Walking into THE CLAY STREET PRESS to see the exhibition Dig It Al!, I was stunned to witness three large digital photographs by Washington, D.C., artist FRANZ JANTZEN doing everything cubism did. Each picture made me think of the moment when I really learned what cubism was.
My first course in graduate school: The brilliant professor stood in front of a side of Pablo Picasso's "The Mandolin." Close your eyes, Dr. Paice said, and run your hand slowly down your face. I did it, and then shot my eyes back to the image shining from the slide projector. In that moment I felt for the first time that I understood what Picasso was doing: re-creating physical space with all its bumps, curves and corporeal reality.
Painting was no longer from the spy-hole of one unmoving eye. Now it could show everything we real people see — the thickness of space, the movement of time, the heavy curve of a breast or a musical instrument — from every possible angle. It wasn't that cubists distorted the world; they simply presented it in a new way. They included time, movement and different vantage points.
It was all very human.
Back at Clay Street Press, I closed my eyes and ran my hand down my face. Looking again at Jantzen's photographs, I knew it was all there. But how can digital photography become something so cubist?
Jantzen grew up in Cincinnati. On a trip back home in 2004 he wandered into Duttenhofer's Bookstore with a newly purchased digital camera. He hadn't intended to photograph Duttenhofer's, but when he walked inside something struck him.
"As an artist I have always been drawn to subject matter that shows its age," he writes in an essay about his work. "So I immediately noticed the bookstore's worn wood floor. Since I was snapping everything with my new little camera, why not make a composition looking straight down at the floor? And since this is digital, why limit myself to one snapshot? What if I took several in a row, as if I was a NASA satellite?"
Jantzen snapped away. Later that night, he put all the images together and made a digital collage. But it didn't stop there. Jantzen went back to Duttenhoffer's and asked to shoot the whole floor. He wanted to map the entire thing.
Six hundred photographs and two days later, he had the documents. Within three months, he had pieced all the images together to create the singular work included in the Clay Street show. "The Entire Floor of Duttenhoffer's Bookstore" is clearly about time: You can watch that little cat go from her litter box to a lap; you can see people moving. It is not one moment.
The space is also flipped around so we can understand the angles of the store. We don't see the bookshop the way a camera taking a picture would see a bookshop, we see it in that very human way, the cubist way.
In the following years, as Jantzen began to develop the technique, the implications of it became clear. My favorite of the three photographs is the smaller, more compact image, "The Conservator in His Laboratory." Here almost everything is turned around, so that the viewer is able to see all angles. The bookshelves are pictured from straight on; we see the conservator himself from above; the cat is everywhere.
More than 950 individual images make up this photograph. The vantage is cubist. No longer a single eye — this is human sight. Time is an element as thick as the setting. The conservator moves about his room. We follow him as he works. We are privy to his movements and his space as clearly as if we are there.
In just these three works, Jantzen has opened a new, vital, extreme genre of photography. Dig It Al! is on view at The Clay Street Press 5-8 p.m. as part of Final Friday.
contact laura james: ljames(at)citybeat.com