Ken Josephson at Gitterman Gallery

The selection of Ken Josephson’s photographs (circa 1960s-80s) on exhibit at Gitterman Gallery makes the case that his work furthered the genre of modernist photography pioneered by Minor White, Harry Callahan, and Aaron Siskind.

The photographs of Harry Callahan and Aaron Siskind are considered by many to repesent the high point of modernist black and white photography. These artists refined the medium with their expressive, richly toned silver prints. Having both taught for years at Illinois Institute of Technology, their influence endured for several generations. Like Ray Metzker, Josephson studied at IIT, and some similarities can be seen in their work. Both made photographs of the patterns of light under Chicago’s elevated trains. In other Josephson prints, small details such as leaves or bent saplings are rendered as gleaming hightlights emerging from large areas of dark greys and blacks echoing the stark tonalities of Siskind and Callahan.

If there is one characteristic that ties all of these artists together, it is their vision for transformative qualities of black and white photography. Instead of making photographs to faithfully describe subject matter, these artists see the expressive potential of film for making subtle abstractions. With sensitive observation and superb technique, Josephson has built upon these traditions. Take Chicago, 1962: A glowing white bow bisects a rectangle of deep black. With close inspection, the viewer can make out the contour of a hip and an elbow and then realize that what looks like a very reductive line drawing is actually the back of a person wearing an apron.

Ken Josephson. Chicago, 1962. Vintage gelatin silver print

Stockholm, 1967 is another example of Josephson’s sensitively tuned powers of observation. The distinctive contour of a hump backed Volvo B18 is magically duplicated in white on the roadway in the photo’s foreground.  It’s as if the tones of the car’s shadow (which would normally render in dark grey) were printed as a negative. But it’s more clever than some kind of technical manipulation, Josephson simply noticed that a dusting of snow on the roadway had, in effect, become a giant photogram. Likely made soon after the sun emerged from a light snow shower, the pavement warmed by the sun is clear, while the snow shaded by the car’s shadow remains on the ground outlining the contour of the car.

Ken Josephson. Stockholm, 1967. Vintage gelatin silver print

Josephson also adds a playful and experimental attitude to his photograph– as when he drops 4×5” Polaroid prints into the photograph. One such print of denuded trees lays upon the leaf strewn forest floor. Another print depicting the magnificent crown of a tree lays upon a newly sawn tree stump, creating a momento mori.

Ken Josephson.  |  Left: Illinois, 1971.  |  Right: Illinois, 1964.

This practice was explored in a half dozen works hanging at the gallery, with the most sophisticated being Chicago, 1970.  The photograph initially appears to be of gravel taken directly overhead. Within the image of gravel there are what appear to be two frames with gravel contained within. It’s quite perplexing; one struggles to make out just what this is– a mirror like those that Robert Smithson placed in the landscape or are these photograph of rocks?

Ken Josephson. Chicago, 1970. Vintage gelatin silver print

Further examination of Chicago, 1970 reveals that within one of the frames is another frame, and within the other frame are two frames, both cluttered with  heavy gravel stones. It soon becomes apparent that within these frames are three areas where the tones are reversed. It’s an enigma that the artist created by photographing the rocks with an 8×10” view camera, using printing paper instead of film. Processing that paper negative produced a life sized image of the stones rendered as a negative. That print was centrally placed on the gravel, rephotographed using another paper negative, yielding an image of both negative and positive renderings of the gravel.  In turn, this print was placed flat on the gravel adjacent to the the first print which appears to be propped up perpendicular to the ground. Finally the two prints were photographed to produce this confounding image.

Josephson’s explorations of a “frame within a frame” can also be seen in Illinois, 1970, a conventional photograph of a wall covered with asphalt siding. The regular Mondrian-like grid pattern is set off by haphazardly placed patches of dissimilar materials. In a related image, a disembodied hand reaches into the frame placing a white card behind a insect ravaged leaf. The card, in effect, frames and isolates the leaf from the larger background of the forest floor.

Ken Josephson. Illinois, 1970. Vintage gelatin silver print

There is an abundance of stimulating images to contemplate in this show.  Josephson’s work reminds us of a time when photographers showing outside of art galleries were artists nonetheless. A time when a photograph was more than a document. A time before appropriation, a time before identity based art, and a time before colossal color prints.  In their time these practitioners saw photographs as another form of print making where the medium could be exploited for expressive and abstractive results. Modest in size and jewel like in intensity, Josephson’s prints demonstrate a vision particular to this artist and to this period of photography.

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