The Physical Photograph

by Frank Moore

The things we touch in daily life, bed pillows for example, change.  They may take on a weariness of stains before we're through with them.  Our rugs faithfully record the positions
of furniture, the concealed passage of an extension cord beneath, the abrasions of foot traffic.  There are moments when we see these things, when we "read" them.  Given enough time, enough history, the domestic objects which surround us may become our biography.

These are the sort of objects Joy Episalla photographs and she imbues them with a distinctive emotional intensity.  She has cited the apartment that Catherine Deneuve inhabits in Roman Polanski's Repulsion as an example of the unsettling effect she seeks in her work.   Polanski's film script contains many references to physical details:  walls, a fire grate, suitcases, crumpled sheets, ceilings, doors and door handles, optical distortions on the surface of a teakettle. These familiar things take on a creepy quality accentuating the vulnerability and psychic fragility of the central character, Carol (played by Deneuve). Early in the script Polanski uses simple details to ease us into Carol's state of mind: 

"Now we see what CAROL sees, a small crack on the surface of the wall by an air vent.  But the spectator cannot be certain whether it really exists or is the product of his imagination"  

Later in the film Carol leans against the hallway wall only to find that it has suddenly become soft and clay-like.  Playing with perception is very much a part of Episalla's method as well. 
In a large but minimal image (cushion #3, 2000) depicting two buttons and a seam on a well worn piece of leather furniture, she has indicated that she sought to heighten the resemblance of the leather to human skin.Things are never quite what they seem in Episalla's work; and,
as in a film, it is through the accumulation of such readings that the larger ambitions of her
work emerge.

Picture this: at the far end of a room a series of six overlapping photographic images, each 26"x 39", (radiator #1, 2000),  are leaning against the wall.  Teeth.  A giant set of aqua choppers with fibrous gums seem to bite the floor.  In fact the bottom half of each image is a section of a radiator, the upper half a mauve sisal-like woven mat.  It is difficult to discern which is in front of the other: there is a near perfect confusion of figure and ground in part because the cropping of the image has removed all the visual clues. The  modular form of the radiator repeats like Brancusi's endless column laid on its side. The actual juncture of floor and wall is hidden behind the leaning images, and because the teeth read like a bizarre architectural molding the piece subtly distorts the space in the room.  Up close, one can see that each image is mounted behind a 1/2 inch thick slab of Plexiglas.  The piece has considerable mass.  The edge of the slab diffracts the image, which glimmers and from certain angles appears to be mounted on the face of the slab.  Episalla enhances this effect by cutting away a thin margin of the white plastic material backing the photographic image:  the image thus appears to have no physical thickness and simply becomes fused with the object.

The physical quality of the work goes hand-in-hand with a minimal pictorial sensibility, and reminds one that Episalla was formally trained as a printmaker and painted for many years.  Images are usually cropped and rarely include more than one object.  The compositions are frontal and geometric and often evoke references to abstract painting. Her photographs of striped curtains, for example, call to mind the work of Gene Davis, Kenneth Noland and Bridget Riley.  But because these are, after all, photographs, there are organic events and textures that are illusionistic and sensual in a photographic sense; and Episalla manipulates hue, saturation and lightness in the darkroom to give these images an effect utterly unlike that of painting.

She shoots these images with a very high speed film, and then pushes the film to achieve a characteristic grain.  This grain becomes highly visible when a 35mm negative is enlarged to a final print size of 26" x 39".  Seen at a distance her images often appear muted or drab in color, but one has only to approach any work closely and one perceives swirling constellations of these particles of emulsion in an impossible array of colors; vibrant yellow and pink, delicate ultramarine blue and chartreuse. This effect is further enhanced by the pearly, iridescent quality of the photographic paper she uses.  The shift from drab order to sparkling confetti suggests a sense of delight and freedom at the core of Episalla's work. 

In appropriating the strategies of painting and incorporating them with her photographic practice, Episalla extends a venerable artistic tradition.  The renowned 19th century photographer P.H. Emerson, the great champion of Julia Margaret Cameron, founded a school of photography which sought the same artistic freedoms enjoyed by the great painters of his day (he cites Millet and Corot for example).  Like the early impressionists he was influenced by discoveries in optics made by scientists like Hermann von Helmholtz.  He sought to free photography from a slavish obsession with evenly sharp focus throughout an image: 


     "For example, the realist, if painting a tree a hundred yards off, would not strive to render the tree as it appears to him from where he is sitting, but he would probably gather leaves of the tree and place them before him, and paint them as they looked within twelve inches of his eyes, and as the Modern Pre-Raphaelites did, he might even imitate the local color of the things themselves.  Whereas the naturalist painter would care for none of these things, he would endeavor to render the impression of the tree taken as it appeared to him standing a hundred yards off, the tree taken as a whole, and as it looked, modified, as it would be by various phenomena and accidental circumstances.  The naturalist's work we should call true to nature.  The realist's work we should call false to nature."

In his influential book, Naturalistic Photography, published in 1889, he proclaimed:

     "The rule in focussing, therefore, should be, focus for the principal objects in the picture, but all else must not be sharp: and even the principal object must not be as perfectly sharp as the optical lens will make it." 

Because of this Emerson was roundly attacked by his contemporaries for introducing "fuzziness" to photography.  He responded "...we have nothing whatever to do with any "fuzzy school."  Fuzziness, to us means destruction of structure."  He goes on to qualify this by saying "We have, then nothing to do with "fuzziness," unless by the term is meant that broad and ample generalization of detail, so necessary to artistic work."  

These words, written more than a hundred years ago, embody the same searching spirit, the same willingness to cross boundaries and subvert expectations, that distinguish Joy Episalla's work today.  She, like Emerson, is a disciplined rebel.

In a remarkable group of large floor pieces Episalla photographs the open maw of a variety of women's handbags.  They are apparently empty and the darkness at the center of the image becomes a trompe l'oeil hole or fissure.  They become vaginas, and may initially seem debased by their position on the floor.  The fact that some of the handbags depicted are quite opulent, lined with silk or satin, may provoke tart associations.  But they also evoke Mother Earth and remind one of mythological passages to the underworld, such as those undertaken by Demeter or Orpheus.  Given Episalla's playfulness it's hard not to think of Alice and the rabbit hole
as well, although the voice emanating from this hole sounds more like Grace Slick than
Lewis Caroll.

What is also striking about these pieces is that by displaying them on the floor Episalla is challenging the viewer to consider them as sculptures.  The dimensions of a piece relative to the dimensions of
the room, and its position in the space, take on the same sort of formal value that one experiences
in relation to a piece by, for example, Carl Andre.  Yet clearly there is a feminist and revisionist challenge being issued:  these formal values are now being assigned a gender.  And although a
sense of vulnerable physicality is central to Episalla's work, the work is not passive.  Handbag #2 has
a rather sharp looking zipper which may leave the viewer feeling a bit like Carol contemplating one of those cracks.