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Taking digital photography to a new dimension

Erin Shirreff via ICA

Looking at photographs of art in a book is usually second-rate — better than nothing, but not nearly as good as seeing the Mona Lisa or Michelangelo’s David in person.

Tomorrow at the Institute of Contemporary Art, a new exhibition opens that turns that thinking on its head and proposes that photographic reproductions of sculptures are a work of art in their own right.

The exhibition features photographs, video, and sculptures from Brooklyn-based artist Erin Shirreff. Together, the pieces are an exploration of the basic idea of shape, and how shapes that begin as sculptures change — but don’t necessarily diminish — as they’re translated onto the two-dimensional page or the screen.


“With sculpture, you’re supposed to walk around it, see it from many sides. Erin has long been intrigued by how sculpture is photographed, how it’s represented,” says Jenelle Porter, Mannion Family Senior Curator at the ICA, and the person who brought the exhibition to Boston.

The impulse to photograph sculptures is not new. It featured prominently in the modernist movement a century ago, when artists were particularly interested in the different guises of a single object.

“Cubist painting was trying to cram multiple perspectives of one object in one image. In a way, Erin is doing that within the contemporary, digital realm,” says David Balzer, who has covered Shirreff’s work as Deputy Editor of Canadian Art. (Shirreff was born in British Columbia.)

Shirreff’s work involves a number of different ways of translating three-dimensional shapes into two-dimensional images. The exhibition contains a video of a sculpture that has a kind of rabbit-hole effect: Shirreff takes a photograph of the sculpture, rephotographs the photograph, then displays that image in a video, all under different light manipulations. By the time the process is complete, it’s hard to describe the final product as simply a stand-in for the original sculptural object.


“Erin works with [this] a lot, the ways in which a sculpture can change 50 or 100 times depending on how the light is cast on it,” says Balzer.

Shirreff uses similarly innovative techniques in other work in the show. In one series, she creates huge photograms of sculptures — a technique in which three-dimensional objects are exposed directly onto chemically treated paper using sunlight. The resulting images can be thought of as an echo — or even the origin — of the three-dimensional shape that influenced their production.

The study of shape is a primary focus in art. It’s also a main area of research in mathematics, and thinking about why mathematicians care about shapes is useful for understanding what Shirreff is trying to achieve. Mathematicians think about shapes in different dimensions — one-dimension, two-dimensions, three-dimensions, up to infinitely many dimensions — and they try to pin down the properties that persist and the properties that change in the move from one dimension to another. Shirreff’s work draws out the paths that link sculptures to images of sculptures and achieves something of the same effect.

“You come to realize that sculpture is a photographic medium and photography is a sculptural medium,” says Porter.

The ICA’s exhibition of Erin Shirreff’s work runs from Aug. 26 - Nov. 29.

Kevin Hartnett is a writer in South Carolina. He can be reached at