Christopher Williams

Pluk, Issue #36

Summer 2008

Highbrow photography, although differentiating itself from the practical function of the medium, occasionally resumes its relationship to the utilitarian image. This serves various motivations, for instance, in the work of Ed Ruscha or Barbara Kruger or Roe Ethridge. The appeal of vernacular images, in their charm and relative innocence is not difficult to comprehend, yet their original simplicity of purpose often serves a much more complex agenda.

Christopher Williams is a Los Angeles-based photographer of international reputation whose project is to instruct conventional 'commercial' photographers to create carefully composed and conceived images, many studio still lives, that resemble the most neutral and inexpressive product shots. These are not still lives whose purpose is to seduce by creating flamboyant objects of desire but to provide information: indexical images that suggest a modest industrial catalog of rational products and objects.

The work makes many intricate ideological claims, but it is also a celebration of a photography that is 'objective' and whose purposes are not expressive and interpretive but neutral and descriptive, a commercial still life whose appearance is generic.

At Williams' recent exhibition at David Zwirner Gallery in New York (14 February- 29 March), which presented an extension of the series "For Example: Dix-Huits Lecons Sur La Societie Industrielle (Revision 7)'; seventeen images were arranged sparingly around the gallery.

Among them: three Images of different cutaway cameras with a fourth image depicting one whole; a black man holding a medium format camera with three different facial expressions, and two images of tire types, floating within a white expanse that emphasize their billowy volume and tread. Stylistically, they suggest the frugality of cold war product photography and their geographic location is referenced by the frequent inclusion of product brand names: Laack Shirts, Makina 67 Camera, Linhof 4x5, Falcon, Industria Fototechnica.

The titles are both maddenly informative and opaque, and are presumably to support the cultural, economic and production narratives that interest Williams. One of the aforementioned tire photographs is titled: "Clockwise from Manufacturer Name (Outer Ring) Michelin zX Treadwear 200 Traction A Temperature B Clockwise from Tire Size (Inner Ring) 135 SR 15 723 E2 0177523 Tubeless Radial X Made In France TN 2/48 20-2044 Tread: 1 Polyester Ply + 2 Steel Plies Sidewall: 1 Polyester Ply DOT FH PI AID X0607 Canada and U.S. Codes Only Max Load 355 Kg (780 Lbs) Max Press. JSO kPa (51 PSI) V-1 Douglas M. Parker Studio, Glendale, California, December 27, 2007 - January 02. 2008, 2008." The density of the text proposes that the photographs function as illustration ratifying the textbook nature of Williams' enterprise.

Ultimately in the exhibition as in previous bodies of Williams' work, it is images of women that are the most compelling, as they seem intended to interrogate the careful artifice of the staged Image. Here, two photographs depict a young female model, as if from a generic lingerie advertisement. Photographed from the back, they reveal incidents that are usually concealed frontally: soiled feet, a constellation of tiny freckles arrayed over her back, a garment tag dipped under panties. But most evident is a series of small clamps whose purpose is to size the clothing for the camera. It is a common enough maneuver in the production of fashion photography. Like other devices Williams has used - like the Kodak color bar - it is somewhat conspicuous here in its aggression to photographic illusion, and its relationship to gender. The small clamps contribute a vulnerability and poignancy to the work that buffers its cerebral temperament.

Although the work springs from the precincts of advanced and theoretical thought. in Its nostalgia for utopian simplicity, It ultimately exudes a melancholy, and tenderness towards the modest utopia of the objects, and its failed and fragile promise.

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