On the Desperate Edge of Now: Heather Cantrell

Part of an in-progress writing series related to an upcoming exhibition,
On the Desperate Edge of Now, that looks at historical trauma and collective cultural memory in horror film and contemporary artists. These writings will eventually be published in volume four of Incognitum Hactenus and as exhibition catalogue. See previous post on Folkert de Jong here .

Founding-Fathers(Ivo)Los Angeles artist Heather Cantrell uses portrait photography as a means to construct and, ultimately, deconstruct singular and collective identity. Performative elements of her subjects as well as theatrical backgrounds function very much like a movie set in which the actions of her “characters” become exaggerated, solidified in an ever-static moment of the past.

In the very personal Corpus Battaglia (2004), Heather Cantrell set a cultural and personal stage as she identifies her familial history with the haunted battlegrounds of the American Civil War. The title itself references the “body” and “battle” and, presumably, the profound influence that one can have upon the other. As a photographic series, Corpus Battaglia entangles (our) national and (her) personal trauma by conflating public and private histories of the American South: the mausoleum-still landscapes of the Gettysburg, Antietam, and Valley Forge battlefields along with the iconic portrait assembly of the artist’s own southern “fore-fathers” (her mother’s four previous husbands).

Yankee-Bullet-HoleHere, the still landscapes of Civil War battlefields resonate with America’s collective past, now hauntingly placid tableaus but once the site of bloody horror, while the images of war memorials imbue trauma as remembrance. The Civil War, pitting family against family with cultural and political values at stake, lead to the formation of the United States as it exists today. Cantrell parallels our country’s upbringing with the turmoil of her own by juxtaposing these landscapes with representations of her four fathers who, by default, also symbolize her mother. Her biological father Ivo is the only human figure in the series, her other fathers are depicted through objects – a house, a semi-truck, and most eerily, an urn (one of her stepfathers, Sam, tragically committed suicide).

Founding-Fathers(Sam)Perpetually revealing one specific moment, photography itself is a conjuring up of a spectral past. Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography” in the late 19th and early 20th century, the very foundational concept of the photograph can be seen as a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living. Therefore, the idea of “medium” here is twofold: a physical medium (the photographic image) and spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living).  Corpus Battaglia is therefore a ghost, conjuring up America’s collective formative past when a nation was at war with itself along with the artist’s individualized experience of growing up; manifestations of America and a young American. 


The title of this project (and its inspiration) is the first episode of Adam Curtis’ blindingly good BBC series called “The Living Dead.” It’s about how the past bleeds into the present, how it cannot be ignored, and how our memory of current/past events is a construction. 


The Dark Room: spectral space of photography and film in Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom

The Dark Room: spectral space of photography and film in Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom and Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is an essay I wrote for the Brighton Photo Fringe Open ’11 exhibition (November 18 – December 18) as a contributing Guest Curator.

It is profoundly seductive to believe that photography can be an evidentiary medium of a realm beyond our mortal coil. Even more provocative is the idea of photography, and subsequently film, as a tool to facilitate our voyeuristic desire to see the invisible (fleeting moments, ghostly visions, and even intense fear). In his series Messages from the Darkroom, Alexander Nicolas Gehring taps into photography’s psychological strangeness by positioning its construct and production as spectral sites. This depiction of the camera as an object to channel, capture, and visualize deathly moments, as well as its function in fulfilling our desires to bear witness, was explicitly explored in Michael Powell’s controversial, and equally luscious film, Peeping Tom (1960).

What interests me is Gehring and Powell’s shared urge to confront the past via photographic means and how their work comments on what Martin Scorsese declared [in a 2010 interview with Mark Kermode celebrating the 50th anniversary of Peeping Tom] as our “morbid urge to gaze”. This cultural gaze has evolved in the decades since the release of Peeping Tom, with its nearly prophetic social commentary, into something that is at once more familiar and disturbing in our contemporary world. With this “morbid urge to gaze” in mind, Messages from the Darkroom and Peeping Tom fundamentally comment on the attempt to visualize and record the ultimate gaze: that of death. The very foundation of the photographic medium aims to preserve aspects of memory, life, and experience in relation (and perhaps in reaction) to this very personal and profound moment we will all experience. Channeled through the lens of the camera, and re-born in the haunted space of the darkroom, the spirits contained and preserved within these images have been called forth by the artist/photographer/filmmaker/mad scientist.

