ART : Shadow Land : With a pinhole camera, Barbara Ess conjures up a hallucinatory world where everyday images become eerily seductive

<i> Kristine McKenna is a frequent contributor to Calendar</i>

“I think of my work as an investigation and it’s always concerned with the same question: Exactly what is the true nature of reality?” says New York artist Barbara Ess of her darkly disturbing photographs.

“I don’t know if there’s an essential reality it’s possible for us to get a grip on,” she adds, “but I know I don’t experience life primarily in terms of the physical world--my emotions and memories play a much larger role in shaping my experience as a human. I know there’s a me that’s more solid than this body I move through the world in.”

Groping through the ether in pursuit of an essential reality, Ess has produced a body of work that reads as a brooding meditation on the shattered state of life in the late 20th Century. Working with a pinhole camera, Ess manipulates the distortions that are an unavoidable part of that simple mode of picture making so that the distortions read as metaphors for psychological states; her warped interpretations of scenes from everyday life are heavy with a sense of the weight of the past, and of disintegrating social structures.


The pinhole camera--basically a cardboard box with a hole in it--has no focusing mechanism and distorts space and light by pushing the background far into the distance and blurring forms in the foreground. Also known as photograms, pinhole photographs were first developed by William Henry Fox Talbot in 1835. Man Ray elaborated on the technique a century later with his Rayograms, but pinhole photography is rarely used by fine artists. However, it’s ideally suited to Ess’ sensibility, which she describes as “rooted in ambivalence and confusion. I’m attracted to pinhole photography because my mind works better when my means are narrowed.”

Freighted with an undercurrent of bewilderment and loss, her pictures--on view at the Michael Kohn Gallery in Santa Monica through Nov. 30--hide their anxious subtext behind seductive surfaces. Gary Indiana, art critic for the Village Voice, has described Ess’ work as “simultaneously ravishing and creepy in a manner evocative of paintings by Whistler or Turner,” and her pictures are luxuriously beautiful. The pinhole camera makes intensely sensuous images that undulate and shimmer, images so fluid they seem to depict a world that hasn’t yet congealed into solid form. Like artists Gerhard Richter, Christian Boltanski and the Starn Twins (all of whom work with photographic distortion), Ess blurs the edges of the physical world, thus pushing it into a hallucinatory realm; like work by those artists, her images vibrate with an eerie, lyrical violence.

Andy Grundberg, former photography critic for the New York Times, commented that “in making images charged with a darkly ominous undertone, Miss Ess has a finger on the pulse of the times.” However, that comment comes as a bit of a surprise to the artist who doesn’t see herself as a social critic by any stretch. Her involvement with her work is far too personal for that.

Talking at a Hollywood cafe, the 43-year-old Ess points out that it’s not her intention to produce a pessimistic cultural critique. Rather, what she’s really interested in is “the place where our interior life intersects with the outside world--and the place where that happens is the body. My interest in that connection intensified a few years ago because I became very ill,” adds Ess, who’s titled her current series of work “I Am Not This Body.”

“During that same period my mother and lots of my friends were sick and dying, so this became a very pressing subject for me. And, being a woman, the issue of aging is also very complex. We all have to deal with the fact that although we experience life largely through our souls, the world judges us in terms of our bodies.”

An intense, open woman who comes across as remarkably innocent considering that she’s spent the better part of 20 years in Manhattan, Ess lists the central inspiration for her art as “my childhood, taking LSD, the important experimental filmmakers, and Patti Smith’s first album, ‘Horses’--that record was such a revelation for me when I heard it in 1975. It’s so passionate and alive with the sense of possibilities--it gives off a real physical sensation of joy.”

Like punk rock’s reigning diva, Ess had a multimedia artistic coming of age that included writing, filmmaking, performance art, visual art and music. Born in Brooklyn, the eldest in a family of three girls, Ess recalls: “My father was a truck driver, but as a young man before the war he was an artist who did commercial design. So there were art books in the house and I can remember going to museums with my father. I had a great childhood, very rich and happy, and my family was very liberal--in fact, my grandfather was a communist.

“I remember my childhood fondly and it’s not my intention to invoke the negative aspects of childhood,” she adds in explaining a recurring theme in her work. “Rather, I think I’m attracted to the primal way children see the world. Children are wide open to everything and they’re learning at an incredible rate. Of course, childhood does have its dark side and like every child I can remember seeing weird things when I was growing up.”

After completing high school in Upstate New York in 1965, Ess spent the next four years at the University of Michigan where she earned a degree in literature and philosophy. After graduating from college, Ess moved to New York where she spent a year working as an editor at a political magazine called War Peace Reporting. During that same period she became caught up in the burgeoning experimental film scene, which prompted her to enroll at the London School of Film Technique in 1971.

“I wanted to go to film school because I was inspired by the films people like Stan Brakhage and Bruce Conner were making, but I got to film school and they were teaching us how to be gaffers. I thought, ‘To hell with this--I want to make a film!’ So I dropped out and bought a little Super-8 Bolex and started working for the Film Co-op in London.

