Peter Miller Gallery, Chicago, December 2003
Photographer Walker Evans, working in the 1930s, noticed that American spaces, rural and urban, had begun to fill with words—billboards, advertisements, business names on buildings, highway signs. He purposefully included them in his images, first to oppose his artsy, nostalgic contemporaries who would go to any length to remove the present from their photographs. But soon Evans noticed that something strange happened when the two systems of notation—text and image—were seamlessly combined, one within the other. The two kinds of “reading” conflict, and our minds get stuck somewhere between the two, leaving us in a position to question the adequacy of both as methods of assigning meaning. Evans preferred doubt to confidence, so this worked fine for him.
Matt Siber has extended Evans experiment by reminding us of the pervasive image/text stream that we swim through every day. One complicating difference is that now the landscape is also full of photographic images. At this late date we are barely aware of the effects of this stream—fish have no need to wonder about water until it is gone. By removing the text from an entire photographic image and placing it to one side, Siber forces us to again consider Evans’ point about differential “reading.” Cleansing the advertisements of their text makes us aware of how the photographs in them work, and how clever the ad designers are at manipulating our “reading.”
More importantly, perhaps, Siber reminds us that artists, at least conceptual artists, view the photograph as a flat field of information rather than a window. He accomplishes this by re-posting the removed words on a blank sheet next to the expurgated original. They pop to the surface of the sheet turning it into a page. Like the painter with a blank canvass, and writer with a blank sheet, the photographer starts with an invisible idea and collects visual facts to support it.
Museum of Contemporary Photography