projects > Selected reviews, interviews, & catalogue essays

The Original Copy by Heather Goss

"It will be for a more skilled hand than mine to rear the superstructure." William Henry Fox Talbot made this statement in the mid-1800s, after he had developed his patented Calotype process, a technique that helped establish modern photography. His inability to draw made him search for a way to make direct impressions of the world around him, and while there's something to be said for artistic impressions that allow us to see things in a different way, Talbot noted that his precise copies perhaps give the viewer more insight, since they reveal minute details that might otherwise have gone unnoticed.

It is with this virtue in mind that the skilled hand of Molly Springfield developed her pieces for Gentle Reader, showing now at Transformer. Part of the exhibit is devoted to detailed copies of texts by and about Talbot, while the other is a small collection of her own calotypes, images made from Talbot's writing. The result is a somewhat circular but highly intriguing exploration into the nature and purpose of reproduction.

Springfield provides particularly useful insight with A Dual Nature (pictured), her exact drawing of a (xeroxed) copy of a text that explains the purpose of copied images. Got that? In it, the text reads that Talbot believed "[t]he scientific view of life was connected to the artistic" and that "a sharp distinction between documentary and pictorial schools of photography ... creates an artificial polarity, for in fact the function and style of most photographs is intertwined." Here Springfield has created a piece of art in reverse — she doesn't ask the viewer to see the subject (the text) through her artistic eyes, instead, it's the subject that asks us to observe and ask questions of its creator.

The circuitous nature of this relationship, though mildly confusing, is essential to the premise. Precisely because one of the most important questions the work makes us ask is: Who really is the creator here? It is Springfield’s pencil marks on these sheets of paper, but if these marks are no different than the original work, has she really created anything at all? Talbot would likely say yes, and that by committing to this kind of reproduction, both she and the viewer have gained access to details — a tiny smear of the typewriter ink, the shadows in the binding — that we might never have seen while perusing the original book.

Springfield also gets her digs in, as many of the passages are underlined and blocked out by an unseen notetaker. Did the artist make these highlights? If so, did she make them on the original, the copy, or her final product? At what point in the process did the subject have its nature changed? If the notes are on the xeroxed copy, then has the copy become the "original" of Springfield's graphite replica? In much the same way that Talbot's photographs captured details perhaps unseen by the present viewer, Springfield's reproductions bring new meaning to the underlying text.

Her calotypes (pictured) ask the same questions, but of Talbot's photographic process itself. They are, like her drawings, gorgeous and discreetly clever, with titles (and usually the images of same phrases) like "curious anomaly," and "very suddenly darkened." They are reproductions just like her own, except made through sunlight and chemicals (though a scientist might argue that's how hers were made, too). Ironically, the calotype impressions are less perfect than Springfield's skilled but hand drawn works, yet both types of copies reveal the scientific and the artistic, and therein lies their beauty.

November 16, 2006