Lisa Oppenheim Unravels Haunting Images of Teenage Textile Workers
"The wrong kind of occupation." Artist Lisa Oppenheim's new work is filled with delicate texture and color, but its rich surfaces and vintage imagery are interwoven with narratives of American child labor.
View of Lisa Oppenheim, A Durable Web, Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York, 2017. Photo: Maris Hutchinson, courtesy the artist and Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York
I keep returning to a line from Susan Sontag's On Photography: "Photographs are perhaps the most mysterious of all objects that make up, and thicken, the environment we recognize as modern." It seems to have found its way into everything I've written lately. Published in 1973, the sentiment still feels incredibly resonant, even if no one would use the word modern to describe the image-saturated world we live in today. It suggests that with the current proliferation of images, we share more references—more things look like other things and more things are recognizable. A shared consciousness born of media. How do we look at things with this in mind? Do we need to reassess those photographs we feel we've already seen?
Lisa Oppenheim thinks so. "I've done a lot of work that mines the history of documentary photography, and I'm particularly interested in socially driven form," says the New York artist, whose new exhibition of works based on photographs by American sociologist Lewis Hine opened recently at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery. Oppenheim began to comb through Hine's archive partly because of her long interest in the history of photography. (For a show in Mexico City in 2014, she used a shot of a kiln by famous Mexican photographer Manuel Álvarez Bravo to produce a series of smoky snaps printed using fire—rather than the electric bulb of an enlarger—as a light source.) There's also a personal connection: Hine taught photography at the high school Oppenheim attended (though long before the artist, who was born in 1975, went there).
"Many of Hine's photographs," she continues, "are iconic images of children working in factories, which we all recognize, but then I came across these images of teenage girls who were textile workers. They were taken, I think, in Boston in 1917. The girls all had scoliosis that was either brought on or exacerbated by the work they were doing in textile mills, so the photographs have long descriptive titles such as Elizabeth Rudensky. Right dorsal curve. Scoliosis—real spinal case—bad. Showing wrong kind of occupation for this physical defect."
Oppenheim's interest in these photographs goes beyond the social realism with which Hine is normally associated. She pulls out the catalogue from Spine, her recent exhibition at the Museum of Contemporary Art Cleveland, and flips through image after black-and-white image of girls posed against blank backgrounds, their backs to the viewer, their shoulder blades protruding. The camera seems to linger, captivated, on their bodies. "They're in the spirit of other Hine photographs in that they reveal something about child labor," Oppenheim explains. But there's something else there: "These are actually very sexy images of teenage girls. I found that so odd. They're classically posed and sexualized images of the backs of girls; there's no eye contact, no gaze to return. There's something about them that's voyeuristic."
Same girl as no. 4665. Showing the slight deformity of the hip. Work which requires constant standing would be bad, so persons with curvature tire quickly. Their feet also are usually weak and they would be inclined to rest on one foot. This would throw entire body out of tune. Hine's extended titles become Oppenheim's. The girl in the photograph stands with her left hand against the wall, an uncomfortable position that the photograph turns into an example without regard for the possibility that it might originate in the very fact of being an example—that the girl's discomfort lies not only in her physical condition, but also in Hine's rendering. "The reason I felt that I was correct in my assessment that these were sexualized images," says Oppenheim, flipping through a few more pages, "is because there is only one image of a boy—and he's dressed. Whatever kind of information needed to be conveyed here did not require these girls to take their clothes off."
Spine, the series that Oppenheim based on these specific Hines shots, is a sequence of photographs printed onto aluminum. The artist acquired high-resolution images made directly from Hine's archives by the Library of Congress, printing them onto separate sheets so that the girls' spines are always out of frame. Each image is thus broken up into two or three parts. At the gallery, these are presented life-size and hung so that their subjects are eye-to-eye with the viewer. "I wanted them to have as much of an object status as possible," Oppenheim explains, "so it isn't so much a photograph of something, but a thing in its own right. That's something I always think about when dealing with archival imagery: how to transform something away from a direct appropriation of a photographic image to having some different resonance. Scale and material, for example, become super-important—even more important than when creating a new image."
The factories these teenagers worked at mass-produced textiles—work shirts, tablecloths, and the like—and Oppenheim wanted to reflect on this history too. In the series Remnant, she uses scraps of fabrics dating from early 20th-century New England (sourced on eBay) to produce photographs. It's a process she first explored in an earlier series, Leisure Work, that consists of photograms of lace made by placing the mesh directly on the enlarger, creating gauzy impressions of absence. In Remnant, a piece of old denim used in the same way allows little light through, creating a thick, gray image that suggests a close-up of upholstery rather than stiff work clothes. A floral print—probably the remainder of an old tablecloth—becomes a faded, copper-colored crosshatch, a branch of black-and-blue four-leaf flowers running through it. The various textures of the crumbling vintage fabrics are recorded, imperfections becoming image.
"It's a process full of surprises," Oppenheim enthuses. She points to one image: "There's this sort of pink thread throughout. Who knows why? The original fabric looks nothing like it." Absence is inverted in the last series on view at Bonakdar, "Jacquard Weaves," in which the artist transforms the images of the fabric scraps back into textiles. Using test prints of the fabri-scrap photos to produce punch cards for a digital Jacquard loom, she created a new positive to the cloth negative. It's based not on the original object but on the photo, a kind of translation. And like a line run twice through Google Translate, it's distinguished by a peculiar relation to the original object of study, one of similarity and dissociation.
"The Jacquard loom is a technology I find very interesting," Oppenheim explains, "because it's a kind of proto-computer; these are the first punch card machines, and they really allowed for the industrialization of textile production." Joseph Marie Jacquard invented the machine that powers the loom in 1804, kicking off the process of mechanization that conditioned the lives of the girls in Hine's photographs. Oppenheim was also attracted to the vintage gear because the logic of the loom is echoed in the logic of photography. "It's a binary logic, like the presence or absence of light, ones and zeros, or in the case of the Jacquard loom like a punch card that's empty or full. The relationship between these technologies is there from their beginnings," she says.
The tension between almost-abstract photographs, the stories they tell, and the processes they embody, is where the viewing experience of Oppenheim's new works resides. It's not as simple as "there's always more than meets the eye"—it's the knowledge that politics, narrative, and example are processes of rediscovery and questioning. "As you would move from floor to floor at the gallery," Oppenheim says, "there are suggestions that produce visual clues. You begin to see relationships that present themselves in speculative ways, and it's up to you if you want to dig deeper or not, to try to make sense of that resonance, that imperfect doubling."
Lisa Oppenheim: A Durable Web is on view through October 21 at Tanya Bonakdar Gallery, New York.
Orit Gat is a writer living in New York whose work on contemporary art and digital culture has appeared in a variety of publications.