Drawing on his background in painting and reprographic photography, Eric Shows makes pictures with a variety of approaches, including using broken cameras, improvised models, and an additive color process that often approaches or exceeds the limits of his camera’s sensor. His practice is often a performative meditation on the relationship between the captured image and the embodied experience of the objects or events captured. Our shared interest in the history of images programming our world and opportunities to reprogram those images set the stage for this conversation.
Zach Nader: I’d like to start with some details and then zoom out to your larger practice, thoughts on photographic vision, and your transition from what I’ll call a human inkjet printer, or painter, to a more black box approach that is camera-centric. How do you approach building and lighting the models you photograph? Both the objects and the additive color process you employ suggest a strong influence from the history of painting and an interest in the limits of translation.
Eric Shows: The construction techniques for the models are inspired by experiences I’ve had in team problem solving exercises with a time limit. I like the restraints of a limited budget and materials that are close at hand or easy for most people to acquire. I like the sense of urgency from that context and the need to work with what’s available to arrive at a solution, especially if it’s not quite the right tool for the job.
The lighting process is where I draw influence from the history of painting. The models are constructed in materials that function chromatically as a Grisaille underpainting – everything is white, grey, black, or clear. I apply color to this armature with an LED system I built that allows me to use narrow slices of the color spectrum with point source output much like an additive version of a painter’s palette.
If I’m interested in the limits of translation, it’s due to an interest in the limits of description. I like art, music, and literature that is desperate to describe as much detail in a scene as possible to bring back the fullest experience from that moment, even if imagined. My interest in painting tends to lean toward the photographic for this reason, either in the rendering of fine detail or by providing the viewer with a representational experience that can be continuously uncovered with each viewing. I take pleasure in constructing models with multiple levels of intricate detail and opt to re-experience their construction by coating the details by hand in paint when complete. This results in an effort to meet the camera halfway by anticipating its level of description and embedding my own re-experience in the final image.
ZN: You’ve mentioned that you consider these to be figurative works that identify the body as a porous surface. Could you elaborate on how you locate a figure in these pictures and what, if any, relationship between body and screen is at play in your practice?
ES: The repetition at play in the pattern or grid, the photographic image, and the experience of recognizing another person or the self (the figure) have led me to conflate the three in a process of distillation over time. The subject of these pictures can take the form of a repeating grid, but the newest pictures are more informed by organic growth or patterns of decay. The source structures range from weathered sandstone to microscopic bone structure to crystal formation to grey matter to vector files from Grid Index. As the models for the photographs are constructed, the hand is crucial in the process. It is important to me to leave impressions, to touch the entire surface, and to introduce a layer of unpredictability by coating the model in paint or light or both. To me the body is not only something that interacts with the screen, but is also itself a patterned and porous screen that allows the vapor of the self to exist simultaneously inside and out. In the process of identifying the body with the screen, I’m looking to explore the nature of our bodies and illuminate the information that flows through us, the direction from which it came, and the possible futures beyond.
ZN: Let’s talk about the importance of using light to approach the edge of what your camera sensor can visualize. And why it is important for you to actively make your interventions in conjunction with the camera rather than in post-production?
ES: I’ve taken the boundaries I draw with regards to post-production from my work in cultural heritage imaging. When photographing a book or manuscript or map for preservation and access purposes, the goal is to document the object with as much detail and accuracy as possible. The highest complement the photographer can pay to that object is to provide an experience as close to an actual encounter with the object as possible while leaving little to no evidence of the imaging itself visible in the final shot. Imposing the limit on post-production helps me to concentrate on this level of description and life-likeness.
When photographing a book or manuscript, the lighting used is designed to mimic the visible range of the sun’s spectrum to represent the color of the object as accurately as possible. My photographs aren’t burdened by the weight of an original, but instead deal with a model or concept with multiple layers of experience. Absent that burden, I’ve chosen to jettison the idea of an objective or ideal light source in favor of additive color. The models themselves are constructed or painted in greyscale and any color information is added in the lighting process. The photographs serve to capture the performance or event of light and color application. I need the camera to provide the document of that event, but I’m interested in bumping up against the limits of what the sensor can handle because camera sensors are manufactured and calibrated with a bias toward complete spectrum, ideal daylight conditions.
