Nine things I learned from the art of Mac Adams

Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York, 2013

Published on the occasion of Mac Adams: Crimes of Perception, works from 1970′s. Elizabeth Dee Gallery, New York, June 2013



Let’s embrace the hybrid character of photography. In Mac Adams’ pictures

you will find allusions to detective stories and news reportage, crime scenes and

film noir, the Nouveau Roman and the photo-roman, movie publicity and film

frames, snapshots and high art, advertising and the still life, voyeurism and

exhibitionism, glamour and horror, sculpture and painting, literature and

architecture. When he began to make these works the reigning dogma in

photographic art was still very much about purity, about finding the ground and

the qualities that belonged to the medium alone. That was becoming something of

a dead end. Why shouldn’t photography accept and enjoy the overlaps with the

other arts? Moreover, might this hybrid approach actually cast new light on what

really is particular about the medium?

lg_ma_tennis diptych_1976_black and white photograph, gelatin silver print_31.5 x 26.77 inches (80 x 68 cm) each_edg6785

Tennis (diptych), 1976, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. 31.5 x 26.77 inches (80 x 68 cm) each



The gallery is an operating table and a stage set, to which the different

potentials of photography are brought. These two metaphors – operating table and

set – map very well onto what seem to be the two key impulses of the medium: the

forensic interest in detail and the cinematic interest in mise-en-scène or staging.

These impulses are so forcefully present today because all photography in art is

somehow obliged to enter a dialogue either with the notion of visual evidence or

with the culture of the moving image in which the still image finds itself. Or both.

Mac Adams does both.


Watch carefully. Economy of means and economy of expression have been vital

to Mac Adams throughout his career, be it in photography, or sculpture or

installation. But his deftness and precision only serve to highlight the ambiguity of

communication and the essential openness of all images. Looking at Adams’s

diptyches is like watching a close-up magician. Everything seems clear and lucid,

everything seems graspable but suddenly something has slipped your attention.

The magician does it once more. You watch intently. It’s gone. The key has

vanished between one certainty and another.

lg_ma_double split triptych_1978_black and white photograph, gelatin silver print_30.08 x 37.24 inches (76.4 x 94.6 cm) each_edg6788

Double Split Triptych, 1978, back and white photograph, gelatin silver print. 30.08 x 37.24 inches (76.4 x 94.6 cm) each



Everything starts in the middle. Agatha Christie would often start writing her

detective fictions with the outlandish murder of the finale and the unexpected

motive. From these she would work backwards, reverse engineering her plots so

that they would always go where they were predestined to go. Mac Adams has

spoken of a certain debt to, or influence from Christie. However his photographs

are not ‘whodunnits’. They’re not even ‘whydunnits’, or ‘howdunnits’. All those

forms are essentially linear, and explanatory. Adams’s scenarios are suspended.

They are middles with no beginnings or endings. They are more like the tableau

vivant or loop. We come in somewhere in the middle and we leave somewhere in

the middle, and we must make of it what we can. There is no explanation, no final

settling of accounts. No pointing the finger.


Photography has many time zones. I sense Mac Adams has much in common

with Nicolas Roeg, the director who once described cinema as a time machine.

The syntax of Adams’ diptychs is reminiscent of Roeg’s editing. A mix of formal

analogy, temporal leaps and associative linkages. More often than not filmmakers

and critics tend to see photography as a raw and elemental unit, awaiting cinematic

articulation as one of twenty-four per second. Yet, away from cinema we can see

that photography has always had its own complex engagement with time, with

duration, and with movement. Think of the ‘decisive moment’, the pregnant

moment, the constructed tableau, flash photography and the long exposure, to

name of few of its different temporalities. To these we must add all the procedures

of assembly that have been so crucial to the development of photography: the

album, the archive, the diary, the photo essay, montage, collage, sequences,

pairing and juxtapositions (not to mention all the new modes opened up by

electronic technologies). The time of photography deserves a philosophy every bit

as sophisticated as that extended to cinema.

lg_ma_orian diptych_1980_black and white photograph, gelatin silver print_28.35 x 28.7 inches (72 x 72.9 cm) each_ edg6784Orian (diptych), 1980, black and white photograph, gelatin silver print. 28.35 x 28.7 inches (72 x 72.9 cm) each



‘Narrative’ is a noun and an adjective. An image can simply be narrative

without belonging to ‘a’ narrative. Actually photography is pretty lousy at

narrating in the conventional sense but it’s quite perfect for suggesting narrative

possibilities. Often we sense these possibilities when they are set in motion by the

most succinct and minimal means. An ambiguous gesture. A stray object. An

allusive composition. An enigmatic detail. An action pointing beyond the frame.

Whatever else it is, Mac Adams’s photography is a rich inventory of such things.



Diptyches are difficult but Mac Adams makes it look easy. The diptych is one

of the most challenging of modes for art and particularly for photography.

Challenging both for makers and audiences. This is because it undoes the formal

unity of the single image but shuns the comfort of the extended sequence. In a

diptych there is no flow, but a shuttling to and fro. A seductive and confounding

short-circuit. Two images. One gap. Look before you leap. Mac Adams calls this

‘The Narrative Void’.



The best things often fall into the void. Art history has its voids, and for a while

it looked as if Mac Adams’ early photography was to be lost, somehow misplaced

between overly tidy accounts of Conceptualism at the start of the 1970s and the

Postmodern Art of the decade’s end. But that period in between was so rich for

photography, perhaps the richest there has ever been. And this was precisely

because it was so messy, so uninterested in categories and boundaries. Everything

was up for grabs, nothing was off-limits, and artists went at the high speed of

creativity, not the sluggish speed of the market. Adams’s work exemplifies the

particular balance of promiscuous exploration and rigor we also find in the work

of James Collins, John Hilliard, Victor Burgin, Robert Cumming, Barbara Kasten,

Eileen Cowin, John Divola and Ger van Elk. Critics in the mid-1970s even

referred to a discernible ‘narrative turn’ in photography. In 1977 it was notable

enough to have a presence of its own at the now legendary Documenta 6 in Kassel,

Germany. This was before Cindy Sherman and Richard Prince, before Robert

Longo and Jeff Wall. Maybe it was less glamorous, less concerned with spectacle

and consumerism and it came to be overlooked for a while. But it’s no surprise

today’s audiences and critics are looking again, not to correct the past but to

recognise the continued relevance of the work. Finally we might be getting the

past we deserve, the past we need right now.



All great art strikes us as contemporary. This is so even when we know full

well it could only have been made when it was made. In fact the hold that the

present may have on the art of the past is often intensified by its historical

qualities. Think of the paintings of Johannes Vermeer or Edward Hopper, the films

of Robert Bresson or Jean-Luc Godard. We’d be foolish not to see them as

contemporary, not to see them as rightfully ours. There is no denying the period

detail of Mac Adams’s photographs – the clothes, the objects, the décor, the chairs

and tables. But the concerns – with perception, seduction, privacy, looking,

pleasure, evidence, artifice and knowledge – they are timeless, they abide. They

belong to every era and we are free to claim them as our own.


  • Copyright © 2024