Monday, October 01, 2007

James Nizam: Anteroom

There's a problem with Vancouver photography.  It's not the photographers' fault, but Vancouver is too picturesque.  Everywhere you look it's a photograph.  It's not urban enough to be gritty, even downtown.  There's too much greenery, too many trees.  Most of all though it's the clouds.  The city of Vancouver is relatively low-built.  To its South and East is the flatness of the Fraser River flood plain.  This leaves the sky looking enormous.  To its North, Vancouver is built into the side of the North Shore Mountain range.  When clouds roll in they collide with the mountains and stack up over the city in magnificent towering formations.  This gives Vancouver its rain, but also a unique kind of light when the clouds are broken and sun shines through so that particular objects or areas are lit while their surrounding remains in darkness.  It's a particularly theatrical light - as if the whole city has been digitally enhanced.  Turning the sublime into the picturesque has always been a problem and Vancouver has a whole school whose photography ends up looking like a better Better Homes and Gardens.  One would expect that after so many average photographers have shot their rolls as practitioners of the banal, that after we've learned their lesson that the world around us as it exists is a beautiful, wonder filled place and that the least vista and object can be sublime, that they would have figured out that they'd made themselves redundant.  James Nizam is distinguishing himself as not one of those.
Anteroom (Pile of Toys in Room)
For his series Anteroom, Nizam turned the interiors of abandoned, soon to be demolished homes into room-sized camerae obscurae by fitting a makeshift lens to a hole he made in a wall, or attached to a hole in garbage bags covering a window.  Then, instead of exposing the projected image on photosensitive paper, he photographed it with a 35 mm camera.  By doing so we are able to see the character of the rooms he used and the jumbled leavings of the former occupants which become backdrops that sometimes blend with the projection, and sometimes fragment it beyond recognition.

Anteroom (Bungalow in Room)
Nizam is not alone in utilizing the camera obscura, and in this respect does fall in line with some of his contemporaries.  An example of early optical technology, the camera obscura is a precursor that led to the development of, and was supplanted by the modern multi lens camera.  As digital technologies of reproduction progressively move the multi lens camera aside, the camera obscura and the related pinhole camera, have increased in popularity with many artists for whom there seems to be a nostalgic, yet vital and necessary looking back toward the beginnings of photography.  They are a relief from technology, the antithesis of digital photography and computer manipulation. 

The mechanics of the camera obscura are the same as those for visual perception, and looking at the photographs reminds me of those illustrations of the principles of perception showing the light waves traveling through the hole of our pupil so that what's being looked at is projected upside down on the concave surface of our retina before being flipped by our brain.  The empty chamber of the camera obscura, the spherical cavity of the optical chamber, and the vacant interiors in which Nizam photographs are metaphors for the curved interior of the skull so that being in one of the rooms is like standing inside the skull and watching what comes in the small cyclopean eye. 

By trespassing into abandoned homes and changing their function from a sheltering to an aesthetic one, and by photographing the results of his trespass, Nizam approximates a subdued Gordon Matta-Clark.  But where Matta-Clark's work was sculptural and opened buildings up to themselves and to what was outside, Nizam brings the outside in in a painterly way - all color and light.  The actual view would be there if we could turn around, but we're held with our backs to reality and made to look at what Nizam has decided to compose.  So the point isn't the view beyond the wall or window, it must be the making of a photograph and how Nizam gets the picture into the room.  Standing in front of the photographs, it doesn't matter so much how or why Nizam makes them because they're compelling and evocative.  And for a moment, these discarded, and soon to be demolished shells of Vancouver homes, are given a final purpose - of beauty.

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