It’s rarely a good sign when an art review begins with a technical explanation of how the art was made. If the art doesn’t speak for itself, what it has to say usually isn’t worth hearing — let alone worth looking at. That’s not the case with “Kontinuum: Photographs by Adam Magyar.” It runs at the Griffin Museum of Photography through Dec. 8, as do two smaller shows, “The Burn: Photographs by Jane Fulton Alt” and “Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten: Photographs by Diane Meyer.”
Magyar, a Hungarian who lives in Berlin, uses slit-screen camera technology, which takes multiple image slivers, separated only by fractions of a second. Those multitudinous sliver scans are then configured into a single image and printed as a physical photograph. Magyar has created his own drivers and software to come up with his “constructed images.”
Why go to all that bother when he could just point and click? The 13 large black-and-white photographs in “Kontinuum” show why — and it’s a good thing they’re in black and white, since in color they might well be overwhelming. Six are from Magyar’s “Stainless” series, of subway cars and their passengers. Seven are from his “Urban Flow” series, of pedestrians in Hong Kong, Tokyo, and New York. (There are also three videos, showing the slit-scan procedure.) Both sets of photographs are large — scale magnifies their impact — and majestically horizontal. That’s especially so with “Urban Flow.” At 10.2 inches by 94.5 inches, they look like shrunken friezes.
The crispness and specificity of Magyar’s pictures make them appear so hyper-real as to seem unreal. That sounds paradoxical — but no less so than the way Magyar’s very direct approach lends them an air of mystery. Both ostensible contradictions make the work that much more arresting. There’s a further contradiction with “Urban Flow.” Magyar has worked it so that the pedestrians are in focus but the background buildings blur into lines that could be from a Morris Louis color-field painting (minus the color, of course). The effect is at once weird and transfixing.
Walker Evans surreptitiously took photographs of New York city subway riders during the 1930s. Magyar’s subway pictures turn Evans’s inside out. They’re about groups rather than individuals, shot from outside rather than within, and studies in mise-en-scene rather than personality. The cars become massive stage sets for performances you want to watch — or maybe even join.
Jane Fulton Alt’s “The Burn” consists of 18 images, 15 inches square. They’re close-up views of controlled prairie fires. These fires are deliberately set so as to clean out the prairie and enhance renewed growth. The images are in white frames, with thick white mattes, the better to bring out their subdued colors. No locations or dates are given in the titles, as if to underscore the idea of a universal, ur-conflagration. The images look mysterious, thanks to the concealing effect of the smoke. But they also get at a much larger mystery, the interplay of destruction and regeneration.
It’s rarely a good sign when an art review has to explain the concept that determines the art. That’s the case with Diane Meyer’s “Time Spent That Might Otherwise Be Forgotten.” It comprises 19 color photographs, ranging in size from 2 inches by 3¼ inches to 12 inches by 14½ inches. Most are of Berlin or New Jersey. “I am interested in the failures of photography in preserving experience and personal history,” Meyer writes. To indicate that failure she embroiders over a portion of the image. This can resemble broken-up pixels. That’s a doubly nice touch: an ancient, tactile process mimics a contemporary, incorporeal one. More important, conceptually, the stitching obscures that part of the image.
The problem is the speciousness of Meyer’s concept. Are failures the same thing as limitations? Consider a parallel. Smell can summon up the past with a vividness no photograph can. But the memory of that past is inevitably incomplete. So maybe a performance artist should block up a nostril to acknowledge this failure of smell. Worse than the speciousness, the concept makes interesting pictures (the ones of Berlin especially) less so. Is that a failure or a limitation?