When we look at a photograph, chances are it will remind us of something in our own lives. We have a tendency to personalize whatever we see, to own it with our senses before judgment sweeps in and separates its essential function for us from its palpable uniqueness as an image or its utility as an expression of beauty. Photography created a world in which every thing has an internal referent to its conventional appearance, and via memory or media, to some role that we suspect has a source in intimate experience, whether as metaphor or use value.
Yet much of our common experience is branded not by our memory, but by the demands of time. Every object or place has had some role not only in activities related to industry, leisure, or distraction, but once it loses its utility, is once and for all marked by time. It becomes a relic. In our culture, the relic has an especially short half-life. But the photograph reanimates the essential significance of experience itself, creating a form of discursive archaeology, in which the artist pursues hidden truths in seemingly useless and random effects. As a photographer, Leah Oates is interested in using the documentary aspect of the photograph, not only to dramatize a prior event through reference to its effluvia, but to frame objects in the utility of the presented image, making every scrap of paper or dirty wall into an artifact of lost knowledge. Oates sees the role of the photograph not as a document, but as an artifact. The essential difference between these two perspectives is that one maintains the utilitarian aspect of the photographic image as something sensible and practical, and the other retains the aura of the object, place, or action, which it freezes in perception. The subject of the photograph immerses the viewer in an engagement with the difference between what is perceptible and what is imaginable.
Since 2003, Oates has been actively engaged in discovering the essential temporality of the photographic image. Isolated from narrative, these images convey an unspecified mise-en-scene which is specifically poignant though also universal. They seem to have been the result of mere chance, of letting the aperture fall in a certain direction and document what it may. Perhaps this is the efficacy of a narrative emerging from our dependence on the senses. We view a given scene and certain judgments inevitably arise, complicating sensate reality and adding a context of human presence even when none is in evidence. Oates seems to eschew various manifestations of fluidic and transparent natural reality for its own sake.
In 2004, Oates turned to an urban environment to uncover the temporality in the transient evidence at hand that was related to the flow of the elements and to the duties and whims of a constantly milling populace. Oates has traveled to to Taiwan, Newfoundland, Finland and Chicago to discover how the transitory elements of everyday life were manifested in different locations. In one city she found that the inhabitants, one day after a large of noisy annual holiday, would immediately discard of all decorative and symbol materials related to the ritual of that event, along with all other forms of household refuse, combining a ritual purging with spring cleaning, and leaving a huge mess in the back alleys of every major housing area, which when documented by the artists takes on a material deluge of Biblical proportions, except that here it is limited to commercial goods.
Another part of the same series depicts the hidden corners of the city, where everyday labor occurs, and sometimes where construction and refuse share the same space. In further images from the same section, Oates portrays the hidden corners of the city, lost and forgotten alleyways and plots of land that are not even considered ‘real estate,’ but are lost except in the few random moments when these thresholds or cul-de-sacs receive the workers of their adjacent structures.
More recent work from the same series is comprised of photographs of deserted factories, their chained front gates with gaping holes torn in the chain link fences, and dirt roads trodden heavily through the otherwise tall and unkempt grass. Inside its deserted offices and work stations, despite windows lacking panes of glass, there are signs of human presence: food and clothing strewn about, the new mixed with the old, small signs of a beleaguered domesticity. The language of urban anarchy and freedom is present in scrawls of graffiti that appear on many surfaces, even in the merest of corners, non-places that echo back their baldness except for these scant markings.
One series of images consists entirely of rediscovered print media—newspapers and magazines—which have been weighted down with stones and pieces of broken brick and left open to display important headlines of days past. It’s hard to know from these images how long ago the use of these spaces was made—it could have been years before, or earlier that same day. The space is definitely marked by its use.
A third part of the same series traces Oates’s journey through the natural beauty of her surroundings which either approaching or departing the deserted work places described above. As the conscience behind an aperture moving through the world, she records what she sees in a fashion which allows the inherent randomness of sensation to lead her to new and different imagery. One image shows a factory whose walls are intermingled with the ephemeral blue sky and a diffuse mixture of whispery white clouds that halfway resemble steam, so that we are confused as to which it really is. In another image we have the front gate of the property, but instead of being a fixed object, perceptibly solid, it reverberates, as if the mutability of its role as a portal were at war with its more recent one as a mere barrier to human interaction.
What all of these images share is an interest in the susceptibility of the senses to guide us through experience, in which sensation and intuition are more important than logic. When we see scenes in a photograph we have a tendency to own them—to allow or disallow the artist to gain access to our imagination, for even images of real things, sensible and useful as they may be, must have a role as referents to the power of the imagination. That is, we have to be able to extend the intuitive and reflective quality of idiosyncratic projection around any given image in order that it may succeed for us in any real sense. This is how knowledge is received, and imagination is a sort of knowledge. Learning to see through a photographer’s eyes is less a social contract than the chance for a collusion to occur in which free will and a sense of wonder irrevocably commingle.
In her own way, Oates is a visual purist. In an era when digital processes are overwhelming traditional ones not only initially but in earnest, she continues to apply herself to the methods of mechanical picture-making. Yet her work, as thematic process, is also gauged against the ideological context of the visual image in the age of reproduction. Most photographic images of this sort are tributes to the technological skill the artist has in sculpting a visually succinct moment out of the subtleties of perception. They create a form of sensate nuanced evidence that has ties to the artifice of the painter. Oates is instead interested in how the photographic image may accrue visual knowledge in the same degree of intensity as did the experience which first inspired it. We are allowed to capture the moment of recognition where Oates images leave off.