“A Tempest in the Laboratory”; The Photographs of Laura Dodson

Laura Dodson, Between Ripe (2009), archival print, Ed. 1/5, 17-1/2″ x 17″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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The relationship between painting and photography has been charged since Day One or, at least, since Joseph Nicéphore Niépce took the first photograph in 1826. Painters were alternately alarmed and liberated by the new technology. The French neo-classicist Jean Dominique Auguste Ingres signed an 1862 petition against “any assimilation that might be made of photography to art”. Eugène Delacroix, Ingres’ contemporary and nemesis, took the opposite tack, stating that photography could aid painters in rising “to unknown heights.”

If some painters feared their function as image-makers was to be supplanted by a machine that “sees and reproduces everything without thinking”, photographers, particularly those driven to push the medium beyond mere reportage, were keenly aware of painting’s cultural dominance. In a suite of images titled Equivalents, the pioneering American art dealer and photographer Alfred Steiglitz famously set out to beat painting at its own game. Painting was, for many years, the chip on photography’s shoulder.

In the early twenty-first century, mixed media is the coin of the realm. Artistic categorization is considered aesthetically constricting. Discussions about painting and photography as disciplines with their own unique characteristics and traditions are pooh-poohed as quaint. Which isn’t to say there isn’t an ongoing dialogue between the two art forms. The conversation has, in fact, intensified. Renowned photographers like Thomas Struth, Cindy Sherman, Gregory Crewdson and Andreas Gursky consciously blur boundaries and play the photograph-as-painting card.

As advances in digital technology allow for an undreamt of degree of imagistic manipulation, the photographer’s role as documentarian and artist has been complicated. The medium’s vaunted objectivity was always compromised–that is to say, fictionalized–by the artist’s sensibility. In the age of Photoshop, photography’s fictive capabilities have increased exponentially. There ain’t nothin’, it would seem, a photographer can’t do.

Laura Dodson–photographer, teacher and art theorist–has long been keenly aware of photography’s status as an arbiter between realism and artifice, of observed phenomenon and interior states of mind. She’s wise to the ways in which technology can shape and alter vision. Trained as a street photographer, Dodson was steeped in the tradition of “the decisive moment”–Henri Cartier Bresson’s notion of the split second wherein a photographer transforms the ephemeral into poetry.

That didn’t stop Dodson from asking tough questions of photography or the culture in which it was created. Influenced by the theory-laden prerequisites of Post-Modernism–Laurie Simmons was an early inspiration–Dodson grew dissatisfied with street photography. Shifting gears, she began manufacturing scenarios–sometimes with figures, mostly with objects–to photograph. Spontaneity was, if not sacrificed, then given an atypical forum.

Laura Dodson, Lust for Sleep (2009), archival pigment print, Ed. 1/5, 28″ x 22″; courtesy Kouros Gallery

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Dodson’s photographs increasingly became a form of theater and, later, a conduit for personal reverie. Given the persistent and often unnerving intimacy inherent in Dodson’s dioramas–particularly theStill Creatures series and subsequent work–it comes as little surprise to learn that Nan Goldin’s bohemian mise-en-sceneThe Ballad of Sexual Dependency (1986), was a formative touchstone. Dodson’s art, then, offers an astringent mix of the heady and the romantic, the intensely orchestrated and the psychologically resonant.

“When you move to the studio from the street,” Dodson wrote on the occasion of her 2010 exhibition at Kouros Gallery, “the world in all its unpredictability is no longer at your disposal and you run the risk of becoming static. You have to create a tempest in your laboratory.” How exactly Dodson creates these “tempests”–moody accumulations of thrift shop tchotchkes, fauna, flora and food set bobbing within eerie and aqueous environments–is something of a professional secret. The photos are subsequently transformed through the use of digital technology. It’s worth noting that the “How did she do it?” factor never diverts the viewer from the disconcerting feelings Dodson both stills and puts into motion.

Simultaneously microscopic in focus and otherworldly in purview, Dodson’s pictures are precisely choreographed and meticulously executed without ceding an iota of dreamlike fluidity. Pictures like Dry Land and the talismanic Between Ripe (both 2010) are, in their silky elisions of space, boundless but also severely circumscribed. Channeling Surrealist disquietude and establishing a pictorial order that recalls the Renaissance in its clarity, Dodson gives body to a muffled, earnest and crystalline symbolism.

Childhood is a recurring touchstone–dolls and other toys figure prominently in the work–as is a yearning sense of, not nostalgia exactly. The pictures are too acidic to encourage out-and-out sentimentality. Lust for Sleep (2010), with its snuggled strands of blond and auburn hair, is nothing if not a reliquary, but for what exactly? It’s enough that the feelings are honed, elaborated upon and allowed a degree of independence.

Dodson’s art has never been exhibited in a gallery dedicated exclusively to photography. It makes sense: Dodson’s atmospheric runs of lush color, mysterious slurs of space and subdued, if decidedly pointed, expressionism share common ground less with Robert Frank than Odilon Redon. Which is to say that within Dodson’s oeuvre, painting, photography and high tech achieve an uncommon tete-a-tete that is, at once, here-and-now and back to the future. Ingres would be horrified, but Delacroix would find Dodson to be a kindred spirit.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Cognoscenti.

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