Library of Dust

9 February 2009

This extraordinary image is from photographer David Maisel’s latest project, Library of Dust, in which he photographed canisters containing the unclaimed ashes of patients who died at an Oregon mental institution over the course of nearly a century. This project is interesting to me in the way that the photos abstract the subject matter away from death and the accompanying emotions. On first look, the corrosion of the canisters is simply beautiful, and could be anything from a coral formation to a mineral deposit. Then the revelation of what they represent transforms the viewer’s experience of them into a deeply emotional one that is by turns empathic but also horrifying.

While with my thesis project, Aesthetics of Joy, I am looking at aesthetics as a support for the emotional experience, here the emotional experience is belied by the visceral one.

Urban abstraction

4 October 2008

The urban environment – particularly New York City – provides ample opportunity to view a landscape pared down to the basic formal elements of line, plane, color, and negative space. It was a striking observation that photographer Randy West made of the horizontal blocks of the city’s gridded streets – that in the dimming light of dusk, this abstraction comes to the forefront. With the forms of skyscrapers silhouetted in in black, the power of the terrain in fact becomes inverted, and the negative shape of the sky takes on a new prominence. New York Times writer Bonnie Yochelson points out that these take on the shapes of “upside-down skyscrapers” which is a beautiful way of calling attention to the powerful presence of  negative space, particularly in our cityscape, which is so assertive in its verticality. It’s also an interesting statement, though, because it reveals our difficulty with processing the idea of negative volume; in fact, we rarely talk about space without talking about ways to fill it – either with physical matter, or with meaning.

This topic has me in its thrall this year because I’m taking a two-part series of courses in Space Analysis. At Pratt, there is phenomenal emphasis on form, such that two semesters of hands-on work in abstract design (or as we call it, 3D) is required for every student in the ID department. After a year of focusing on form, it is a true challenge to train your eye to notice negative volume, which we often think of as invisible, and a void. But by definition, shaping form also means shaping space, and our reactions to the space may be just as powerful but much more difficult to access and verbalize. I love these photos as very immediate reminder of the presence of negative space in our lives, and the way in change our perspective on the world.