Afternoon Dust

Zoe Leonard's Observation Point

I was introduced to the work of artist/photographer Zoe Leonard by Dr. Sophie Berrebei in a recent lecture, and was persuaded to schedule a visit to Camden Arts Centre in London to see Leonard’s current show Observation Point. While the lecture was based mainly on the earlier work Analogue (about which Berrebei has written an informative article in a recent issue of AfterAll), the work on display in London is more recent, and includes the conversion of one of the Centre’s galleries into a camera obscura. Other works on show include You See, I Am Here After All (2008), a collection of postcards depicting the Niagara Falls, and a series of photographs of the sun taken in 2011.

Leonard has titled the camera obscura in Gallery Three Arkwright Road. The plate-sized lens in the window of the otherwise darkened room projects an inverted image onto the floor, wall, and ceiling of the adjacent Finchley Road – the installation is named after the address of the arts centre, of the observation point, not after the location depicted. Trees billow in the wind; cars, buses, cyclists and pedestrians all traverse the ‘frame’ in an undirected choreography of movement. Photographic in appearance, the image nonetheless remains unfixed – a continuous flow with space for countless views (and viewers).

There are small stacks of postcards arranged on a table in Gallery Two. They all show photographs of the Niagara Falls, and differ in age, vantage point, and stack height. Some of the stacks are grouped according to location (Horseshoe Falls, Rock of Ages, Luna Island, etc.), some according to the formal properties of the image itself. A system of classification or ordering normally has a single defining set of criteria, into which all the items to be classified are integrated. But this system has two competing ones, and they correspond to two of photography’s privileged ideals, realism and formalism, that historically have also competed with one another. Without a single overarching viewpoint, the system of classification collapses, failing to form a coherent whole.

In Gallery One, photographs of the sun are pinned to the wall. Like the other two galleries, the room is lit only by natural light, so in a sense the sun is here illuminating its own image. But this is an illumination that changes according to weather conditions and the position of the sun in the sky (i.e. the time of day). And so the images change too – the exact shade of the grey haze, the contrast between it and the luminous white ball of the sun, the specks of lens flare, the dark surrounding frame. The photographic stills appear in a time-based frame of meteorological events – appear and appear again, each time different. What is seen depends on when it is seen.

If power relies on knowledge, and knowledge in turn depends on fixed categories and fixed images, then clearly there is a whole lot of disempowering going on in Observation Point. Specifically, the hegemonic impulse of photography – to survey and record colonised lands, to regulate and control others through possession of their image, to produce and sustain economies of desire – in short, to capture – is undermined through photographic means. There is nothing to hold onto here, nothing to possess; whatever presents itself in the moment of experience quickly turns and slips away, or fractures systems of comprehension in two. A reduction of the world to an ephemeral stream of individual percepts? No. The materiality of sunlight and collected postcards play counterweight to a history of the photographic image written by one with his finger always on the shutter release. Not a frozen moment, but a continuous signal. Stream as a counterpoint to snap.


Observation Point runs at the Camden Arts Centre until 24th June.

‘A Continuous Signal’ is the title of an essay by Leonard in her book Analogue (2007, MIT Press), which she took from a dictionary definition of the book’s title.

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