A New Light
James Deavin: Photographs From The New World
New York City
November 1 – December 9, 2006
From its inception, photography has been a tool of exploration. Following its origin in Europe, the medium radiated outward, bringing back images of far-flung, exotic locales. People were able to enjoy views of ancient ruins, sublime natural vistas, and the goings-on of the cities and people of the entire globe within the comfort of their own home. Through the technology of photography, place became less relevant. To view something, one need not actually be present at the scene. The value of encountering an experience through a photograph will forever be interrogated; however, with James Deavin’s exhibition “Photographs from the New World,” photography enters an era where questions of place, experience, and being are cast in a new light.
“Photographs from the New World” shares the pioneering spirit of the medium’s forebears, but Deavin’s project brings us views of no corner of this world. Instead, Deavin has turned his eye toward the virtual world known as Second Life, a three-dimensional online environment where members can do practically anything. (www.secondlife.com) Meet people, own property, build an amusement park – if it can conceived of, it can be created. While certain aspects of Second Life’s visual environment (most notably colors and textures) are undeniably odd, they show no great divorce from the ways in which we see our “first” life – familiar objects (trees, bridges, homes) still dot the landscape, and the rules of perspective still very much apply. Curious as to why a place where anything was visually possible would look so similar to what we presently inhabit, Deavin took his camera – actually a software tool made by Second Life’s creators Linden Labs, which made files large enough for 50 x 37.5 inch digital C-prints – on an exploration through Second Life.
Viewing the images, one begins to see Second Life as a spatially limitless but largely empty place. While the Second Life Web site claims close to two million inhabitants, only a few figures appear among the images in the exhibition; oddly (or perhaps fittingly) one of them is gazing at what appears to be a large television screen. While Deavin’s previous photographs of the landscape in the “real world” lends a tranquil peace to empty scenes, the effect when transferred to the wide-open spaces of Second Life is that of an eerie, post-apocalyptic world. Instead, Second Life is a world just being born, a place where buildings and other structures can be conjured up quickly, while the migration of users from this life to Second Life will take more time. Deavin considers this in his statement and sees his project as somewhat documentary. He writes: “[P]erhaps one way to understand these photographs is as a piece of Second Life history, markers of a time when people were still viewing the new world through the eyes of the old.”
Deavin’s style is noticeably consistent from world to world: deadpan views of spaces that are simultaneously universal and specific. His eye seeks the odd detail capable of triggering a range of emotional or personal reactions to otherwise mundane scenes: in his terrestrial series “Three Star” we find bits of glittering, multi-colored confetti lying quietly on cheap office carpeting; in “Photographs from the New World” three balloons find themselves tied to a staircase railing in an empty and unremarkable rendition of a Second Life home interior. The forlorn loneliness of objects is certainly not a new photographic theme. However, the effect works no matter which world the image is taken from, interestingly mimicking Deavin’s investigation of the two environments visual similarity.
Given the slick, digital surfaces of much of the Second Life landscape, the leap to considering these images as photographs can be difficult at first, and photographic purists will no doubt leave aghast. Beyond the debates of form and style is the greater significance of this show and its implications for the future of photography. Deavin’s title makes it clear that these are to be considered photographs; and they’re mounted in a gallery whose focus has been primarily contemporary photography. This show takes the position that photographers are moving beyond capturing light in this plane and are moving off into other worlds. Photography and reality have always had an uneasy relationship; with this exhibition the gulf is widened.
Technologies developed at Canon, Kodak, and Nikon, and more recently Epson, Hewlett Packard, and Sony, have always wrought change on the medium, and the ways in which images are made and reproduced is constantly shifting. But the subject before the camera – be it analog or digital – has always been the views and vistas of our primary reality. Now that new worlds are being created via new technologies, artists will enter them and create artworks based on what they encounter. Photography’s journey of exploration has come a long way from horse-drawn wagons laden with glass plates and collodion, but it appears that the trip is not over yet.
This review originally appeared in Afterimage: The Journal of Media Arts and Cultural Criticism, Issue 34.4 (January/February 2007)