Under flourescent lights. Courtesy of henry art gallery
Capturing ideals behind closed doors. Courtesy of henry art gallery

When David Hartt walked into the headquarters of the Johnson Publishing Company in Chicago in 2010 with his cameras, he was an archivist entering the lair of another archivist. He shot photos and videos of rows of encyclopedias of black history. Hardbound volumes of Jet, Ebony, Ebony Jr., Black World, Black Stars. Lovingly tended shelves of first-edition books about John Brown and the Civil War and by Booker T. Washington, individually tied with ribbon. The scenes are introverted, all those words and pictures hidden behind closed covers. But the nature of publishing is to project, and other scenes quickly establish that Johnson Publishing is not an introverted place. It was born ready for its close-up.

In 1971, John H. Johnson built a majestic headquarters. It was the first one on prestigious Michigan Avenue to be owned by black people. Its art and design was unparalleled. Readers got to see it in a 30-page Ebony spread that pictured the vast collection of black African and American art throughout the offices, the futuristic rooms in colors like mauve and tangerine and yellow with custom carpets, and the finishings made of no-expense-spared materials: suede, Hermes leather, marble slabs, hand-woven textiles, zebra wood, lacquer, curved glass, alligator skin dyed Zanzibar red. The wall panels in the elevators changed seasonally. On the 11th floor, the top, there was a sauna. A black florist tended the lobby garden.

Many people felt "not just that the magazines came out of there, but that race was being run there," said Elizabeth Alexander in a talk at the Studio Museum in Harlem last year.

Alexander is author of the book The Black Interior, which includes the essay "The World According to Jet, Or, Notes Toward a Notion of Race-Pride." She had been invited to talk with David Hartt at the Studio Museum because his pictures and video of the Johnson Publishing Company were there in an exhibition called Stray Light.

Stray Light originated in Chicago and now is at the Henry Art Gallery in Seattle. Their hour-long Studio Museum exchange is on YouTube. Reading from her essay, Alexander explained she's a devoted reader of Jet despite that "the Johnsonian model of race-pride" troubles and alienates her in many ways. How, for instance, does "the Johnsonian model of race-pride" make room for difference? How would it accommodate for a black man like Hartt?

Hartt sat next to Alexander at the Studio Museum and explained his relationship to black American pride. "I didn't grow up with it as part of my cultural heritage. I grew up in Montreal with white Jewish parents." He comes across in conversation as the world's least histrionic person; I met him once when he lived in Seattle briefly and showed at Howard House in 2009, and I have virtually no memory of the meeting at all.

After going to the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Hartt and his wife moved to New York, then Detroit, and he stopped making art entirely for almost a decade, feeling like he needed to find a subject that could sustain him over the course of an entire career. Finally, he found one: He would take pictures in places where people come together for an idea, or certain agreed-upon ideals. Utopian communes. Union headquarters. Newspaper offices. Shelters for abused women and children. Think tanks. The place "running" blackness in the US. He would take the ideas as they had been translated into three-dimensional concrete designs and environments, and he would translate those into two dimensions, framed.

For philosophical reasons as well as, one suspects, temperamental ones, Hartt adopts a stance of detachment, of approaching from a distance. He does lots of research, then tries to approach every site new, as if he knows nothing, brings nothing, imposes nothing except the in-the-moment desire to make images of what he sees.

None of his other sites are already as self-consciously visual as Johnson Publishing. This adds layers of meaning, and layers of pleasure. There was added urgency and interest, too—the day Hartt began shooting was the day that Johnson announced it had sold the proud building and was downsizing. The cool Hartt was thrust into the position of unwitting memorialist, which turned this particular project into an adventure story. (It was originally commissioned by Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago curator Michael Darling, who also spent a few years in Seattle organizing such exhibitions as Target Practice and Kurt, as in Cobain. Darling connected Hartt to an MCA trustee who finally got Hartt access to the notoriously inaccessible Johnson Publishing headquarters.)

At the Henry Art Gallery, there are four photographs in one small gallery and a video installation in another. The four photographs are large and concerned with the usual two-dimensional variables: framing, focus, decisions about what's in the center versus on the margins. A map is implicitly drawn with crisscrossing roads between territories of oppression, prosperity, and the act of archiving, of saving something more than memory or story. Photography and video are flimsy substitutes for the things they depict.

Hartt says photographs are substantively different from videos. There aren't any people in his photos. Portraiture is for video, he claims. It doesn't feel like it much matters whether you agree. In Ebony's promo images from 1972, it's comically hard to find the people sometimes, they're so camouflaged in fashions that match the corporate vision. Was everyone, on all 11 floors, told what to wear on picture day? Or were their own closets at home already clones of this place? Were they that ideologically aligned with Johnson's project? Visualizing who you are is making pictures out of ideas every day, after all.

In the new footage of the video, present-day workers wear business casual. The environment is a relic; the workers no longer dress like it. We have the sense of getting close to them, poring over the pictures and notes on their desks, reading their full names printed on desk plates—we could google them, maybe, ask for an update since they moved to a new office building.

Yet it's not as if we know them any better than we knew the camouflaged 1972 subjects. Hartt never talks to the people at work around him, and he doesn't transmit the sounds they make. A soundtrack plays instead by Chicago's Nicole Mitchell, a pioneering black woman in jazz. Her music, written for the film, moves with the rhythm of what the camera sees, the agitated wallpaper, the slow, drawn-out meetings seen through layers of glass.

By being deliberately withdrawn and withdrawing, Hartt's pictures produce a nagging desire to know what the artist thinks. But to know what exactly? His opinions on "Johnsonian race-pride," the sheltering of women, and the model of hippie farms as utopias? It seems relevant that Hartt is a Canadian surveying American ideologies in his deadpan work, adopting and playing with the stance of an outsider in part because he is one. It's possible that he either isn't interested in his own opinions on his subjects, or is satisfied not knowing exactly what to think. Maybe he's more interested in questions like, does a photograph imply a commitment? And... commitment to what?

The whole floor of the gallery at the Henry where Hartt's video plays is covered in a custom-made carpet just like one from the old Johnson Publishing Company. Everything is soft underfoot as the movie and its music play, and sometimes the pattern of the carpet runs right up into the same pattern captured in the projected image. You just want to be taken there with it. Is that so much to ask? recommended