Zoe Leonard at Camden Art Centre
Review by Rowan Lear
The room is dimly lit with projected daylight, sounds from the busy street fade into the background, and after a minute, the space begins to feel completely detached from the world outside. The term ‘camera obscura’ comes from the Latin for ‘darkened chamber’, and Zoe Leonard’s giant installation is exactly that. The lens installed in Camden Art Centre’s gallery projects an upside-down Finchley Road onto the entire back wall. The street scene outside becomes a meditative visual spectacle, albeit one that is difficult to discern.
The paradox of the camera obscura - familiar to those who use pinhole cameras - is that the smaller the hole that lets light in, the sharper, but also darker, the projected image is. The larger the hole, the less focussed, but brighter the image. The camera obscura has relied on optics to ensure a balance of clarity and light, from its use in the fifteenth century as a drawing aid to the development of the photographic camera in the nineteenth century. But the lens also corrects the image according to pictorial convention: the natural phenomenon becomes a cultural process and a constructed way of seeing. In reflection of this, Leonard’s camera obscura does not provide the accuracy, brightness and clarity of vision that the invention of photography promised. This is a different kind of image: one that is sullen, dim and indistinct.
Leonard draws on found materials to explore similar ideas in ‘You See I Am Here After All’ (2008) where thousands of collected postcards of Niagara Falls are stacked in order of the view that they perpetuate. If one were to imagine the Falls, the mental image would almost certainly match one of this limited number of perspectives. The title, taken from text found on the back on one of the postcards, is gently mocking. The photographic image is so often utilized as a kind of proof - of our leisure activities, attendance at events and visits to exotic places. Meanwhile, lived experience is shaped and supplanted by the production of these records.
From photographic seeing and photographic objects, Leonard turns her attention to the act of photographing itself. In a new series, ‘Sun Photographs’ (2011-2012), the medium is pushed to its limit. Dogged attempts to make photographs of the sun result in nebulous, unclear black and white photographs. Only the captioning of date and frame number, and a radial gradient of light and shadow, indicate that there is anything being captured at all.
The two small postcards after which the exhibition is named deliver a final, wry warning. They depict the stone structures built beside Niagara Falls to indicate to visitors where the best view could be seen, complete with a jaunty ‘Observation Point’ sign. Not only do they frame the view and determine how the Falls should be seen, the stone walls also enclose the viewer in a small, dark space. The chamber that permits them to see also separates them from the view itself.
By taking photography to the edge, obscuring the image and deconstructing vision, Leonard exposes a particular mediation of reality. And in the fleeting moment that our vision blurs, it is painfully clear that photography has come between us and our experience of the world.