In May 2000, while wandering through an abandoned Art Deco skyscraper in downtown St. Louis, Aaron Farley happened on a stash of over 150 large-format negatives. The posed portraits, which contained horn-rimmed glasses and bouffant hair hinting at their Midwestern 1960s origin, came from a photography studio that once operated out of the Continental-Life Building. Nearly two decades later, in 2016, the Los Angeles–based photographer and sculptor reimagined the degraded images with washes of acidic color for a series called Chromatic Reflection.
Farley’s monograph of the images is out this month from Atelier Éditions. The Continental-Life Building has since reopened as a residential tower after a long deterioration, which started, curiously, with a sandwich. As Stephen L. Trampe relates in his 2003 book The Queen of Lace: The Story of the Continental-Life Building, in 1961, the building’s developer, Robert Futterman, “choked on a roast beef sandwich at a dinner party and died. His tragic death was the first of several voids in leadership that would contribute to the building’s decline.” This history isn’t directly involved in Chromatic Reflection, but is suggested by its collapsing visuals. Faces are obliterated by vibrant texture, eyes peer out from behind veils of distortion, and sometimes unidentifiable shapes are barely visible through the photographic damage.
“I began using the color lighting when I decided to treat the existing images as found objects as well as negatives,” Farley told Hyperallergic. “They are plastic with dirt and emulsion and erosion, and I hoped to emphasize that and create my own work using these objects as subjects, with a color palette I couldn’t imagine being used at the time the photos were originally taken.” He experimented with illuminating them from below and blending two light colors on their surfaces — mostly mixes of red, green, and blue — then inverting the colors after he photographed the negatives.
“I haven’t used found objects in my work in this way, but I have begun to photograph and rephotograph existing spaces, and have been thinking more about materials and time for a couple ongoing projects. So I’m heading in that direction,” Farley added. He previously experimented with projections of rooms on folded photographs, and hung and re-shot perspectives of a space within the space itself, always playing with the sense of time that’s arrested through photography. In Chromatic Reflection, that time appears to hover between the snap of the shutter, years of decay, and the resurrection of lost images in vivid color fields.