Picture Perfect: Cassandra C. Jones and the Art of Useless Photography
Chas Bowie reflects on digital reproduction, our "post-photographic" society and the work of Cassandra C. Jones at the Feldman Gallery.
“The world now contains more photographs than bricks…”
–John Szarkowski, 1976
At some irreducible point during the past 34 years, John Szarkowski’s nifty statistic about bricks and photographs began to sound more anachronistic than magnificent. While the late curator never shared the algorithm responsible for his pronouncement, it is inconceivable that even the ministers of information at Google Labs could begin to tally the number of earthly photographs today. (The first challenge would surely be to define a quantifiable “photograph.” Physical prints comprise a smaller slice of the picture-pie than at any point in history, while digital images can self-replicate simply by opening a website in two different windows.)
Although Szarkowski’s tabulation was bandied about with some regularity in the subsequent decades, people tended to overlook the second half of his statement. The impressive point for Szarkowski was not that snapshots had come to outnumber stackable ceramic slabs, but that the photographs “are, astonishingly, all different.”
Enter the work of Cassandra C. Jones.
Bland, inconsequential, and essentially indistinguishable photographs comprise the raw material of Jones’ mesmerizing montages. The Brooklyn- and Ojai, California-based artist culls her banal source imagery from the internet to create discreet collages that underscore the numbing ubiquity of photographs in the age of digital reproduction.
Exotic wildlife, for example, is abstracted and multiplied until it literally becomes wallpaper in Jones’ stylized Rare Avis. Kaleidoscopic and pulsating, the installation was inspired by the derivative homogeneity of virtually every flamingo photograph the artist encountered, which perhaps not coincidentally mimicked the profile form of plastic lawn flamingos. “Is it possible that an item of now historical kitsch might influence the picture taking of the real, live thing?” Jones wonders. “After all, Americans are much more familiar with the nature of the stylized, florescent version, than the actual bird itself.”
In addition to her static collages, the artist also reconfigures her appropriated visual clichés in videos she calls Snap Motion Animations. Twelve photographs of galloping horses seem to trot across the screen in the looping sequence, After Muybridge. Paying whimsical homage to Eadweard Muybridge’s pre-cinematic motion studies, Jones reproduces the effect of “moving pictures,” despite her use of twelve differently colored horses in disparate settings.
The specific features of each horse are wholly unimportant, not only to the general consumers of stock photographs, but also to our visual receptors, which process and warehouse the flashing images in mental files of synonymous, interchangeable horse pictures.
Jones’ working method has obvious parallels in DJ culture, and by extension, cut-and-paste artists like Christian Marclay. Her studied exhumation of anonymous, amateur, and stock photography, however, connects Jones’ projects to artist-curated publications such as Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence of 1977 and Erik Kessels’ contemporary book series, Useful Photography. Less overtly political than the appropriators of the so-called Pictures Generation, these artists draw our attention to the empty pictorial shells and crudely wired networks that make up our “post-photographic” society.
Technically, Szarkowski was accurate in his observation that every photograph is different, but like so many indistinguishable red bricks in the contemporary visual field, their minute variations rarely astonish.