By Annette Hinkle
As artistic mediums go, perhaps none is as versatile as photography in its ability to be perceived in a myriad of ways. Easily reproducible, photographs can serve as evidence — but they can also deceive. Whether they are composed to be sharply realistic or entirely abstract, photographs also have the ability to alter memory and freeze time.
For the last three weeks, East Hampton based artist John Messinger has been spending 14 hour days at the Watermill Center where he is the current artist in residence. This Saturday, Messinger’s #nofilter, a series of large-scale tapestries comprised of hundreds of instant photographs, will be installed for public viewing at the Watermill Center.
Messinger, who teaches photography at the Ross School, is a freelance photographer for the Wall Street Journal. Though his background is in photojournalism, as an artist the work he is creating this month at the Watermill Center pushes the notion of photography beyond its propensity as a tool for documentarians and into an entirely new realm — one that evokes the very essence of time and originality.
“What excites me most about this work is that it has layers, it has the ability to deal with multiple issues simultaneously,” explains Messinger. “When I leave the studio, whether there’s been a breakthrough or I’ve reached a frustrating dead end, I find that the work shows me something new, something I wasn’t fully aware of at the outset.”
Though he’s reluctant to go into detail about the specifics of what viewers might see when they visit the Watermill Center on Saturday, preferring to leave that up to his audience, Messinger is intrigued by the relationship people have historically had with photography as a medium.
“I do think often about the photograph in a broad sense,” says Messinger, “and how the nature of the photograph has evolved over time, and how human beings relate to photographs, and how we relate to ourselves in relation to our images, especially in the digital age.”
Though digital imagery does have its own very specific part to play in the work he is producing at the Watermill Center, Messinger’s equipment of choice for this project is the Polaroid Land Camera, that ubiquitous piece of technology which populated many an American household in the 1960s and ‘70s. While altogether forgotten once digital photography arrived on the scene (with its instantaneous and endlessly reproducible imagery) to this day, the polaroid remains perhaps the only photographic tool capable of offering a truly unique take on the medium.
Because it produces no negative, each polaroid photograph is, in fact, an authentic original reflecting a specific moment in time revealed within minutes of the actual event. Using Fuji polaroid film (yes, it’s still produced), developed with very precise timing, Messinger’s photographic tapestries are created by grouping individual 3.25 x 4.25 polaroid photos together on a massive scale (sometimes there are more than 100 images in a single tapestry).
“I like how the polaroid marked the beginning of the end when it comes to our faith in photographs. We used to view the photograph as a trustworthy carrier of fact, a tool by which we could capture reality perfectly, without manipulation,” says Messinger. “But for me, that view of the photograph is, in a way, a misunderstanding, a myth.”
“Photographs have always misled, or deceived, or at least could be viewed as half truths,” he adds. “And it’s funny because I don’t say that disparagingly, I love that about photography. I love that a photograph can often say more about the photographer than it could ever say about the subject.”
“I think the camera’s ability to mislead, to present fictions as fact, to blur the line between how we experience our lives and how we remember our lives, are the very things that make photography such a fascinating medium.”
Ironically, though Messinger grew up in East Hampton (he was a member of the second graduating class from the Ross School), prior to attending the Watermill Center’s annual gala this past July, he had never before visited the facility, which was founded by artist Robert Wilson on the site of a former Western Union communication research facility.
“And I think that’s common actually amongst many locals,” says Messinger. “And that’s a shame, because it’s such an incredible place worth experiencing. That’s one of the reasons I’m most excited for Saturday, so folks who have never been here will have a chance of seeing for themselves what this magical place is all about.”
“The experience of living and working at the Watermill Center has been surreal, and overwhelming, and amazing,” he adds. “I’ve felt privileged to make work in such a supportive environment.”
As part of his month-long artist in residency, John Messinger’s #nofilter will be on display this Saturday, December 15 from 3 to 6 p.m. in the studios of The Watermill Center, 39 Watermill Towd Road, Water Mill. A reception will follow the opening. Reservations are required to attend and can be made at http://johnmessingerwmc.eventbrite.com/