Photography That's Staged and/or Not
courtesy of the artist
In Leif Anderson's photographs of the city, it's unclear what's found and what's staged. One print shows a view of the side of a dingy building. A bunch of plastic trash bags are wrapped around and behind a couple of pipes. Maybe they got stuck there by chance, the way garbage lodges itself in picturesque ways. Or maybe the artist set up the entire thing. One of the bags looks lightly spattered with blood, like it contained something freshly, horribly murdered—something that has been, suspiciously, removed. Or maybe that's paint.
Anderson got his degree in art from the University of Washington, but he's been a skateboarder longer than an artist. In his first solo exhibition in Seattle, he already avoids the shopworn cues and conventions of street photography (or even purist photography that insists on "capturing")—while also steering clear of what can be the starchy self-consciousness of staged photography. One gets the sense that Anderson's pictures begin with questions and observations he has about the street landscapes he skates, then become ideas that he develops into plans for art-directing, and then that there's a whole third period that blends happenstance and decision making.
The images unfold similarly when viewed—in stages, and not entirely. Anderson tips his hand with some overtly funny moments—as with pieces of rotting produce lined up like a rainbow army—but we never know exactly how he's mixing what was already there. In weak/strong (2010), there's a pile of wood castoffs, an empty wine bottle still wearing its label that's been loosely spray-painted white, an orange earplug dangling from a blue string, and a rock. The pile is a puzzle. It's messy and looks random, but the tiny ends of the narrow strips of wood scraps appear to have been painted—by the artist? Who put all this stuff there, and what for?
A video of the artist's hand running along walls and bushes as he skates by them feels sweet and sincere, like a basic wanting to know and wanting to share what you know. A few years ago, Cat Clifford did something similar with a van, running her hands on its surface in front of the camera in order to join together the act of image-making with the act of actually, physically being there. Part of what seems to drive Anderson is the promise of an image to bring one place into another, and the difficulties that arise along the way.
Rodrigo Valenzuela, another UW art grad, is of the school that the landscape of photographs is other photographs. For his latest work, he wanted a break from documentary video projects, so he went all the way in the other direction. He asked people on the street to reenact famous pictures then digitally inserted them all into the scene together later.
One was Robert Capa's photograph of a Spanish Civil War soldier falling after just having been fatally shot. (The photograph was found to have been staged; if you're into photography and deception, chew on Errol Morris's new book, Believing Is Seeing.) Another was Hans Namuth's iconic portrait of Jackson Pollock drip-painting on the floor at Springs, New York. Valenzuela's versions are comedies. When a dozen "soldiers" in street clothes all get "shot" at the same moment (should "at the same moment" go into quotes, too?) next to a picturesque fountain at Cal Anderson Park, it's just funny. It's also a stealthy way of delivering information—what people were wearing, how they responded to the assignment—without being earnest.
In other photographs, Valenzuela throws himself against a wall in two separate pictures, then combines them into one picture with one body and two shadows. Or in others still, he falls forward off a ledge and is captured halfway down. You might think those were references to other famous pictures: Gary Hill's Wall Piece video, for instance, or Yves Klein's flight off a balcony. Nope, the artist said. But they are, if you see them that way.