Based on the historical usage of photography by scientists and occult practitioners to capture the presence of ghosts in “spirit photography”, Alexander Nicolas Gehring’s Messages from the Darkroom brings to light how space, specifically the room where film is processed, functions as a site for the spectral. This series conflates the notion of “medium” in photography in that the camera produces a physical medium (a photographic image) and acts as a spiritual medium (a channel between the living and non-living). Here the camera is medium in literal form, producing a representation of what some believe to be objective documentation of ghosts, becoming a bridge between the corporeal and spiritual worlds. Still, what is most interesting about Gehring’s photographs is not the evoked image itself but the concept of a spectral site, a place where the dead are re-born and re-placed back into the land of the living.

Now revered as a British new wave classic, Michael Powell’s career-ending Peeping Tom treads similar waters in its fetishization of camera objects, the haunted space of the darkroom, voyeuristic eye, and the distinct presence of the dead. The film shows how the torturous childhood of Mark Lewis continuously haunts his adult state of mind, compelling him to use his camera as a recording device and lethal weapon. In glorious Eastman colour, the aesthetic of Peeping Tom – the visualization of the darkroom as two-toned, red and black, dark and shadowy, warm and clinical – is most noticeable in Gehring’s photographs Medium and Light Phenomenon. The camera in these works is captured as a self-contained medium and as a sculptural object. As Powell suggests by alternating viewpoints between Mark’s “special” camera with the another “outside” lens, Gehring’s confrontational camera is also shown through the unrepresented lens (an autonomous camera that functions as the audience point-of-view).

In the cellar, darkness prevails both day and night, and even when we are carrying a lighted candle, we see shadows dancing on the dark walls. Gaston Bachelard – The Poetics of Space

The darkroom (connoting the laboratory, dungeon, cellar, etc.) is a space of process and discovery. Gehring’s darkroom becomes the place of the séance. Referencing the photographic documentation of paranormal activity by notable early twentieth century German psychic researcher, Albert Freiherr von Schrenck-Notzing, Messages from the Darkroom focuses on the dead returning and co-mingling with the living via photographic representation. This darkroom references an arena of scientific research where new technology is used to capture the unseen, in this case ghosts, in an attempt to be in closer contact with an extension of human existence. The darkroom and cinematic space in Peeping Tom acts as a dual place of sanctuary and fear. In this room, Mark returns to the site of his own psychological abuse by processing and consuming the films he makes by murdering women. With each repetitive viewing, these victims are repeatedly brought back to life, made to watch their own death, and be killed again.

Of course, this is the very nature of the filmic/photographic medium itself, a sensitized form capturing a specified series of events in time that can be replayed in perpetuity. As time and space collapse, that which is depicted onscreen never truly fades; always existing as it was at that very moment it was captured, frozen forever on celluloid. Furthermore, our current moment is one where the medium of film is in the process of becoming obsolete. In the wake of the quality, ease, and accessibility of digital technology, there appears to be little use for analog outside the realm of nostalgia. A near living object itself (film curator Henri Langlois firmly believed that nitrate film had to be used/exercised in order to stay alive), film now finds itself in a ghostly space within the digital realm.

Alexander Nicolas Gehring and Michael Powell are seduced by the psychic camera as evidence but wary of its ability to produce accurate visual records. Gehring engages in an obsession to document the afterlife while Powell challenges the perversity of documenting all aspects of our lives. They contest the “all knowing” camera eye because they also consider what happens outside of the frame; photographic representation inherently lays on the liminal boundary between fact and fiction. The foundation of the darkroom is what grounds these layers of suggested ghostly presence within the photographic “medium”. Itself in danger of becoming a thing of the past, this dark room provides the spectral space in which we can conjure up the unseen and indulge, repeatedly, in our collective and cultural morbid desire to gaze.