ON A PICTURE
Jamie Tolagson, Abandoned Store, Bishop, California 2006, 20″x 24″
It’s twilight; that much is evident from the deep blue-grey light that fills the photograph, and from the ever so slightly out-of-focus trees whose black branches obscure the lighter sky above them. These things are behind us, a reflection in the plate glass window that serves as the picture’s surface. Our view is in and through this window, through an indeterminate middle ground, through a second, smaller window, and out onto a street on the far side of the building, where a little more light remains. The store itself, the picture’s ostensible subject, is mostly invisible, which seems right. No one needs to see another “concerned” picture of a failed self-owned business, or of the residue of small-scale capitalism (phone book; cash register; valueless “merchandise” the bailiff didn’t seize) which in many modern photographers’ hands is sentimentalized, a left-liberal nostalgic lament for the helplessness of the lone owner-operator in the deep waters of advanced capitalism. These images are expressions of beliefs their makers already hold, and in this sense the empty storefront is as much a cliché of contemporary art photography as is the solitary tree, the crowd (their bodies massing together, bulging the picture plane at its seams) or the brightly colored, pleasantly arranged pile of industrial debris.
Tolagson’s is a different kind of picture. In it I hear the voices of older European photographers like John Gutmann and Robert Frank, whose best work was made in America, but always from the perspective of an outsider looking in at a foreign culture. The photographs collected in Frank’s The Americans could have been taken by Walter Tevis’ Man Who Fell to Earth; they feel like the work of an alien with a camera, who is always present at exactly the right moment, but never quite sure about the significance of what he is depicting. Tolagson’s picture has this kind of quality about it, too; it is by no means a naïve picture, but it puts naivety into play as a kind of style, in order to problematize viewers’ reception of its content. It is photography’s nature to depict things, andAbandoned Store carries out its work by framing the things that cohere around its subject’s absence. Painted symbols. Reflections. Light, and sky.
Jamie Tolagson currently lives in Victoria, B.C. His photographic series Southeast was exhibited at the Havana Gallery, Vancouver, in 2001. His film Kingsway was shown in numerous Vancouver venues in 2003-04.
Christopher Brayshaw is a independent Vancouver-based critic-curator- bookseller-photographer.