Feature

The Unphotographable

Cameras don’t just capture truth; they create it.

Fraenkel Gallery, San FranciscoThrough March 23

Cameras don’t just capture truth; they create it, said Richard Conway in Time.com. This has always been true, but the great Alfred Stieglitz opened up new possibilities when he pointed his camera at the clouds overhead for his 1925–31 series “Equivalents,” saying he wanted to create photographs that felt like music. It thus seems right that one image from that groundbreaking exercise in abstraction serves as a centerpiece of this show about photography that aims to capture or represent something beyond what’s plainly visible. Such a broad theme means that the exhibit contains “quirky bedfellows,” with Victorian ephemera and the Loch Ness Monster appearing alongside works by Diane Arbus and Man Ray. But it “certainly provides a fascinating potted history of the creative use of the camera.”

So many items here “turn out to affirm not photography’s limits, but those of our credulity,” said Kenneth Baker in the San Francisco Chronicle. Nineteenth-century spiritualists hoped that photography might prove the existence of supernatural forces. To them, works like the unattributed Portrait of a Welsh Boy Made by a Spirit (1895) validated their beliefs. Generations later, Tom Friedman would create “a comical rejoinder to the spirit photographs” in 2006’s Caveman, in which a burst of ethereal light—the camera flash—beatifies the face of a prehistoric man. By contrast, Malcolm Browne’s 1963 sequence Self-Immolation of Buddhist Monk Thich Quang Duc is light-years away from fantasy. The series, which shows a protesting Vietnamese monk disappearing in a swirl of flames, depicts an agony that’s “beyond description.” In a show that often challenges our faith in the veracity that photographers claim for themselves, it’s one work that we wish were a fake.

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