In the wake of the Russian Revolution, critic Viktor Shklovsky coined the now-notorious phrase “to lay bare the device” (obnazhenie priyoma), describing how some writers made generic conventions palpable for their audiences. Rather than transmitting information outright, they foregrounded the poetic qualities of their messages, that is, the device of transmission itself. Post-Revolutionary artists and filmmakers used this technique to attune their audiences to their own means of production and to the material conditions of collectivist society in turn.
Providing a model for showing filmmaking on film, Shklovsky’s 1917 call to “lay bare the device” was taken up by Structuralist filmmakers of the 1960s—above all by Canadian artist Michael Snow as he produced the signal Structuralist film Wavelength (1966). Here, over the course of 45 minutes, accompanied by the fluctuating sound of a sine-wave, Snow’s camera zoomed ever closer to the front wall of his New York loft, only to zoom so far that the loft space veered past the edges of the screen and all that remained was a picture of the sea. The photograph, tacked to the wall, had been the camera’s central focus all along even as it had evaded our own awareness.
The Philadelphia Museum exhibition “Photo-Centric” imagines Snow’s long-standing photographic practice as Wavelength‘s final image: central from the outset, but persistently neglected until now. As curator Adelina Vlas has conceived it, the exhibition promises to shift our attention toward Snow’s surprising photographic works, showing how they have done as much to lay bare the device within the history of contemporary photography as his Structuralist films have done within the history of experimental film. This is no easy task, however, because Snow produces his photographs in a knowing minor key, packing them with jokes and trivial asides, playing up a comic, or even camp, ethos only hinted at in his films.
In one work after the next, we become unwitting photo-detectives on the hunt to uncover the latest, ahem, snow job. Four to Five (1962) lowers street photography to the role of candid camera: Snow placed a life-size female silhouette around Toronto and snapped passersby doing double takes. In Press (1969), he clamped cooked spaghetti and dead fish between panes of glass as a metaphor for the way the camera turns three dimensions into two. In Digest (1970), a museum attendant asks us to manually sift through photographs of Snow’s studio detritus (coffee cups and all) in the order in which it was embalmed in a gooey polyester resin, a mass of which, along with the actual stuff from Snow’s studio, sits in an adjacent container. Powers of Two (2003) sends up the gazes and sutures of feminist film theory: a woman stares at us mid-coitus, but because the photograph consists of four transparencies, her stare follows us from one side of the image to the other. And in Synapse (2003), Snow inserted a digitally rendered flash where it might have actually occurred in the analog process just years before.
Even as Snow reveals the fictions of photographic representation through the techniques that produced them—digitization, enlargement, color, timing, the staging of the tableau, cropping of the image, the direction of the gaze, and so forth—he manages to inflect these demystifications with a degree of levity and eroticism. In doing so, he reminds us of the significant role humor, pleasure and self-deprecation have always played within the tradition of laying bare the device, ranging from the work of his filmmaker compatriots like Hollis Frampton and George Landow to Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century comic novel Tristram Shandy, whose disorienting splices and whimsical digressions laid bare narrative conventions long ago, providing the source material for Shklovsky’s original theory.