Sarah Charlesworth—one of the so-called Pictures Generation artists, whose members were known for appropriating and dissecting imagery from the mass media—produced her formidable photographic series “Stills” in 1980. To make the pieces, she culled pictures of people plummeting off buildings from news and archival sources, cropped and rephotographed the images, and then enlarged them to a height of six and a half feet. Shown here is a special set of artist’s proofs of all 14 images in the series, commissioned by the Art Institute of Chicago a year before Charlesworth’s death in 2013.
While the photographs are sensationalistic, it is their stillness that holds our attention. In these large-scale prints, the figures (some are suicides; others are people jumping to escape a fire) appear to drift in limbo. At the same time, the curling fingers of one person, or the hunched back of another—details that would be less apparent in the original clipping—lend them an aching vulnerability.
The magnification, the exaggerated contrast between lights and darks, and the torn edges visible in some of the works are all reminders of the artist’s manipulation of these images to create a particular effect. Consciously invoking Warhol’s “Death and Disaster” paintings, they invite us to contemplate the way we approach public images of private tragedies, reminding us of their subjects’ humanity.
A version of this story originally appeared in the January 2015 issue of ARTnews on page 90.