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Gallery ABBA opens “What is Space For?” photography exhibit

Gallery ABBA/Grace Gerloff

Gallery ABBA/Grace Gerloff

On Friday Oct. 7 — the last day of classes before break — Gallery ABBA held an opening reception for the photography of Beloit alum Jim Schaefer’70. The week leading up to the reception was a homecoming of sorts for Schaefer, who hosted a variety of events on campus, ranging from a discussion of graduate school to a sunrise photo shoot.

Schaefer’s relationship with photography is a complex one. He tried to make it as a photographer for nine years, from 1970 to 1979, before deciding that photography wasn’t working for him financially or artistically. He decided to “put the cameras in the closet and went to graduate school in theater.” It wasn’t until 2000 — after being inspired by a more authentic, “unofficial” vision of Washington D.C.’s national monuments — that Schaefer felt compelled to revisit photography.

This lack of continuity in Schaefer’s photography was reflected in Gallery Abba’s exhibition of his work, and created a visual experience that was both compelling and frustrating. Though the photographer’s central themes — urban landscapes, and usage of time and space — remained the same, much of his work felt disjointed, and without Schaefer there to explain his work, it was not always clear how his photography related to the show’s title, “What is Space For?”

Schaefer told me that the exhibit’s title comes from a sentence in a book by French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard. He has the passage memorized: “In its countless alveoli,” he recited, “space contains compressed time. That is what space is for.”

Schaefer admits that when he first read this in 1976 he had no idea what it meant. Its concern with space and time however was mirrored in his own photography, which seeks to display their relationship through a variety of methods.

Much in the same way Schaefer was confused by what Bachelard’s pedantic statement hoped to express, I was frequently confused by the purpose of some of Schaefer’s photography. Take for example the largest of his displayed photographs, a landscape of a busy intersection in New York City. To an untrained eye, the landscape is most notable for its incredibly high resolution, which makes the bright yellows and greens of the picture seem almost fake. Schaefer took the time to explain the picture to me however, and I learned that the photo is actually an overlapping and merging of four different photos — a highly subtle collage if you will. A five minute period is made to look like a snapshot. Schaefer describes this as “compressing time.” Though it appears that two men with green shirts were walking past each other at the same time, they were actually present at the depicted intersection at totally different moments.

Such a technique is inventive and laudable, but without an explanatory note beside the photo, or a discussion with the photographer, it’s impossible for a viewer to pick up on what Schaefer is doing. This is somewhat like a chef displaying an unsliced turducken and not telling anyone what it is. Without any context, the viewer has no idea that the turkey is stuffed with a duck and a chicken, and can’t be blamed for being underwhelmed. Only the chef (or in Schaefer’s case, the photographer) knows the time and expertise that went into the process.

Though this bothered me, it doesn’t bother the photographer.

“If they just look at it,” he said, “and it looks like a snapshot of real time, that’s fine with me because we mess with time all the time.” He compared this effect to the process of seeing a play or a film and forgetting where you are or what time it is, and emerging back into outside world, only to be shocked that afternoon has become night.

Schaefer’s most successful work was his least technically and theoretically complex. Schaefer revisited some of the pictures he took of houses in his time at Beloit, taking photos from the same perspective years later. Displayed side by side, one could see the sometimes subtle, sometimes dramatic changes to the house’s exteriors and front yards. The effect was simple but moving. Though I came away from the opening feeling that it occasionally left something to be desired, I have to admit that it succeeded in inducing a contemplation of time as an abstract yet powerful force.

For those with a passion for technically inventive photography, explorations of time, or simply a fondness for nicely photographed buildings, Schaefer’s work is still being displayed at Gallery Abba, and will remain there until Nov. 2.

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