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At one point in poet Mary Ruefle’s collection of lectures, Madness, Rack & Honey, she arrives at the conclusion that “the moon was the first photograph.” This declaration — lyrical and yet so matter-of-fact — challenges traditional beliefs about photography, its definitions, and its histories by locating the medium’s origins not in Henry Fox Talbot’s innovations of the 1830s, but in the galactic rhythms maintained by nature. Ruefle’s casual assertion invites questions many photographers are reckoning with today, about not just what constitutes a camera and a photograph, but also about who, or what, gets to take one.
This line of inquiry is taken up by Meghann Riepenhoff in her debut solo show at Yossi Milo Gallery, Littoral Drift. Much of the exhibit revolves around an unusual kind of self-portraiture: photographs of the ocean, made by the ocean. By coating photosensitive paper with homemade cyanotype emulsion and exposing surfaces to the elements — tree branches, rain, wind, ocean waves — Riepenhoff produces painterly, sun-developed evocations of the world’s motions. Vaporous blues swirl amid an ultramarine void in “Littoral Drift #473 (Triptych, Point White Beach, Bainbridge Island, WA 05.17.16, Five Waves at Apex of Low Tide)” (2016), which resembles a geode’s glistering interior. In the physically and nominally imposing “Littoral Drift #248 (Ft. Ward Beach, Bainbridge Island, WA 09.11.15, Two Minutes on Tidal Flat with Ferry Waves)” (2015), a Hockneyesque collage of 20 weathered cyanotype sheets forms what could be an aerial view of a coast. Its navy surface — bespattered with white, a chemical reaction to the waves rolling against the cyan emulsion — looks like a wedge of the Pacific glimpsed from a satellite. This piece, like others in the show, aspires toward oceanic documentation, an aspect reinforced by the artist’s insistence on time-stamping each work in its title.
On the surface, the show feels more closely aligned with Pollock’s fractal expressionism than any photographic tradition. But despite these works’ affinity with painting, Riepenhoff shares her general method with some of the earliest technical photographs ever made. Anna Atkins, who is often referred to as the first female photographer, experimented with homemade cyanotypes in the mid-19th century, creating photograms of “ocean flowers” — marine botany — that were eventually anthologized in the first-ever photography book. Riepenhoff’s own experimental photograms at times resemble Atkins’s blandly majestic records of seaweed, though hers were made in the service of science rather than art.
As if in defiance of our era’s stifling ubiquity of cameras — you’re reading this on one — as well as the increased detachedness with which we move throughout a world mediated by modern technology, many contemporary artists are flirting with a more natural, “cameraless” photography. Jochen Lempert, who has a show currently running at Front Desk Apparatus, has, in addition to using starlight and fireflies, let bioluminescent slugs crawl in darkness across photosensitive paper to develop a photograph. Since the 1980s, English artist Susan Derges has imaged the movements of water by placing photographic paper directly onto rivers and brooks. We might also include, on the opposite end of the “cameraless” spectrum, artists like Anouk Kruithof and Roe Ethridge who have included internet and smartphone screenshots, respectively, in their shows. In deemphasizing their own creative agencies, these artists refuse to confront photography’s 21st-century identity crises in any obvious manner.
Still, the thematic imprecision of this type of project can also be a source of slight dissatisfaction. Seemingly, Riepenhoff’s littoral and literal images of the sea and by the sea hint at life’s gentle, mortal transience. In a curious gesture, she has left the paper vulnerable to residual salt crystals that, over time, might eventually alter the surface drastically. In a society so suffused with highly manipulated imagery, Riepenhoff surrenders her editorship to chance. And so the photographs, whether water-warped or Instagrammably symmetrical, are referred to as “living.” One is reminded of the iPhone’s “Live Photo” feature from not too long ago, which enabled a three-second film to play before resolving into the image. Ironically evident in both Riepenhoff’s new take on primitive photography methods and Apple’s gimmicky update is both an aversion to photographic stillness and a compulsion to time-stamp each moment. The idea offered — that permanence and impermanence are quite often, in the end, synonymous — is much like the sea itself: vast, calming, and unsettlingly deep.
Littoral Drift continues at Yossi Milo Gallery (245 Tenth Avenue, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 29.
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