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“Colby Caldwell: [still life]”

At Hemphill Fine Arts to Nov. 29

Landscapes and waterscapes, portraits and figure studies, lyrical and landscapelike abstractions tricked out with vignetted borders, distressed colors, and pictorialist radiances: To look at Colby Caldwell’s photographs, you might think you were dealing with a sentimentalist. Or at least a romantic.

But the Maryland-based artist isn’t really either. Rather, he’s a photographer who mistrusts his medium even as he believes in it, who wants to show you the image and not just the depiction, and who, yes, still considers himself a photographer. It’s a rather perverse thing to be these days. After all, it’s been some time since the fact that an artist dealt mainly in photographs meant that the artist actually practiced photography.

The zone system fell into the hands of hobbyists, the Bechers set up shop at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf, and now we have Nation critic Arthur C. Danto drawing the line between photographers and photographists. Everyone else has settled on a distinction between photography and its more high-concept offshoot, “photo-based art.”

Maintaining this difference has forced practitioners of the latter into a rather curious position: Whether the camerawork is farmed out (Jacqueline Tarry and Bradley McCallum, Maria Friberg—to mention just a few artists who have shown locally in recent years) or homegrown (Chan Chao, Vesna Pavlovi«c), there’s a tendency to view the result as transparent, as a vehicle for an artistic (or political or anthropological) statement that has little to do with hard-won photographic skill. A piece of photo-based art has become what a painting no longer aspires to be: a window on the world, a means to an end.

If you’ve talked with Caldwell or have a history with his work, you know that his photographs are ends in themselves, though they aren’t exactly preconceived. As an artist, Caldwell’s all process: There are his set ways of doing things, there are the things he doesn’t do, and there are the images that result. He shoots Super 8 film, in short bursts, getting the frames he thinks he wants—but also, more important, those he doesn’t. He never looks through the viewfinder. He projects the film in his studio and transfers it into his computer with a digital video camera. He doesn’t trifle with the image; there’s no computer manipulation, at least not intentionally. He ink-jets his prints onto Arches watercolor paper, mounts them on deep wooden boxes, and then waxes them heavily.

The process is left to make its own mistakes. If there’s a choice to be made between the picture and the mistake, Caldwell chooses the mistake: the light leak, the blur, the burn, the scratch, the dust mote, the half-frame. As much as process is about following rules, of course, it’s also about choice. It’s Caldwell who designed his process, Caldwell who determines which mistake is the right one, Caldwell who culls his images for a show.

And Caldwell who decides what to shoot. Although in the past he has worked with found footage from home movies and documentaries, for “[still life],” his current show at Hemphill Fine Arts, he has gone back to the camera, shooting within a few hundred yards of “the fieldhouse,” as he calls his home in St. Mary’s County. When friends and relatives come to visit, he pulls out the Super 8. And although you might recognize a few faces—fig. (1), for example, shows Fusebox painter Jason Gubbiotti—it doesn’t matter if you don’t. Assembling a mental picture of the circles Caldwell moves in isn’t really important; he’s not an embedded contemporary ethnographer in the mold of Nan Goldin or Tina Barney.

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Some of the photos, particularly those of children, have the vintage aura of faded vacation footage. Fig. (17) depicts kids playing in the water, fig. (6) a boy running along a road toward a distant figure in red. There is substantial cognitive dissonance in knowing that they are new. Some compositions—the girl in fig. (11), turned away from the same red figure, the woman with arm outstretched in fig. (14)—flirt with preciousness. But Caldwell didn’t compose them—the camera did. The “landscapes” in the series titled the weight of air aren’t at all what they seem: Their glowing horizons are just tricks of light and artifacts of Caldwell’s chancy process.

The question of how much background to divulge always plagues artists, and Caldwell chooses to give away little in his official presentation. But behind the scenes, he reveals that the man and woman seen speaking soundlessly in a double-screen video titled the last photograph (east, west) were instructed to address the camera separately in private (Caldwell set up and walked away) and utter something they had always wanted to say to one another. The two are friends from Caldwell’s school days who now see each other only when they visit him; he won’t say if they were ever a couple, but you naturally suspect it. Learning this information improved the piece considerably for two friends of mine. Because I learned it the first time I got a good look, I can’t say what the art might have meant to me without it. I do know, however, that the resonance of Caldwell’s work isn’t always increased by greater knowledge of its circumstances. And in this case, the last thing I’d want would be having some kid from Gallaudet go in and provide an accurate lip-reading.

It’s telling that Caldwell is an admirer of Sally Mann, another photographer devoted to process and obsessed with memory. She refers to the Antietam Battlefield landscapes she makes with a large-format camera and the balky, laborious, and technically outmoded wet-collodion process as “blessed with the gift of failure and this sense of timelessness.” Caldwell’s photographs might share these qualities, but they’re also more skeptical. There’s no mistaking them for well-preserved scenes by bygone masters. All of the images are removed from the people and places they depict in ways that suggest the distancing of both nostalgia and image-making technology. Most are either sliced by video striations or broken up into digital mosaics during the transfer process. This conflation of memory and machinery defines not only Caldwell’s work, of course, but also most of the history of photography.

The autobiography in Caldwell’s shows is always somehow thwarted. The coming-of-age tale printed in the catalog for “[still life]” would have applied more directly to earlier work that took his grandfather’s old hunting films as source material. This is basically a backward, long-lag version of the technique Hollis Frampton employed in his 1971 film (nostalgia), in which a series of photographs burns, one after another, on a hot plate, as the voice-over recites a description—not of the image on screen but of the one to follow. The hesitant parentheses of Frampton’s title are direct precursors of the brackets around Caldwell’s untrustworthy “still life.” And for good reason: Memory has been shown—by artists and thinkers such as Frampton and by any number of scientific researchers—to be not a series of snapshots but an ever-evolving re-creation, a construction both of culture and of the inner workings of the brain. The old metaphor dies hard, though, having served us so well for so long.

When Caldwell teamed up with indie-rock/electronica duo Chessie for four video screenings/performances at Fusebox this past April, the collaborators were particularly well-matched. Chessie is a band defined by leader Stephen Gardner’s obsession with trains, and rail travel is at once as romantic and as mechanistic as great American metaphors come. Yet when the footage Caldwell shot simultaneously out both sides of a boxcar met Chessie’s slowly evolving live performance, metaphor and myth were stripped back down to primary perception.

It’s often argued that technological developments alter human consciousness, but such polemics always outpace the rate of actual change. Proselytize as much as you want about rave culture or the free-form soundscape—people still want songs. Chessie is one of the few electronic (or semi-electronic) soundscape groups to locate a fairly traditional emotional core in reasonably cutting-edge forms: At this date, there’s nothing sci-fi or avant-garde about riding the rails. The more things change, the more, it seems, we remain the same: same eyes, same ears, same minds, all seeking the same purchase on the world around us.

As Caldwell understands, technology can paradoxically sharpen this effect by holding up to us phantom fragments of what we no longer have—or never had in the first place, because experience does not present itself to us as a record of its existence. In his solo work, he reaches beyond the critique of photography to tap back into its undying appeal as a way, however illusory, of possessing the unpossessable. He exposes our fraught relationship with the medium, understanding that in this post-postmodern moment, we crave the lies it tells even as we know them to be untrue. CP