by Emile Rubino
After seeing Esther Shalev-Gerz’s first solo exhibition in Canada at the Morris and Helen Belkin Art Gallery (UBC), I thought it would be interesting to take another look at one of the artist’s latest works, The Last Click. Although this work is not part of the Belkin’s show, it seems relevant to a larger discussion currently taking place within the field of contemporary media-based practices, focusing on the transition from analog to digital media—particularly in photographic practices.
The Last Click is the result of a 2010 commission by the Museum for Photography in Brunswick, Germany. The work created by Shalev-Gerz in response to this commission is a multi-media installation composed of 70 colour photographs, a photo album comprised of 13 black-and-white photographs, a video installation, a soundtrack, and 26 wooden boxes and chairs from the Rollei camera factory. As is often the case in the work of Shalev-Gerz, the various components of this installation come together to create a sort of ‘sensible theatre.’
The Last Click was created over two separate instances. During the first, the artist visited the factory of the famous camera brand Rollei, where she set up a Rollei camera on a tripod in various rooms and photographed it, as if the camera was a model posing in front of her own lens. During the second instance, she met with people who wanted to dispose of their analog cameras, inviting each person to talk about their camera, its meaning, its stories, and reflect on the last image it captured.
The video installation includes encounters with the twenty-five people who agreed to participate in her project. Beyond the stories that are being told, we notice the gestures of the individuals and the ways each handles their camera. While the video presents these tactile aspects, the soundtrack being played on the street outside the museum allows us to hear the clicks of each participant’s camera without being able to visually witness its happening. This attention to the clicking noise reminds listeners of one of our most privileged senses used to access memory: sound. Through this dispositive, Shalev-Gerz leads us to consider the ways through which the camera and photography are used to construct memory, not only through the images they create, but also through our relation to these devices as objects that create memory.
Other contemporary photographic works, such as Suzanne Mooney’s Decommissioned Cameras created between 2005 and 2007, resonates interestingly with Esther Shalev’s The Last Click. If the form is more typological and straightforward, and therefore less poetic, the work also deals with the current technological shift happening with photography. In her installation, Mooney collected hundreds of ‘obsolete’ analog cameras that have been traded in by their owners in exchange for new digital devices. The first part of her installation consists of a pile of the collected, decommissioned cameras, emphasizing the way their monetary, sentimental, and use value has dropped. The second part of Mooney’s installation is a room boarded up with white shelves, on which mounted photographs of these decommissioned cameras have been placed as a representation of their past that we are now looking at though the mediation of the photographic image.
In his more traditional photographic essay, photographer Robert Burley is also tackling the technological shift of the medium by trying to record the physical, social, and economic changes that emerge from it. His photographic essay The Disappearance of Darkness is the result of a 10-year-long project documenting the ‘death’ of analog photography throughout the world. Using a large format camera, Robert Burley photographed the interior of emptied out Kodak, Agfa, and Polaroid factories, where photographic film and paper were once manufactured. He also documented the destruction of these factories.
Through these three examples of works by Burley, Mooney, and Shalev-Gerz, we are able to get a better sense of what is at stake in the current shift from analog to digital mediums. Trying to discern whether this shift constitutes a good or bad change is not so much the point. Of greater importance is trying to gain a better understanding of this transition—before it is too late.