Past, Imperfect

John Neff, "2/27/2011." Photo courtesy of the Renaissance Society

John Neff, “2/27/2011.” Photo courtesy of the Renaissance Society

In 1822, Louis Daguerre unveiled his diorama, a crude, lurching ancestor of the cinema. A rotating platform, operated by the clanging of levers and cogs, would turn the audience to face large paintings that lined the room’s circular wall; this, coupled with a system of shutters and screens that let sunlight flicker into the theater, created the illusion of movement, the sense of a vast, continuous reality unfolding before the eyes of stupefied Parisians.

But in subsequent years, Daguerre perfected the daguerreotype, the first widely used form of photography. This new technology incited such popular fervor that when his huge, creaking diorama caught fire in 1839, Daguerre hardly cared that he had lost his precious paintings. But photography, for all of its eerie precision, never aspired to the grand vision of its slighted older sibling–a photograph did not build a new world for itself, content to offer us a sliver of the old one.

It seems that John Neff’s photographs, currently on display at the Renaissance Society, grasp–perhaps knowingly–at some of this strange, wistful history. Like Daguerre, Neff has given the world a technological innovation (“advancement” is not quite the word) in the form of his scanner camera, a coarse and ungainly contraption with an exposure time of several seconds. It is composed of the lens and body of a Kodak camera joined to a portable Canon scanner, so his little machine incorporates both analog and digital elements to capture and develop the black and white stills.

The show transports us to a bygone era, one of heaving pulleys and turning platforms, in how it seems to reenact the emergence of photography from the ashes of older media. Neff’s photographs are arranged in a row that wraps, diorama-like, around the gallery walls, and the windows of the Renaissance Society have been tinted for the show, recalling the screens of Daguerre’s clunking machinery that seemed to bring images to life with a mere glimmer of light. And yet the pictures themselves, in their technical imperfection and modest size, recall the ghostliness of those first photographs, those smudged, grainy traces of moments frozen in time.

In Neff’s pictures, what emerge are intimate scenes–portraits, still lifes–that nevertheless bear the mark of their mechanical production. His photographs–of flowers, of furniture, but mostly of faces and bodies bathed in soft light–are scored by scanner lines and flecked with tiny errors. What we might otherwise dismiss as technical blemishes are instead central to Neff’s practice. In these scarred pictures, intimacy registers as a kind of mechanical failure, such that feeling scratches its way into the image by a process of erasure. The less we see of Neff’s subject, the more we feel its spectral presence.

John Neff, "1/22/2011." Photo courtesy of the Renaissance Society

John Neff, “1/22/2011.” Photo courtesy of the Renaissance Society

For each of these photographs, the low quality of the image reminds us of Neff’s odd machinery, which in turn places us squarely in the encounter in which the photograph was taken. In “1/22/2011,” for instance, we cannot simply look at a man, sitting and wearing an eye patch, and rest assured that this is simply a random moment plucked neatly from time. We are instead forced to imagine Neff stringing up his awkward device, orchestrating a scene that appears natural or “authentic”–authenticity, remember, was what made the photograph superior to the diorama–so we come to see this photograph not as part of some boundless web of objective reality, but instead as the product of a relation between persons, a negotiation between friends, perhaps even between lovers.

And while Neff’s lovers serve as frequent subjects, the evidence of his homosexuality–many photographs are of nude or half-dressed men, often gesturing tenderly–does not jump out at us with the aggression of, say, Nan Goldin. Neff’s work bears none of the defiance of an earlier generation of queer artists, many of whom sought to depict the gay life as radically “other,” either by mythologizing the delectable seediness of the drag scene or mourning for the ravages of AIDS. No, Neff’s work is fastidiously apolitical–or so he claimed in his public conversation with Associate Curator Hamza Walker after the March 3rd opening. But maybe Neff has smuggled some political program into his work; maybe this new queerness, this new provocation, consists in daring to present gay life not as liberated, nor marred by persecution, but as defiantly normal, as life.

This, too, is sketched onto the photographs’ blotchy surface. In shrugging off the burden of making images that point to some concrete truth, Neff need not use his pictures to expose or unveil the unknown. Rather than lay bare some shocking fact, some unpleasant but undeniable reality, he is content to give us tender recollections, splotchy memory, a reality speckled not with outrage or brazenness, but with nuance, with feeling. So we might think of this show as a nod to Daguerre’s scorched, unredeemed diorama, whose wheels and handles, which now seem like cheap showiness, spun into existence a new way of seeing, a kind of image that was not just filched from reality, but made from scratch.

The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Cobb Hall 418. Through April 14. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday, noon-5pm. Free. (773)702-8670.