19 February 1998 - 28 March 1998
Opening Reception 19 February 1998 8pm
Accident-Prone, a new series of photographs by Nancy Davenport, offers a meditation contingency and the tragi-comic compulsion to create order in the face of random events. In each of the fifteen silver print landscape photographs, a character is about to suffer a fatal misfortune, be it a dreadful fall from a cliff, an attack by a wild animal, or a boulder dropping towards the head. Davenport’s images recall the romantic landscape tradition of nineteen century artists such as Casper David Friedrich, Yet whereas that tradition grants the spectator a sense of absorptive repose and visual mastery, the impeding mishaps of Accident Prone produce a sense of anxiety and uncanny humor.
Fictional biographies of the character whose demise we are about to witness accompany the image as captions, functioning as a kind of disembodies voice-over. Rather than offer a full biographical account of these unfortunate victims of entropic destruction, the appended texts use a dry documentary style reminiscent of statistical studies or psychological case histories, so that what remains reads like and enigmatic obituary. In this exhibition’s catalogue essay, George Baker writes that these textual fragments
…elaborate various narratives, their temporal unfolding during the process of reading clashing with the extreme intensity, the frozen, immediate stillness of the photographic image above. They attempt, too, to anchor each image-or perhaps to enact the parody of that anchoring-presenting us with information that the mute image cannot provide, submitting each subject to the discourse of numbers, identifying features, and categorization that Davenports series seems everywhere to court.
In the light of this last encounter, perhaps the bewildering scene imaged forth in each photograph-the stop-action gap before literal catastrophe, the repeated experience of free fall–must be read as a particular enactment of the photograph’s capacity to hold out against both category and caption, against both the movement toward generalization and the immobilizing desire for semiotic anchoring.
It is as if whatever wonder these manipulated images do provoke, leads on, at the same time, to a knowledge beyond–but conveyed by – their initial capacity to shock. In this light, Nancy Davenport’s entire Accident Prone series might best be read as a subtle meditation upon, even an allegorization of, the medium and properties of photography itself.
Not of its essence, nor its ontology – the photograph has none -but of its capacity to escape precisely this prison house, of its ability to image forth less the contingency of the catastrophe, but the absolute catastrophe of the contingent, the particular, the unsystematizable. In doing so, in enacting a series of catastrophic encounters and falls on a level beyond that of the mere image, Accident Prone presents us with an allegorization of photography as Roland Barthes once proposed to study it: an allegory of photography confronted as a WOUND.