Float Photo Review: Acts of Looking by Joseph Podlesnik

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Photographs demand so much of us. They ask that we mortar the cracks between them, stitch meaning into untethered moments, research, interrogate, and understand. But what do we ask of photographs? For some, the weight of the world rests in the silver salt of old family albums or historical documentations. Indeed, the history of the world since the discovery of photographic fixer has largely been a history of image and image making. We invest great meaning into photographs because photographs offer us what existence alone cannot; stability, eternity, and proof of being. But to relegate the role of the camera to that of proof-maker would be to do the medium a great disservice, for as much as photographs are about the act of holding, so too are they about the act of looking. Winogrand put it best when he said, “I photograph to find out what something will look like photographed.”

In his latest monograph, Acts of Looking, Joseph Podlesnik puts photographic vision at the forefront. Created in the harsh desert light of Phoenix and in the subdued suburbs of Milwaukee, Acts of looking is an attentive meditation on form, tone and aesthetics. On the flat surface of his book, Podlesnik translates the three-dimensional space around him into flat and often abstract compositions. These compositions, though rooted in their aesthetics, are ripe with familiar imagery. American flags, storefront displays, stucco buildings, piles of garbage, traffic and trees all compete for the viewer’s attention. The space, overwhelming, is best viewed from a step back. Take it in holistically and you may be delighted to see one of the freshest takes on the mundanity of American surfaces since Stephen Shore.

Speaking of Shore, it useful to note that while the work fits firmly into a tradition of documentary style photographers (think of Robert Adams) it was also created by someone whose own artistic origins fall outside of that tradition. Podlesnik was formally educated in painting and drawing, receiving his MFA from Cornell University. Perhaps this education was advantageous to him, as his images are clearly made with photography’s visual particularities in mind.

Notably embedded within the series are images that repeat a specific typological format. As reflection upon some surface, or as disjointed shadows upon the landscape, the viewer is offered a ghostly vision of the artist himself. His presence, subdued into those flattened compositions, acts to remind the viewer of the photographer’s hand. They are testaments to the presence of the image maker, like fingerprints upon the canvas of a painting. Here, Podlesnik’s presence is projected to remind us that we are perhaps not seeing so much as we are looking. Like a ghost he fades in and out.

Pointed at the world the camera offers us the illusion of looking outward, as though its mirrors are all one way. But of course, this isn’t true. Many lenses go both ways, and all of them project. The question naturally arises ‘what is being projected here?’

I disagree with Podlesnik’s assertion that “any social element in the work, if there is such, is secondary to formal and pictorial concerns.” Or, to clarify, I disagree with the idea that we should not dwell on what exists within Acts of Looking beyond pure aesthetics. The photographer/ghost we are offered is distant, lonely, and anonymous. Often disjointed by surfaces of varied depths, we see someone at once alienated from his surroundings and deeply embedded with them. I would make the claim that this loneliness and alienation is very particular to the social structure of the American landscape that Podlesnik uses to create his compositions, and that ignoring this aspect of the work would be to sell it short.

The act of looking necessarily entails the act of projecting, a reality at the forefront of all of Podlesnik’s compositions. The act of looking is dynamic, sometimes made static by the presence of the camera. The world becomes flat on paper, but these images, in dialogue with each other, with the artist and with the audience, express incredible depth. If you have a chance to get your hands on Acts of Looking be mindful of the works varied dimensions. You may see paintings, carefully crafted compositions, the classic American landscape, or the artist’s powerful hand. If you are lucky you may also catch a glimpse of yourself looking.