ZN: Your Camera Error images also touch upon the limits of photographic vision and the ability to reprogram an apparatus. These are strange images: they are pleasant to view, lacking any apparent outside referent or influence, and offer up an incredible amount of largely inscrutable information to the viewer. What are these images pointing towards?
ES: I think of these images as camera self-portraits. I arrived at these images by accident after working with a camera with an electrical issue. After attempting to troubleshoot and return the camera to expected working order with no success, I realized the architecture of the sensor wafer quadrants was clearly visible in each image and I had been imaging the camera’s sensor over and over again. After realizing that the images responded to different light sources, I removed the back from the camera and began to manipulate the images by varying the angle and intensity of the light hitting the sensor. On one level, the images function as pleasant abstract paintings that appear to deny outside influence. On another level, we’re provided with a visualization of the camera’s internal processes. And on yet another level, we’re afforded the opportunity to begin thinking through the issues that arise when the camera also identifies with the screen or the porous surface. I found these images compelling due to the intersection revealed between my process in the studio and the machine’s version of self-imaging.
ZN: You spent a significant part of your early career making paintings with an airbrush. And your day job centers on the digitization of documents and providing that data to the public. I’m curious about your journey up to this point and how you describe your relationship to photography.
ES: I started using an airbrush while making a series of abstract paintings on the wall of my studio that I would photograph when finished and then paint over in order to start again. I needed the airbrush to create continuous lines over rough and broken surfaces in the wall. Eventually I became adept at using the airbrush and challenged myself to copy a photograph onto a large, rolling chalkboard. In all, I’ve spent many years cultivating a skill set that leaves me able to render with near photographic accuracy just about any subject with just about any material, which is a bit of a strange, anachronistic skill at this point and is of neutral value in and of itself. The important aspect for me in that process was the meditative space that allowed me to study and re-experience every detail of the photograph image that I set out to copy. The act of copying also provides an interesting challenge to the notion of originality as many have already noted, but it’s an especially perverse thing to paint a copy of a photograph in the 21st century.
My work with the public library also involves copying a subject with photographic accuracy, though the end goal is quite different. New York Public Library owns more objects than can be conceivably digitized in one lifetime. Given that, the teams I work with are prioritizing the most important data from the library’s collections to make accessible online. Our lab photographs the objects that hold this data at extremely high-resolution and color-accuracy. When our photographic surrogates go online a funny set of things happens. In my estimation, the original loses some of its supremacy in the world if the information within it can be successfully transmitted through the image of the thing and our notion of who we serve as a public must necessarily change to suit. Contradictorily, in-person requests for access to recently digitized material tend to increase in special collections reading rooms at the library when an image of an object goes online. I’m quite interested in this set of contradictory effects.
My relationship to photography has been purely practical up to this point. I needed photographs to paint and I needed to learn how to take good photographs in order to responsibly share information stored in the library with scholars and researchers. I never studied photography formally and my eyes glaze over whenever I encounter a group of photographers talking about the good old days and their favorite film stock. However, as the camera and the Internet continue to coevolve, I grow more and more interested in this tool that can program new worlds with the images it produces.
ZN: That’s where I see some tension start to emerge: this interest in an acceleration of programming through images in conjunction with a much slower, older painterly tradition. The color palette in An Ice Molecule for the Imaging Problem is borrowed from [Frederic Edwin] Church’s Icebergs, the Camera Error images are easy to confuse with abstract paintings, and I know there are other links you make to various historical paintings. Why conflate the timeline in this way?
