Lisa Oppenheim: Elemental Process

Lisa Oppenheim teases apart the individual steps of picture-making, wringing from the medium’s technical apparatus a surprisingly broad range of meanings.

For nearly a decade, Lisa Oppenheim has teased apart the individual steps of picture-making, wringing from the medium’s technical apparatus a surprisingly broad range of meanings. Her work is informed by the legacy of Conceptual art, but her most recent series, sampled here, reach back further in time for their inspiration. Time is itself a central focus of this work, which meditates on the various ways photography registers duration—the length of the exposure, the gap between a picture’s making and its viewing—and how our sense of it dilates in a photograph’s presence. This effort is in the service, the New York– and Berlin-based artist has said, of recovering the surprises offered by photography’s materials, and of dwelling in “the magic of the photographic process.” Through cool calculation, Oppenheim has devised an art of surprising affectiveness, equal parts romantic and rigorous.

The emotional resonance of Oppenheim’s works has often rested in her use of (quite literally) universal subjects. The sun and the moon—giver of light and the ultimate light reflector—feature regularly, from a 2006 slide projection in which the artist holds postcards of sunsets in front of the real thing to a two-channel 16mm film installation, made in 2008, that is based upon images of the Earth and the moon made the night of the Apollo mission’s first lunar landing. The moon recurred as the subject of a 2010 series of unique silver-toned photograms she dubbed Lunagrams. To make these works, Oppenheim borrowed from the archives of New York University mid-nineteenthcentury glass-plate negatives by John and Henry Draper depicting the moon. She made large-format copy negatives, placed them on photographic paper, then exposed them to the moon at the time of the lunar phase depicted in the original. Decades collapse as one image, made by an enthusiast whose work was as much science as art, begets another. A related series of Heliograms was made in 2011: she exposed a photograph of the sun originally taken on July 8, 1876, to sunlight at different times of day during each month that year. Irregular amounts of sunlight means not every work is equally exposed, and there are gaps in the series where Oppenheim’s obligations prevented her from capturing a scheduled image. The individual results once again warp our understanding of two distinct instants, but when seen in aggregate, the Heliograms also chart the passage of the artist’s days. These silvery and golden works possess an elemental allure—the metals themselves, the primitive processes used by the medium’s first exponents—but also acknowledge that copies are always already imperfect, and that life and time conspire to make them so.

black and white photograph

Lisa Oppenheim, Passage of the moon over two hours, Arcachon, France, ca. 1870s/2012, April 11, 2012.

Oppenheim literalizes her attempt to translate the essence of earlier images in her 2011–12 series Smoke. There, she isolated details of smoke from a wide range of images of fire, then turned these semiabstract compositions into digital internegatives. Rather than use the light of an enlarger to expose these negatives, Oppenheim used the flames from a match, from a culinary torch, and from other sources to expose—and solarize—these images. From a 1913 oil-field explosion to World War II–era aerial surveillance to journalists’ images of the 2011 North London riots, the absent fires implied by the smoke have been made visible by altogether different flames. The resultant works, which look like polished-silver outtakes from Alfred Stieglitz’s Equivalents series, add a canny rumination on presence and absence to Oppenheim’s usual investigation of temporality. As with all her recent works, the Smoke series resides in interstitial spaces: between two images separated by time and place; between materialist and conceptual approaches to the medium; between intellect and emotion. In these seams Oppenheim finds a locus of mystery.

black and white prints

Top row: Lisa Oppenheim, Heliograms, July 8th, 1876/December 8th, 2011, 2011. Middle row: Lisa Oppenheim, Heliograms, July 8th, 1876/December 14th, 2011, 2011. Bottom row: Heliograms, July 8th, 1876, December 21st, 2011, 2011.