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Book Review: The Unphotographable

The Unphotographable. Numerous photographers.
Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.
The Unphotographable
Reviewed by Adam Bell

The Unphotographable
Photographs by numerous photographers, introduction by Jeffrey Fraenkel.
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco, 2013. Hardbound. 124 pp., 57 duotone illustrations, 9-1/2x12".

Despite its complex indexical nature, photography allows us to document and record the world unlike any other medium. However, the lens not only captures, but also transforms the world around us. It makes visible things and phenomena both seen and unseen. The unique, alchemical quality of photography to reveal and transform its subjects is one of its chief delights. The Unphotographable, the latest anthology and catalog by the Fraenkel Gallery, gathers together a collection of vernacular, scientific and artistic images that all in one way or another attempt to capture what lies outside the power of the lens.

From one of Alfred Stieglitz's famous Equivalents to a vernacular image that captures what appears to be Christ's profile in the branches of a lakeside tree, the book gathers together a diverse and striking collection of images. Although the various photographers' motives vary, the images almost all (intentionally or unintentionally) capture the seemingly unphotographable or unseeable. As Jeffrey Fraenkel states in his introduction, these subjects include but are not limited to "thought, time, ghosts, god, [and] dreams." Like Fraenkel's previous anthologies (i.e., Furthermore, The Eye Club, The Book of Shadows and others), the book demonstrates Fraenkel and his gallery's great eye and unique ability to gather memorable images from a variety of different photographic sources.

The Unphotographable, by numerous contributing photographers. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.

In naming the book The Unphotographable, they are also being playfully ironic. While the photograph's nominal subjects may be 'unphotographable,' the results are purely photographic. From the ghostly apparitions of double exposures to the mystical evanescence of long exposures, photography can capture the world in ways ripe with metaphorical possibilities that point beyond its literal roots. As Fraenkel notes, "photography's paradoxical ability to render the immaterial and evanescent have been acknowledged since its earliest days." This ability, coupled with our own desire to capture phenomena that lie outside our perception, has long been an important aspect of the medium and its history.

The Unphotographable, by numerous contributing photographers. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.
The Unphotographable, by numerous contributing photographers. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.

Fraenkel's book is not the first to explore this topic. Tucked in the back of the book, Fraenkel acknowledges its debt to two recent museum shows – The Perfect Medium: Photography and the Occult (MET, 2005) and Brought to Light: Photography and the Invisible (SFMoMA, 2008). Each addressed photography's relationship to the immaterial, both real and unreal, and play an important role in fleshing out this history. Present since its invention, images like these have tested the boundaries of photography and complicate any simplistic understanding of photography as a mere recording device. Although not as focused as these two previous shows and books, and lacking the institution weight usually associated with large museums, The Unphotographable is nevertheless a welcome addition to this rich history and contains a host of wonderful images.

The Unphotographable, by numerous contributing photographers. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.

The book is beautifully designed and has a wonderful trompe l'oeil image of the book on its own cover. While it contains numerous fantastic photographs from artists like Liz Deschenes, Chris McCaw, Adam Fuss, Paul Graham and others, as is often the case, it is the older scientific, vernacular and lesser-known images that really shine. In one untitled vernacular image from 1935, a giant flame shoots up into the darkness illuminating an ominous sign that states – "Trespass with or without permission at your own risk." Another image from 1895 by Jakob Ottonowitsch, entitled Spark captured on the surface of the body of a well-washed prostitute, records a spark of electricity that resembles a shimmering amoeba. An already fantastic image rendered all the more surprising and strange by its perplexing and unbelievable title. Although not a new strategy, the mingling of vernacular and scientific images with intentionally artistic images creates a surprising and rich dialog that highlights the generosity of the medium.

The Unphotographable, by numerous contributing photographers. Published by Fraenkel Gallery, 2013.

Photography has always flirted with and tested its own representational boundaries. As this collection attests, when the alchemical magic of photography intersects with our own desire to test the limits of what we can see and make visible, the results are often astonishing. But, as the aforementioned sign suggests, it can be dangerous and scary territory. We may not always give ourselves permission, but if we can't see it, what's there to be afraid of.—ADAM BELL

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ADAM BELL is a photographer and writer based in Brooklyn, NY. He received his MFA from the School of Visual Arts, and his work has been exhibited and published internationally. He is the co-editor and co-author, with Charles H. Traub and Steve Heller, of The Education of a Photographer (Allworth Press, 2006). His writing has appeared in Foam Magazine, Afterimage, Lay Flat and Ahorn Magazine. He is currently on staff and faculty at the School of Visual Arts' MFA Photography, Video and Related Media Department. His website and blog are and