Luz, diálogo indiscutible de su fotografía.
by Ashley Mercado
Artes Magazine, 2008
A photograph is only possible through the use of light—be it the sun, lamp or flash. Forgoing the camera, studio or even backdrop of the world, light is the undisputed language of photography. While the use of light in photography is a requirement of the art form, light is often understood as a tool to observe and not as a subject in its own right. Frequently, the photographic image becomes a reduction of the subject, photographer or hardware. Yet the key is not the instrument, involuntary except by the cue of its master. Nor is it the mechanical skill of the photographer, his upbringing or schooling. The key is the element by which all photographs are ruled.
In each measure of photographic contemplation, Rebecca Zilenziger’s work is a study of light. These selected images, taken between 1998 and 2008, are an excavation of gegenschein, a term in astronomy that references a faint nebulous light in the night sky opposite the sun. Rarely seen, the gegenschein is the shadow of the brightest and closest star—a constant never-there. Zilenziger’s photography is the archival dig of light; her camera unearths the faint contours of meaning and shadowy interpretations light sources create.
The series “Staso’s Studio” exposes the sharp proximity between a private life and the unoccupied, blurred panorama outside. A photograph frames light like a window. Much like photographs, windows reveal an interior, a subject; as well as an exterior, a landscape of interpretable concepts beyond. The personal and the impersonal are opposites, but there are access points within each only because we can see to describe them both. The silhouettes of hazy buildings in “Stasos’s Studio” are a constant distant background for anyone living in an urban center. Flattened against the dusty windowpanes, New York City becomes another personal object that hangs in Staso’s studio window.
Rather than shifting away from the window, Zilenziger create a direct line between the photograph and the source of light. While the viewer cannot see the camera, the two light catchers face one another and Zilenziger detains the act of illumination. If every image has its frame, then Zilenziger allows the bounding box to expand not from fours sides but from the very center – from the source of the light.
"Women Holding Heavy Objects" is a series Zilenziger began taking in 1998. In each image, part of a woman’s body is photographed away from the whole and a prop is situated in the grasp of one single hand. No faces are depicted, just the expression of form. "Skirt in Hand" shows a woman’s fingers holding the edge of a wind-blown skirt at the back of her knee. In "Bamboo in Hand," an arm stretches from the lower-left corner of the image and the hand folds over the upright trunk of a bamboo tree.
Zilenziger's use of light in this series is straightforward. The photographs, as well as the titles, are quite literal. However, Zilenziger isn't stating facts. The objects do not represent traditional concepts, such as a baby, partner, family member, or the modern tools of a career or trade. Zilenziger is asking the viewer to think about the abstractions women hold, or burden themselves with, and why. The light does not serve to obscure this inquiry and these images capture another pitch in a global conversation about women.
"Basket in Hand," the third in the series, is textured by sun light. The whole of the body is removed and an arm is isolated within a single frame while the hand holds a woven basket. In each of these three images a hand holds an identifiable object. At the same time, the other unseen hand of the pair becomes a metaphor. This metaphorical hand is raised in the classroom of culture, waiting in turn to change the dialogue from “what is it?” to “how do we see it?” These images move away from categories and into the abstractions that result from individual perception. The sound of the plunk from Zilenziger's toss in the cultural bucket resounds with wonder: What does the bamboo trunk represent? When is a skirt the heavy object? “Women Holding Heavy Objects” address a societal issue while the photographs reveal a pairing between the camera and a source of light through the question: what shadows a woman?
The purpose of photographs and windows is quite similar and the brief act of opening the aperture is a physical opening of a window. In Zilenziger's more abstract photographs of light, the camera becomes a window that revels what hangs in front of it—what obscures the light and at the same time what shadows are created; what subjective form, revealed. While light in “Women Holding Heavy Objects” or “Inside the Met” directly addresses the viewer, her abstract work shows how shadow and contour created by light yields various interpretations.
At the most primitive level, our vision creates logic from very limited information. The optic systems and our evolved brains are meant to guide us through an ordinary, pre-industrial human life by presenting the facts our five other senses need to navigate.
Mysteriously, that same evolved function causes us to reach different conclusions from the same information, or conclusions that can be proven wrong where our vision sees something that is not there at all.
The image of light through the gridded squares of burlap, or the billowing tarp, or from the images entitled, “Boat Light,” are photographs made reverence to the ways light is isolated into a moment of seeing and how it can distract us—if we allow it—into momentary pauses of buoyancy, contemplation and understanding. This is the case of “San Juan in a Puddle”. The palm tree, high wall and chicken wire fence that is reflected in a pool of water become an inverse image: the viewer as well as the photographer is looking down to look up. The puddle is like glass in an old window, a liquid itself. Zilenziger’s photographs pay an homage to the ways light can be detached through every angle of the sources that filter it: fabric, window, water, glass, and camera.
By the simple fact that most photographers do not aim their camera at the light, and that most images do not request our contemplation, our ways of seeing often overlook the coupling between camera and light-source. "Inside the Met," a two part series taken in 2008, launches an examination of how Zilenziger venerates this pairing. The photographs were shot in the Metropolitan Museum of Art before a huge expanse of windows that, from ceiling to floor, govern the entire frame of the image. The windows dwarf the silhouettes of people in front to reveal a snow-covered tree line beyond. The incline of the windowpanes draws the viewer from the tip of distance to the deepest dark of contemplation, intervening personal meditations on art with the shuffling feet of passersby. Light, in this instance, not only allows you to see but also hear. There is a quiet murmur to these two photographs just like in the museum itself: the soft conversation of meandering, the familiar act of strolling for the sake of seeing. The windows, armed with afternoon light, stand high and firm and Zilenziger drops the aperture of the camera like opening a window.
Windows are a dominant reference point in Zilenziger’s photographs as they are in our own daily lives. Windows can be opened and closed, shouted from or piously curtained. A window can bring in fresh air, provide an escape route and even dominate a room. Windowpanes perform a view of the world, becoming a television for the room, but the main function is to let in light.
In “Staso’s Studio”, Zilenziger’s camera is again drawn to what authorizes photographic documentation: the source of light. Steve Staso is an artist and filmmaker. The tools of his trade—the clamp, light and coiled wires—are artifacts of his work that hang in the window. These tools become decorative points along with the red-paper lamp, suspended gold masks, and the film-stills that line the sill. His wires are coiled neatly, but not put in a box or on a shelf—they hang within an arm's reach, in the most obvious place, well lit and easily accessible.
Photographers write their subjects - camera as pen, light as ink - in a vocabulary rendered by illumination. Photographers take great care with their treatment light for it is the fingerprint of their work. The sun, a primary tool of the photographer’s trade, showcases the shadows of the world in place of its own so that the subject becomes a person, place, landscape or object—not light itself. Zilenziger’s photography re-directs the focus to the infinite lexicon of light, allowing the viewer to more directly see how it works, not as a function to clarify a room or a four-sided image, but on its own, as the driving force of how we determine and navigate our own interpretation of shadow.