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Photographs let me in and keep me out simultaneously: they pull me toward the time and place they describe until I have to stop short, suddenly conscious again of their material surface, as though my nose has hit the glass of a window I’ve been peering through. This ambivalence—sometimes described as a dialogue between the transparency of the window and the impenetrable surface of the picture plane—is my favorite theme in photography’s history, probably because it elegantly and abstractly refigures so many of the all-too-concrete social, emotional, and psychological dilemmas I face. In this series I’m trying to escalate that dialogue, to up its ante, by taking straight documentary pictures of flat, rectangular surfaces that were designed to let stuff in or keep stuff out, but that now appear conflicted as to how or how much they will in fact do so.

To document these surfaces faithfully—to coax their conflicts into visibility—requires big prints enlarged from big sheets of film shot in a big camera. For although the subjects of my pictures are easily recognized as surfaces that regulate access, the way or the extent to which they do so is not apparent without thoughtful inspection of details accurately rendered.

In one of my pictures, for example, a brick wall whose doorway seems at first glance to have been filled with cement bricks was in fact filled with wet cement that then had lines cut into it to describe the shape of bricks. A drawing of sorts. In another picture, what might appear to be a reflective glass door in a wall of glass turns out on closer inspection of my print to be not glass at all but rather a temporary door cut into a temporary construction façade that has bolted to it an actual-size low-resolution vinyl photo of the building that used to lie behind the façade. My high-resolution print faithfully records the low-resolution vinyl photo’s illusion of metal, glass, and granite, but it also records the physical presence of a metal doorknob and bolts, a concrete sidewalk, and the seams, scuffs, and ripples of the image-bearing vinyl.

Indeed, many of the pictures in this series show artless, utilitarian surfaces that have been altered by craftspeople or by nature with the mediums of art—drawing, photography, gouache, watercolor, mosaic, museum display, trompe-l’oeil, painting, silkscreen, patinas of oxidation, and sculpture, for example—so as to conceal something. (I think of these pictures as allegories of art’s two-dimensional illusionism, which would make them allegories of allegory, meta-allegories, like any good allegory, or so it could be argued.) But however the alterations took place, the traces they leave and the ambivalent disguises they accomplish are subtle.

To make such subtlety legible, the negatives from which my exhibition prints are made are 4 x 5 inch color film sheets that I expose in view cameras with full movements in order to allow high resolution and perspective correction. The prints range in size from about 40 x 30 inches to 41 x 51 inches. They are very precise, and matte-surfaced, and just big enough to make the best possible analogy between the surface photographed and the photographic surface.

Seeing allegorical potential in a new surface to photograph for this project is like seeing friendly potential in a new acquaintance. I cast these surfaces as characters in my life, but I also empathize with them. I recognize in them some of my own ambivalence. Or maybe I project my ambivalence onto them, and then I project their ambivalence onto the large photographic surfaces that represent them. These surfaces repeat my gestures of provisional granting and measured withholding; my photographs repeat the gestures of these surfaces; and I repeat the gestures of my photographs by exhibiting them. This is different from revealing their secrets, and more like keeping their secrets, or keeping their secrets in play, keeping their secrets visible, seeing their secrets, like in poker: I see your secret and raise you one. The surfaces confide in me, I confide in you through my photographs of them. I’m tempted to say I betray their confidence in order to grant my own. But access to their secrets remains as questionable as before they were photographed, as does access to mine and those of my photographs. All three of us keep hiding our issues in plain sight.

Click here to see these pictures.