For artist Penelope Umbrico, light, and our changing relationship to it, has become one of the main subjects of a practice that challenges what normally constitutes ideas about photography and its presence in our lives. Umbrico is part of the first generation of artists to have participated in the transition from traditional photography to digital media and its attendant complexity. Rather than just swapping one technology for another, however, Umbrico has completely embraced the world in which photography now finds itself—a world where light is transformed into code and completely disassociated from its original context, and where even the sun has become a digital artifact.
This exhibition presents a ricocheting trajectory through photographic history: sunlight, shadows, apertures, dark rooms, chemical-based photography, photocopies, mechanical and electronic hardware (strobe lights, CRTs, ink-jet printing, pixel grids, LEDs), digital processing (image authoring software, video editing software, smart phone camera apps), and the infinite universe of images on the Internet.
Shallow Sun brings together a series of works that play off The Aldrich’s camera obscura, a feature that was included in the Museum’s new building in 2004. The most fundamental of all photographic technologies, the image in a camera obscura is based on contingency: the sunlit landscape that is immediately outdoors is projected “live” onto an interior wall. Here, Umbrico has subverted that process by placing an enclosure that houses a flat-screen monitor on the outside of the camera’s aperture. Playing on the monitor is a version of Umbrico’s piece Sun Screen, a looped, digital animation composed of still sun images the artist has found on the Internet. Sun Screen (Camera Obscura) has taken the fundamental contingent nature of the image in a camera obscura and replaced it with information that comes from the Cloud: sunlight that was turned into code, uploaded onto the Internet, and downloaded as code, converted into screen light, then “reprocessed” back into an image of the sun through analog technology.
In other works in the exhibition, Umbrico has photocopied images of solar eclipses from the picture collection of the New York Public Library and transformed them both by hand and with cell phone camera apps, expanding and engaging the way that an eclipse inverts the usual roles played by the sun and the moon. In the work Light Leaks (from smartphone camera apps) Umbrico has built a “black box,” a space that references both the camera obscura and the inside of a camera, and used it to house a video installation that is composed of an animated library of fake light leak camera app effects in an attempt to return these digital artifacts to the transcendental quality of natural light.
Richard Klein, exhibitions director