When Sofie Knijff asks children in remote areas of Mali and Greenland to dress up as whatever they want to be when they grow up, the props are just a prompt to train their focus. The kids don't smile in these portraits. Growing up is serious, and has to do with pride. Each photograph has the same rich black backdrop, so each child appears like a royal in an Old Master Dutch painting—Knijff is Dutch—and, in an exhibition at M.I.A Gallery, the portraits are alternated with Knijff's photos of the local landscapes. A howling wolf is eclipsed by an arctic whiteout. Hardscrabble scrub brush juts out of the desert. These are tough places to live. Knijff's velvety black backdrop is dreamland.
The Malian boy who wears thick-rimmed black glasses and paints a blue blazer onto his naked chest wants to be a journalist. The title of his portrait is not his name, just Journalist (2010); he is transformed. The Malian girl in a soiled, pretty, cream-colored dress is Student (2010). She wears colorful bracelets. Her eyes are huge. She is hungry for many things. She has sores near her mouth, and her expression comes from someplace unbreakable inside her. It's not only the fur-clad boy with plans to be a hunter who's hunting the future—every child looks more determined than the last. These dreams may turn out to be impossible. But for the moment the shutter was open, they came true. The children are doing their part by wanting.
Knijff calls her series Translations, implying the doubleness between and within the pictures: child and adult, present and future, reality and fiction, portrait and landscape, individual and type.
Like Knijff, the Seattle photographer Eirik Johnson traveled to a faraway place—Barrow, Alaska, the northernmost city in the United States—to take double portraits. He went in the summer of 2010, creating images that sparkle with color, shot under the midnight sun. Then he went back, in winter 2012, to the same places, during the few hours of daylight, completely blanketed in snow, "like a positive erasure," he says.
Johnson's double portraits are not of people, they're of buildings that look like people. Each 16-by-20-inch photograph—the size is just right; big enough to read from a distance but small enough that you have to get closer to do any discerning—has a building in the center. Each building is a makeshift cabin with its own persona, hand-built by Inupiats to stay in during hunting season, when they go out for whales and waterfowl. They scavenge their materials from a nearby decommissioned naval base: chairs, barrels, basketball hoops, bed frames, pallets, plywood, old metal swing sets.
Then, everything goes under cover of snow. With the change of season comes a complete shift in perspective. The curling grains of the plywoods and the streaking rust on the metals are gone. Everything is shapes, reflections, and shades. Each diptych is a spot-the-differences game that goes on for several minutes. Charm and dilapidation are each lost and found again in new ways.
Time has also passed: two years. Whole cabins have disappeared or been reduced to bones. In one spot, all that remains is a plastic playhouse, the toy replacing the real thing, its playful colors all gone, winter-bleached to white windows on white walls with a white roof, all the whites slightly different, and the sky another white, too. Christo wraps buildings as his art; Johnson lets Barrow wrap and unwrap itself.