A Camera Darkly Exhibition

Phillip Stearns

Phillip Stearns

A Camera Darkly

Curated by A.E. Benenson

Exhibition: May 3 – June 23, 2012
Opening Reception: Thursday, May 3, 6-8pm

Featuring: Phillip Stearns and Christian de Vietri

“We now proceed to speak of morbid and other extraordinary affections of the retina, by which the eye may be susceptible to an appearance of light without external light, reserving for a future occasion the consideration of galvanic light… if the eye receives a blow, sparks seem to spread from it. In some states of body, again, when the blood is heated, and the system much excited, if the eye is pressed first gently, and then more and more strongly, a dazzling and intolerable light may be excited.”
– Goethe, Theory of Colors (paragraphs 114 and 115), 1810.

After-images, floating spots, hallucinations…19th century philosophers and scientists were captivated by faulty stuff of sight. It was their investigations into the unpredictable physiology of optics that made the development of mechanical vision possible. On the one hand, cinematic prototypes like the phenakistoscope directly relied on these newfound peculiarities of perception (e.g. persistence of vision); on the other, the development of still photography was hastened by the revelation of the defects of human sight and the desire for its technical perfection.

A Camera Darkly introduces two contemporary artists that share an interest in bringing this experimental genealogy of photography to bear on the medium’s contemporary digital discourse. Using a digital camera and an optical scanner, respectively, these two artists treat their digital photographic technologies like physiological systems, subjecting them to electric shocks and paradoxical orders that push them to their points of failure. By questioning the integrity of the technological systems that supplanted human sight, these artists redouble the 19th century’s critiques and speculate on the beginnings of a new era in the history of vision.

Like the images of dazzling sparks that played on Goethe’s lids, the images from Phillip Stearns’ DCP series (2010, ongoing) are created without external light. In an inversion of the historical avant-garde’s camera-less “rayograms”, Stearns rewires the photosensitive chips of various digital cameras so that they respond to electric pulses instead of external light, causing them to produce images of technicolor chaos in total darkness. Stearns’ process mimics the neuro-electrical stimulation that causes the light-less entoptic images that fascinated the 19th century and led to the development of photography.

Christian de Vietri submits a series of black and white lithographs of Gustave Doré’s illustrations of Dante’s Il Paradiso to a color scanner. Ill equipped for Doré’s intricate monochrome bands, the scanner improvises febrile waves of color. Through an unpredictable process of digital hallucination, the monochrome visions of divine light erupt into iridescence.
Out of this confusion come improbable new relationships between distant histories: printmaking and digital reproduction, literary imagination and computerized optics, and the metaphysics of heaven and virtual space.

Guest Curator A.E. Benenson received his Master’s in Critical and Curatorial Studies from Columbia University in Spring 2011. His master’s thesis was written on Thomas Struth’s Museum Photographs and the political aesthetics of taking photographs in public art museums. His interests include network theory, copyright and aura in the age of digital reproduction, and the unpredictable revisions of historical technologies within contemporary visual culture and social politics.