As part of their celebration of 50 years of photographic curation, the Art Institute of Chicago is currently showing 'Stills', a work from 1980 by the American artist Sarah Charlesworth (1947-2013). This is an example of the 'unfixed photograph' (co-incidentally the title of another exhibition running at the same time) i.e. the appropriation of photography as an element in an artistic medium.
'Stills' comprises a series of 14 very large photographs (78 inches tall) of solitary people falling from buildings - presumably to their deaths. To make these images, Charlesworth roughly tore photographs out of newspapers and magazines, re-photographed them on mat board and then enlarged them to a such a size that they were the first large scale photographs used in contemporary art. They are grainy, as the originals were, and presented as documentary evidence. Yet the photographs in the show (6 of which previously not exhibited) marry conceptual art and documentary reportage - an important moment in American contemporary art with the emergence of the Pictures Generation, a loose-knit group of artists working in New York in the late 1970s and early 1980s concerned with how images shape our everyday lives and society as a whole.
What is that gives these photographs their impact? Charlesworth understood that by extracting the photographs from their original context as small indistinct images in newsprint and enlarging them to the point that their defects are pushed into the background by the immediacy of their size, a degree of realism emerges which is unavoidable and shocking. You don't have to be as queasy about heights as I am to shudder when you look at these photographs. With their arms and legs flailing wildly, the real shock is seeing something so real and knowing that it did not end well.
I found the most striking image to be that of a woman falling horizontally in front of a shop front. We know that she is milli-seconds from hitting the sidewalk, yet our eye moves from the woman to the mundane signs on the facade of the building- a barber's pole, an advertisement for coffee and sandwiches at 10c. and a notice ironically saying "it hurts". This juxtaposition of the awfulness of the event with significations of the everyday is certainly powerful.
Charlesworth seems to have expected that her work would be associated with “Falling Man,” the harrowing Associated Press photograph of a man jumping to his death from the North Tower on September 11, 2001. I noticed that several reviews suggested that the figures were somehow abstracted but I cannot agree with this. The falling figures are frozen with such immediacy that it is impossible not to complete the jump subjectively - with its terrible consequences.
Sarah Charlesworth, 'Stills', Chicago Art Institute from 17 September 2014 to 4 January 2015
All text © Alan Ainsworth Photography 2014.