“My films never had linear narratives and most of them were Structuralist--I see a clear connection between my films and the images I’m making now,” she says. “I used to use stop action a lot--in a sense my films were like animation--and now with my photographs I often feel like I’m trying to condense an entire film into a single image.

“I had no religious upbringing,” she continues, “but during the early ‘70s when I was making films I got into the teachings of Georges Gurdjieff, an Armenian mystic who died in 1949. I was attracted to Gurdjieff because I was looking for something and was having a hard time accepting life in terms of physical reality. It just seemed like there had to be something more--not because I found life so unfair, but because it seemed so boring. I got pretty deeply into Gurdjieff and I found some answers in that philosophy too, but it’s a very puritanical system of belief and I wanted to have more fun, so I drifted away from it.”

Ess’ transition from film to photography began in 1974. “I wanted to travel and film is a very encumbering medium, so I got a Polaroid camera and began traveling and making books that combined snapshots, drawing and text.”

Returning to New York in 1976 after two years on the road in Europe, Ess became involved with the underground music scene that was about to explode there. “I remember when I first plugged in an electric bass just loving the surge of power I felt--it was fantastic,” recalls Ess, who played with several bands during the ‘70s and ‘80s, including Daily Life, the Static, Y Pants, No Shame and Listen to the Animal. “I loved being in bands, but over the years it just evolved that I stopped doing it. I miss playing and writing songs--let’s face it, going to an opening is not too thrilling compared with performing onstage with a band. Still, I wouldn’t want to be doing that now.”

In 1978, Ess met avant-garde composer Glenn Branca when she auditioned for his band Theoretical Girls. She didn’t get in the band, but the two have lived together ever since.

“We fell in love immediately, and he’s been a real important source of inspiration for me. In New York people don’t talk about work, they talk about gossip and careers, and Glenn is the main person I talk to about my work. We get up every day at about 9, have coffee and spend a few hours talking about ideas, then we both go to our studios.”

The same year Ess met Branca she began publishing an occasional underground periodical that’s taken the form of an album of sound pieces by artists, a compilation of writings by artists, and an anthology of photographs by 123 artists. It was also in 1978 that she had her first solo exhibition, at New York’s Franklin Furnace, where she presented “Census,” a photo essay on the people and their apartments in the building where she lived. Shortly after that show she began conducting another survey where she questioned dozens of people about their experiences with the psychological state of ecstasy--a theme central to her work throughout the ‘80s.

It wasn’t until 1983 when she built a pinhole camera based on a diagram published in the New York Times that Ess stumbled across the ideal format for her creative concerns. “It was just right for what I was trying to do,” she recalls. “My camera distorts and I like that--I like distortion in music too because it loosens things up.”

She spent the next three years producing images, working as a typesetter (a job she needed to support herself until 1988 when she began to make enough to live on with her art), showing in group exhibitions, reading (she cites writing by Paul Bowles, Primo Levi, Paul Auster and Louise Erdrich as among her favorite) and “hanging out in my studio hoping things would crystallize in me that I could understand.” In 1986 the Curt Marcus Gallery began handling her work which presently sells for $2,500 to $6,000, and for the past five years she’s exhibited regularly throughout Europe and the U.S.

As to how she sees her art evolving, Ess says “in a sense it never really changes. When I try to get clever I fail, so I stick with the basic issues of human life on earth--sex, death, relationships, discovering who you are, being hurt and confused. My last show explored the ambivalence I feel towards domesticity. We all want the comfort domesticity provides, yet it’s claustrophobic. When I was growing up I can remember observing couples who were always having private little dialogues and they wouldn’t let you in--domestic intimacy is a subtle form of exclusion. Everyone builds their fences and they keep it neat on the inside and throw their garbage outside. That body of work involved things like images of fences with decayed roses.

“This new work is about language,” she says, describing the images on view at Michael Kohn, several of which are based on pictures she found in newspapers. “I’ve never appropriated before, and I should point out that this work is not intended as a media critique--I’m not interested in art about art or art about media. Anyhow, I was looking at the New York Times all the time and I started crumpling up the paper and shooting photos of the news photos. By the time I finished this work, newspapers had come to sicken me--they’re so much about guys in suits and disasters, and they’re filled with images that are either horrifically cute, or depict people in pain.

“I was attracted to those images in the paper though, because so much of the behavior you see depicted there seems mechanical and unreflective. I find something so poignant about unawakened life, the people who dutifully go through their life without thought. I’m interested in daily life and believe that the key to the mysteries of existence are there. You don’t have to look to the sky or go to a psychic--our daily life holds all the answers. But it’s hard to recognize them--at least I have a hard time sorting it all out. I wish I knew what I was supposed to be doing having a life on earth,” she concludes with a bewildered, curiously happy sigh.