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Book of the Week: Selected by Laura M. André


Book Of The Week Place, History, and the Archive Photographs by Catherine Wagner Reviewed by Laura M. André This long-awaited survey of Catherine Wagner's inquisitive and revealing bodies of work shows why, in the 1970s, she became and remains one of the smartest conceptually focused photographers of the past half-century.
Place, History, and the Archive. 
Photographs by Catherine Wagner.
Place, History, and the Archive
Photographs by Catherine Wagner.

Damiani Editore, Bologna, Italy, 2018. 336 pp., 176 color and 60 black-and-white illustrations, 12×10 inches.

Place, History, and the Archive is the long-awaited survey of Catherine Wagner's four-decade career, during which she has produced one of the most sustained and rigorously cohesive bodies of work in the history of conceptual photography. If you're already a fan, the book presents a feast for the taking. If you're new to Wagner's work, it offers an introduction to 19 of her major series and, by extension, it's also an exemplary primer on the key principles of conceptual photography. 


Catherine Wagner: Metallic Construction II, San Rafael, CA, 
1976, from the series Early California Landscapes
The beautifully written essays by historian Nicholas Olsberg and curator Shoair Mavlian combine close readings of images and series within their broader context, and a conversation between Wagner and Stephen Shore is both explanatory and insightful.

Wagner herself articulated the conceptual foundation underpinning her work from the beginning, calling it "archaeology in reverse": the layered, elemental construction of history, systems, and knowledge as opposed to their excavation. In the latter model, the archaeologist digs, and works backwards through time to piece together a narrative about the past. The former method shows how we in the present create our own narratives through fragments that a future archaeologist might uncover.


Catherine Wagner: Northern Vista, 1980,
from the series Moscone Site
In the book, Wagner's series are organized according to themes, rather than chronology. Each theme features several series, beginning with "Archaeology in Reverse," which highlights Early California Landscapes (1974–1979), Moscone Site (1978–1981), and 1275 Minnesota Street Project (2015–2016). 

Like her friend the late Lewis Baltz, Wagner's early work eschewed romantic California landscapes and instead focused on the rapidly changing—often ugly and brutal—built environment, especially in her native San Francisco, with a tight grip on self-imposed formal "objectivity." Photographs of construction sites, unfinished buildings, dirt, and piles of raw materials remain powerful statements about how the built environment literally constructs history.

Catherine Wagner: Autopia; Tomorrowland, Disneyland, 
Anaheim, CA1995, from the series Realism and Illusion
"Investigation of Place" features the remarkable series Louisiana World Exposition (1984), Realism and Illusion (1995), American Classroom (1983–1987), and Home and Other Stories (1989–1992). Both the Louisiana work and Realism and Illusion, which comprises Wagner's photographs of Disney theme parks, reveal the production of spectacle, and provide incisive glimpses into the machinery behind the fantasy.


Catherine Wagner: University of Virginia, Humanities Classroom, Charlottesville, Virginia, 1986,
from the series American Classroom

 
The images in American Classroom and Home and Other Stories are like evidence in investigative processes on, respectively, the institutional production and dissemination of knowledge, and the vernacular production of personal and familial space and history. 


Catherine Wagner: Louellen, Darryl, Allison, Darryl Jr., Brandon, and Ryan B., New Orleans, LA, 1991,
from the series Home and Other Stories

Catherine Wagner: Artemis/Diana, 2014,
from the series Rome Works
Museum Pieces (1999), Re-Classifying History (2004–2005), and Rome Works (2014–2014) have a shared focus on the museum as a particularly charged site of cultural production, but the images, which range from conservators' tools to crated sculptures to a typology of ancient busts, depict these institutions from a much different perspective than ordinary visitors typically have. 


In his foreword, "The Art of Scrutiny," Nicholas Olsberg identifies one of the keys to understanding Wagner's work. Not only does she scrutinize the visible systems and imposed orders of our built environment as she chooses what to photograph. Her resulting photographs, in turn, compel us to scrutinize both the image and its subject (which, of course, are not always the same thing).

Catherine Wagner: Definitely Not Sterile,
1995, from the series Art & Science:
Investigating Matter
It is this scrutiny, for example, that extends our understanding of Wagner's Cross Sections (1998–2001), and brings greater meaning to her more explicit science-based works, including Art & Science: Investigating Matter (1993–1995), History of Science (2003), and Frankenstein (2003).
 
While many of these series have appeared in Wagner's earlier monographs, this survey's inclusion of less-familiar projects, such as 2006's A Narrative History of the Lightbulb, Reparations (2008), which depicts prosthetic limbs and other devices, and trans/literate (2012–2013), diptych photographs of braille editions of classic books, demonstrate how effectively Wagner has adhered to her sustained conceptual approach to the environments and objects people produce in order to create history and knowledge.

Catherine Wagner: Right Arm II, 2008, from the series Reparations

However, for all its formal precision and brainy conceptualism, Wagner's work makes a profound impact on the emotional and sensory levels, too.  As Olsberg states, "[t]he visible human figure is the rarest element in Catherine Wagner's work. But the human presence is everywhere predominant." 
We are the little figures happily deceived by the illusions and distortions of Disney's world or the crude assemblages of the Louisiana fair. We are the common people south of Market [Street] who watched the monstrous skeleton of Moscone Center rise where our homes once stood. We are...the broken classical figures resigned to a life of storage at the de Young, weeping between our wooden boards; the school-child who writes in frustration (and with truth), "I don't know."
Catherine Wagner: Emerson College, Southwick Hall, Boston, Massachusetts, 1985, from the series American Classroom



And yet, Wagner's work helps us learn, and feel, more.

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Laura M. André received her PhD in art history from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and taught photo-history at the University of New Mexico before leaving academia to work with photobooks. She currently manages photo-eye's Bookstore. 

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