Wednesday 24 August 2011

David Maisel: History's Shadow

All images © David Maisel

As we gear up for the launch of our next issue, 1000 Words new Editorial assistant, Sean Stoker, takes some time out from prepping to peruse this recently released title from Nazraeli Press and is impressed with the spectral qualities of the photographs within.

While working at the Getty Research Institute in LA, David Maisel was confronted by a 12 foot high x-ray pinned to a window, rear-lit from outside. The subject of that x-ray, a small, drab painting, was left in the wake of its copy, overshadowed by the blown up x-ray. Inspired by this discovery, Maisel trawled through the archives of x-rays of old museum artefacts, uncovering these ghostly emanations of light, and then scanning, re-photographing and digitally manipulating the images earmarked for the project.

Those images now grace the pages of Maisel's latest book History's Shadow which, like many of his previous projects, illustrates a keen interest in the manner in which photography can combine art, science and a sense of humanity. While the work is also about the processes of memory, excavation and transformation it is really photography itself that is arguably the main focus of this project, and Maisel uses the x-ray to examine its inherent flaws with issues of space, depth and scale. Some images seem to emerge from the page itself, while others float in their black surroundings, yet they transcend mere images of objects, and become sculptural in their own right; a truly convincing illusion of three-dimensional space rendered on the two-dimensional page. In Maisel's words,"they becomes a vast nether world, and in others becomes the velvety ground of some kind of brain scan/portrait." Some are more successful at this than others, yet together, the images manage to reference the history of photographic practice – recalling the mysterious long exposures and amateur scientific studies of the medium's early years – and the history of art (x-rays have historically been used by art conservators for structural examination of art and artefacts), which is not just limited to icons of Western art.

The x-ray empowers us with an all-seeing, piercing gaze that distorts our perception while it transports us to a ghostly, ephemeral world in which everything appears too delicate to touch, that we may extinguish these glowing forms. Here, inside becomes out, and out becomes in. We are confronted with everything simultaneously, overwhelmed by fragile veils of light and plunging depths of darkness as space and time collapse and compound. It is within these objects that we see traces of the artist's hand, suggestions of a human presence and structural details that invoke a curiosity within us, not only to understand the vestiges and indicators of past societies, but to also comprehend ourselves and our future.

What I most enjoy about this book is also what I most enjoy in photography as a whole; despite its apparent complexity and tendency to over-theorise itself, it is often its simplest aspects that are the most interesting. History's Shadow, while intricate and well considered, represents the essense of photography: the presence and absence of light, the shape-shifting nature of time and the curiosity to see what cannot be seen with the naked eye.

Sean Stoker