Filmmaking and video production are probably the only mediums that require more gear to produce a final project than photography. The tools and techniques of the photographic process influence how practitioners explore new ideas just as much as new ideas and academic theories unveil the ever-expanding understanding of photography and its uses. There has always been a certain amount of sweat equity involved with the making of photographs which many practitioners wear like a badge of honor. The hardships endured by photographers like Carlton Watkins-in his portable horsedrawn darkroom filled with glass plate negatives, roaming the virgin west and inhaling mercury fumes in pursuit of the perfect picture-resonate with those photographers who have mastered complex printing techniques or reveled in the small success of correctly threading a roll of 35mm film onto a stainless steel reel in total darkness. Even Polaroid film and Andy Warhol's proclamation that "Photography is easy, you just press the button and a picture comes out" wouldn't stop photographers from inventing or exploring increasingly complex strategies in order to make a picture. Gear and gadgets are an integral part of contemporary photographic practices, from Gregory Crewdson's elaborate cinematic productions to the legions of street photographers fly fishing for pictures down Fifth Avenue with their multi-pocketed vests and cumbersome camera bags. For some photographers gear and gadgets are a passion, for others they are a nuisance, but for everyone involved in the medium the tools must be negotiated by interest or indifference one way or another.
Even artists who choose to borrow photographs from other sources must still negotiate some aspects of the technology of the medium. Zoë Sheehan Saldaña begins her process of picture making with the simple practice of downloading pictures from the Internet, but by the time she has produced a finished work of art she has expended nearly as much labor as Carlton Watkins on his best day. The pictures that Sheehan Saldaña pulls off the Internet are portraits that look like they might have come from a high school yearbook. Sheehan Saldaña removes bits of information from these already low resolution pictures and then passes the remaining information from her computer to a sewing machine that stitches the image onto canvas. This is a time consuming process that she must interrupt often to change the color of the thread for every shift in tone and texture she wants to achieve in the final picture. The final cross-stitched pictures are presented in circular Formica and plywood frames. Working every day during her month long residency at Light Work from June 15 to July 15, 2001, she was able to complete the sewing of six new pieces. The process of transforming the portraits from low-resolution Internet pictures to coarse cross-stitched images on canvas doesn't prevent us from recognizing the images and almost being able to read them as if they were familiar faces from our past. Sheehan Saldana has done nearly everything she could to obscure the information in the pictures but these efforts cannot overpower the ability of photography to represent and reveal identity with the familiarity that can be both anonymous and specific.
After completing each picture Sheehan Saldaña arranges groups of them to suggest a common relationship. In the group of pictures reproduced here it is not hard to imagine they are all part of the same high school freshman class. The classic school portrait framing where each sitter smiles softly while gazing slightly off center of the camera's lens is as familiar as our own reflection in the mirror. We instantly understand the circumstances under which the portraits were made and usually have a good laugh when we look back at our own portrait made under the same circumstances. Except for a few short years when our parents sent these portraits to friends and relatives it seems that they function best as comparisons on how far we have come and how much we have changed.
These powerful emotions and memories run through Sheehan Saldaña's portraits, and her complex and creative efforts to obscure the specific identity of the people in her pictures clarifies the difficult and universal struggle to gain insight into who we are and how we will be remembered.
Jeffrey Hoone 2002
A universal definition for photography is as elusive today as it was at the moment the medium was invented. Art, science, commerce, and government have all claimed photography in an effort to pin it down for their own purposes. But the medium will have none of that. Try and pin it down, and it continues to move into the future. What we think about photography today will not be what we know about photography tomorrow.
Photography is a medium of change. The photographic image is something to be admired, copied, manipulated, cherished, studied, and rethought. In the late 1970s and early 1980s when artists including Cindy Sherman, James Casebere, Sarah Charlesworth, James Welling, and others allowed us to think of photographs as more than merely evidence of things seen but representations of experience known and imagined, photography took a turn that has divided, stimulated, and confounded photographers, artists, curators, and the general public.
Zoë Sheehan Saldaña embraces the changeable and pliable nature of photography and for the past several years has explored these qualities of the medium at the intersection of high and low tech. The exhibition “Meanwhile” and its catalogue include a range of work made over the past several years that explore how just the idea of a photographic image can be a gateway to new perception—and she states her case by barely clicking the shutter.
Her source materials range from photographs of missing children and images of dangerous places and perilous occupations she finds on the Internet, to common consumer packaging including the lowly paper bag. What ties these seemingly disparate subjects together is that Sheehan Saldaña sees photographic meaning as indestructible because it has entered our lives at nearly every intersection and is no longer just a representation of the real but a currency of experience, description, and interpretation.
In the earliest work in the exhibition Sheehan Saldaña converts appropriated photographs into images that are cross-stitched onto linen with the aid of a computer and sophisticated sewing machine. Despite the use of high tech tools each image takes hours to construct through a painstaking process that involves changing thread for each different color to create a likeness of the original photographic image. In many of her cross-stitched images not every surface is covered with thread, leaving holes in our field of vision that we quickly fill with our trusted familiarity of photography, even when we are confused by what we think we see.
Sheehan Saldaña plays with this trust and familiarity at extraordinary lengths in her tapestry “America’s Most Dangerous Intersection.” The tapestry measures 72 x 100” and was created by master weavers in Mexico from a single photograph she captured off the Internet. The photograph was enlarged to such an extent that each pixel of information in the image became a one-inch square of color in the tapestry that took nearly five months to complete.
A detail of the tapestry reproduced on the cover of the catalogue shows traditional weaving techniques which were in use long before the invention of photography. Yet when the tapestry is viewed in its entirety from a distance, we can recognize the remains of the image’s photographic evidence through the haze of history and its own abstraction.
For Sheehan Saldaña the information the tapestry communicates is a demonstration that photography is a language complete with shorthand, punctuation, and even grunts that we can readily understand and recognize despite tools or techniques employed to disguise the original image however it was produced.
Sheehan Saldaña chose the title of the exhibition, “Meanwhile,” to allude to this phenomenon in a sly but subtle manner. The title refers to the expression “meanwhile” in movies and cartoons as in, “Meanwhile back at the ranch” to let us know that something is always brewing away from the main action. For her purposes what is brewing away from the main action of photography is another way to consider something, or maybe everything we think we already understand.
She applies this question subtly and sardonically in the series “Shopdropping at Wal-Mart.” To begin the series she purchased a few items of clothes, in her size, from the local Wal-Mart near her rustic summer residence in rural Vermont. Back in her studio she duplicated each item by hand, matching pattern, fabric, and embellishments. She then photographed the duplicate and returned it along with the labels and price tag from the original to the rack in Wal-Mart for potential sale.
In the gallery the original purchased item is displayed on a hanger on the gallery wall and a photograph of the duplicate item is mounted next to the original. Meanwhile—as you try to wrap your brain around the concept and execution of this series—some unsuspecting petite shopper in rural Vermont is walking around in a custom-made pair of Capri pants that she purchased for $9.87, an unintentional partner in Sheehan Saldaña’s examination of the use and meaning of photography and in her observation of our consumer habits.
Reproduction, repetition, and our understanding of what is real are both the subject matter and object of suspicion in Sheehan Saldaña’s work. Whether that work is done by machine, by colored pencil and ink, by postings on the Internet, or through the lens of the camera, she shows us that photography is a language for exploding and questioning our perception—not just a medium for describing what we can see through the rigid frames of mirrors and windows.
Jeffrey Hoone ©2005
Zoë Sheehan Saldaña lives in New York City and participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program from June 15 to July 15, 2001.