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Book Reviews: Cancellations

Cancellations. Photographs by Thomas Barrow.
Published by powerHouse Books, 2012.
Reviewed by David Ondrik

Photographs by Thomas Barrow.
powerHouse Books, New York, 2012. Hardbound. 108 pp., 65 duotone illustrations, 12x10".

Cancellations is a collection of photographs made by Thomas F. Barrow from 1973 to 1981 with an essay by Geoffrey Batchen. The series began shortly after Barrow relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico from Rochester, New York, where he was Assistant Director and Editor of Publications at the George Eastman House. This connection is useful for understanding Cancellations, as in 1975 the Eastman House hosted two exhibitions that manifest the spirit of Barrow's work: New Topographics (which nearly every photographer knows about) and Extended Document (which not nearly enough photographers know about).

Cancellations, by Thomas Barrow. Published by powerHouse Books, 2012.

The photographic image in Cancellations would have fit right into an exhibition on the "man-altered landscape." They are all urban shots of a developing and expanding Albuquerque. There are rarely any people in the photographs; the subject is clearly the urban setting of a smallish Western boom-town. As a long-time resident of Albuquerque, it's difficult to escape the "where was that?" or "I can't believe how much that's changed!" game that can so easily occur when looking at (what have become) historical images. The photographs are sepia toned to a lovely chocolate brown; I'm uncertain if the intent in the 1970s was to reference historic images, but that is what the tone implies today.

Cancellations, by Thomas Barrow. Published by powerHouse Books, 2012.
Cancellations, by Thomas Barrow. Published by powerHouse Books, 2012.

Cancellations is connected to the Extended Document exhibition, and earned its name by the marks made when Barrow took an ice pick to his negatives, gouging a prominent X through most of them. The negatives that do not have an X have some other "defacement;" some look like he took a hole-punch to them. This cancellation mark was inspired by a "re-strike" of a Marcel Duchamp etching made after the artist had "cancelled" the plate by drawing three lines down the image to deface it, and make clear that no more "proper" prints could be made. This improper print inspired Barrow to apply the same principle to his photographic imagery, and is the transgression that separated Barrow's work from nearly the entire history of photographic image making. He's consciously calling attention to how the picture was made (a negative) rather than wallowing in the illusion-reality expected of most photographs. The hand of the artist is boldly, almost vulgarly, present in each image in a way that had not been seen before and is not often seen today. It is not entirely clear what he is canceling: the photograph itself or the scene that has been photographed. In his essay, Batchen grandly suggests that Barrow set out to kill photography itself.

Cancellations, by Thomas Barrow. Published by powerHouse Books, 2012.

As for the physical book, the duotone images look great. It's a fairly large book, and the images seem to be the printed actual size. Batchen's essay follows, and is an informative window into Barrow's process and influences. The book closes with a grid of smaller reproductions of the images with titles and dates.

Cancellations reminds me of The Velvet Underground and Nico: not many people actually heard it (saw it) when it was new, but those that did found themselves inspired to push their art in unexpected directions. Joel-Peter Witkin, Chris McCaw — really anyone who's cut, burned, boiled or scraped a negative — owes Barrow a debt for opening the door ahead of them. If you're at all interested in photography that challenges the f64-style image, Cancellations will leave you satisfied.—DAVID ONDRIK

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DAVID ONDRIK has lived in Albuquerque since the late 1970s. He was introduced to photography in high school and quickly appropriated his father’s Canon A-1 so that he could pursue this exciting artistic medium. He received his BFA, with an emphasis in photography, from the University of New Mexico and has been involved in the medium ever since. Ondrik is also a National Teaching Board Certified high school art teacher.