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A Photo Manipulation Master a Decade Before Photoshop

A new exhibition of Sarah Charlesworth’s 40-year career shows how collaging, recontextualizing, and manipulating images expanded the photographic medium.
June 25, 2015, 1:50pm
Red Mask, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1983. All photos courtsey of the New Museum.

Perhaps more than any other artistic medium, the definition of photography is constantly shifting with the fluid expansion of technology, new forms of image-making allowing for uncountable permutations. Throughout her career as an artist and as co-creator of BOMB Magazine, Sarah Charlesworth didn’t consider herself a photographer, but her innovative work using a camera to dissect and repurpose public images helped push photography into a new realm of conceptual art.

Nearly two years after Charlesworth’s sudden death from a brain aneurysm, a survey of the artist’s 40-year career is now on view at The New Museum. Although cut short, Charlesworth's career was both expansive and significant, working with artists like Richard Prince and Cindy Sherman to push photography beyond the documentary format. Highlighting some of Charlesworth’s most influential projects in collaging, recontextualizing, and manipulating images from media, the show Doubleworld explores how each collection of work is a layer, building upon another, as the artist explored uncharted territories of photography-as-art.

Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles, from the “Stills” series, 1980. Unidentified Man, Ontani Hotel, Los Angeles, from the “Stills” series, 1980

For a mid-1970s series, Modern History, Charlesworth photographed the front pages of newspapers, redacting the text but keeping the images and masthead. She was interested in the process of “unwriting” by divorcing photographs from their contexts. One room shows newspapers from the Pacific Northwest to Canada, all from February 26, 1979, arranged in geographical order to show the ranging perceptions of an eclipsed moon as seen from each location. In another project, Stills, Charlesworth re-photographed and enlarged disturbing press images of people falling or jumping off buildings, recontextualizing and heightening images often overpassed while looking through oversaturated media.

 Still Life with Camera, from the “Doubleworld” series, 1995

While the aesthetics of Charlesworth's work changed with technology through the 80s and 90s, her themes and influences were only reinforced by expanding visual media. In a later series, she introduced more high-resolution color photography, depicting vibrant canvases with Renaissance-style characters collaged together, and still-lives featuring turn of the century cameras and stereoscopic viewing devices, a meta commentary of the medium itself.

These pieces lead into a collection of Charlesworth’s bright lacquered canvases showing one image, as if it had been clipped from a magazine and enlarged. A Buddha, an S&M harness, the face of a geisha—these Objects of Desire, as the series is titled, morph those images into art. “It was as if I had been creating nouns and verbs for three years and now I’m in a position to make sentences," Charlesworth wrote, back in 1988.

 Buddha of Immeasurable Light, from the “Objects of Desire” series, 1987

 Arc of Total Eclipse, February 26, 1979, from the “Modern History” series, 1979.

Doubleworld will be on view at the New Museum from June 24 - September 20.

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