In 1839—the same year Louis Daguerre introduced the photographic process that bears his name—William Henry Fox Talbot invented “photogenic drawing.” With a sheet of glass, Talbot pressed botanical objects directly onto the surfaces of paper rendered photosensitive by salt and silver nitrate solution, and then exposed the compositions to sunlight. The resulting silhouettes on the papers were the first of what became known more broadly as “photograms.”
Though photogramming emerged at the same time as photography, and though it is sometimes called “camera-less photography,” comparing the two art forms too closely can obscure the singular value of the photogram. Photography’s initial remarkability was its capacity for vivid mimesis, while photogramming’s was its capability to produce a 1:1 negative record of its subject. From the get-go, then, the photogram was pitted as an art of what a photograph is not, both in process and in final product.
Contemporary artist Farrah Karapetian, whose photogram portfolio Muscle Memory follows, has meticulously worked those notions of juxtaposition and negation through her entire artistic practice. During her recent residency at UGA’s Lamar Dodd School of Art, Karapetian began her craft lecture with a quote from Robert Frost: “I am not a nature poet.” As Frost considered his poetry to be more complex than the endgame of its most apparent theme, so Karapetian considers her photogram creations. Encountering an image singly, you might at first mistake it for an opaque analog of documentary photography, and that may be the point—consider the portfolio’s title image, for example, with its silhouettes of armed soldiers in stacked formation. Here, and in other images from Muscle Memory, Karapetian’s work seems deliberately to invite such an assumption so that it can be overturned as the viewer discovers the intricacies of process that go into making her photograms.
“I rejected documentary photography a long time ago,” says Karapetian, “not because I don’t like it, but because it purports to be so truthful and is always not.”* Instead of staking claims of truth in a final product, Karapetian’s photograms present truths as mediated through rites of experience. Using an external image as a starting point—found online, in print, or in a person’s memory, for example—she eventually arrives at another “image or an image-object that is an artifact of artistic process rather than of political process.”
In this way, Karapetian locates emotional weight in the physical making of her often politically rooted subject material, and, in the case of Muscle Memory, in the participation of her invited human subjects—U.S. Armed Forces veterans. Her focus, as indicated, is the veterans’ muscle memory and their relationships to their weapons. With clear resin, the artist created three casts each of the veterans’ typical sidearm (P226 Sig Sauer) and rifle (H&K416), produced multiple photograms from those, and then orchestrated the veterans into military postures, where they would remain stock-still with their prop weapons while 1:1 scale images were rendered behind them.
Karapetian calls the clear casts she makes for her various projects—with materials ranging from resin to organza—“sculptural negatives,” which conduct light onto the photographic picture plane. “For each body of work I make, the sculptural negatives I use come from a similar place of election because of how they pertain to the subject that interests me [. . .] These objects are all already like sculptures: elected and pastiched by their users to suit them, triggers for those users’ own muscle memories, and now triggers as well for me.”
Even in a case where the artist does not construct a three-dimensional negative—the headsets used to produce Combat Gear: Talking Heads, for instance, are authentic—she finds that reworking an object and its scenario, first by herself and then sometimes with other people, creates a salient space for reflection: “We all spend far more time reimagining the original source image than we would have had it remained a fleeting news item we saw as temporary consumers of information.”
The above illuminates why Karapetian saturates the photograms in Muscle Memory in hues that clash with those more typical to military settings. By defamiliarizing representations of combat in this and other ways, she generates for viewers enough interference to disrupt and call attention to our era’s deeply entrenched response of permitting the constant newsfeed of documentary to slide by us as political ephemera.
Copyright © 2015 by Farrah Karapetian. All images courtesy of the artist.