Vincent Serbin – Photogram no.65 (2009)
What fine art photography is and today entails is largely due to the legacy of John Szarkowski.
A talented photographer in his own right, he’s now known primarily, however, as the Director of Photography at MoMA for just shy of three decades; where he proved almost singularly responsible for shepherding the black sheep medium that was photography into the fold of western canonical art historical and critical acceptance as capital A Art.
One of his endearing critical notions was that photographs function in only one of two ways:
- As windows looking out onto the world, or
- Mirrors in which we come face to face with ourselves.
I’ve always been flummoxed by this dichotomy. Partly because dichotomies translate a little too readily into dialectical propositions and partly just because when presented with a rigid either/or divergence, I’m always inclined to search for a third option. (Here’s I’ve purposely chosen ‘third’ as opposed to ‘middle’ due to the fact that although I’m always striving for balance, I am frequently too far outside the box to accept a middle way when others have established what I often feel as arbitrary/artificial extremities.)
Anyway, the point of this post isn’t to take Szarkowski to task, exactly–the windows/mirrors opposition is useful when dealing with say coming to terms with someone like Larry Towell vs say Jerry Uelsmann.
Windows/Mirrors do contribute to my understanding of Serbin’s work insofar as Serbin’s work holds up a mirror to my own art historical imagination, causing me to return to artists I know well but are not always at the forefront of my mind.
I think the most obvious point of resonance is William Blake. The titling of the works as well as the way figure(s) are position bear an uncanny resemblance.
Then there’s the same gumbo of spirituality, metaphysics and philosophy that animates Duane Michals work. (To show my work with this assertion, consider Michals’ The Spirit Leaves the Body alongside Serbin’s The Omega Point Theory.)
The above appeals to me for its simplicity. It’s more a coup de grace of design acumen than photographic insight. The seamless tonality and the layering of the ink blot reminiscent of Ralph Steadman serves not only as an enticing background but also interferes with the negative and x-ray in ways that further, seamlessly unify the disparate elements of the print.
I think you could read it as a momento mori, except that those seem to function more as a glitching insinuation than a front and center provocation. For example: the negative could be a Tarkovsky polaroid. And while it could be read as life being smaller in the scheme of things than death, there’s a sensual tone to the neg which rather pointed undercuts that notion, rendering the entire print a sort of darkly sinister, yet life affirming joie de vivre.