!) are interested in working in typologies, Vaitsman seems bent on celebrating the aesthetic possibilities photography offers. The work isn’t so much political or philosophical as it is beautiful. See this show.

Artist talk, 2 p.m., December 5.

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