ES: There is definitely a tension between the hand-painted image and the networked photograph, but I find it productive to ask the two traditions to talk to one another. My photographs acknowledge the history of image-making, much of which happened through painting, while at the same time asking how a historical task could be accomplished differently now. What if Frederic Edwin Church had found his sense of the sublime in the infinitesimally small instead of the outrageously large – the structure of the ice molecule itself instead of the iceberg? This, of course, remains a problem for imaging, so imagining or modeling the outcome seems appropriate. Or, what happens when a camera takes a picture of its own sense apparatus and we’re left with what appears to be an abstract painting? What does this mean when abstraction is a relatively new development in image-making and inseparable from the invention of photography? My goal is to describe the intersection between these traditions and learn through that intersection about the moment we’re currently living.
ZN: We should talk about resolution and resolving power and what you learned from painting closely from a source image on a computer screen. How does that work influence your thoughts on visibility and the descriptive possibilities of light?
ES: My first meaningful encounter with a resolution limit occurred when attempting to make photorealist paintings by displaying the source image on a computer screen while working on large canvases from low-res images on screen. I found a feasible working method by blowing my images up well past 100% but keeping the computer physically far away enough from me while I was working so that I wasn’t distracted by the images breaking apart at that magnification. Instead of the old sign painter’s technique of scaling up by grid, I was able to work from a scaled up image using the computer. This has come back around now that I have access to photographic equipment that can resolve an image in pixels at a sampling frequency that approaches that of an optical limit. I work to exploit that limit as much as possible now by feeding the camera information that is right on the edge of its ability to resolve. I think I may be trying to replicate that feeling of being in closer on an image than what can be seen at 100%, to provide that feeling of seeing more information than is actually available. I have always sought out work that draws me in from far away and offers more information upon closer inspection.
I also learned a lot about the relationship between light and color by displaying a source image on a computer screen while working on photorealist paintings. The difference between additive and subtractive color became quite clear rather quickly when attempting to match the vibrance of an on-screen electric blue with acrylic paint on canvas. The result was inevitably underwhelming. The lack of presence I felt at the time in the subtractive system led me to work with light directly, first as a vibrant source material for paintings, then as self-contained installations, then as a process of modeling for photographs. I tend to go back and forth more fluidly now and, as with other relational systems in my work, attempt to find the interesting space where the two reach toward one another. Light is often the primary subject in each of these idioms in my work and I’ve found by working with my LED system that a point source light is capable of revealing more detail in a surface or object than can be seen with the unaided eye. A point source light bounced off a sheet of reflective surface can reveal and magnify minute variations and imperfections in the surface that otherwise may have been invisible.
ZN: Last one – what occupies your time these days?
ES: I’ve been working on models for some new photographs and specifically looking for ways to make the figurative aspect more explicit. I’m really interested in Karen Barad’s intra-activity concept at the moment and would like to apply it to the framing of a photograph. I’m already predisposed to making photographs that pose as self-contained worlds, but I’d like to push this further and aim to make a photograph that can communicate the impossibility of a world or event beyond nature. This has led into some new ideas for videos as well. Of course, if you stepped into my studio at the moment, you’d be forgiven for thinking that I was working on a light installation. So, that’s something that may pop up somewhere in the near future. Also, as you might imagine, cultural heritage imaging is a rapidly expanding field with an ever-increasing desire from patrons and collection owners to get as much valuable information up on the web as possible. I’m in the middle of planning for a massive expansion to NYPL’s digitization program to fill this need.
Eric Shows is an artist, curator, reading group organizer, and imaging professional. He has recently exhibited and screened at Spring/Break at Moynihan Station, Microscope Gallery, BRIC House, and SUNY Potsdam. Shows oversees Digital Imaging for NYPL Labs and is co-editor of useful pictures, a picture-oriented online and curatorial platform. Originally from Dallas, TX, Shows lives and works in Brooklyn, NY.
Zach Nader is a Brooklyn-based artist originally from Dallas, Texas. His reworking of existing photographic imagery has been exhibited nationally and internationally, including a month-long nightly video installation on 23 advertisement billboards as part of Midnight Moment in New York’s Times Square. Nader is co-editor of useful pictures and is represented by Microscope Gallery in Brooklyn, NY.
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