Currents: Photographs From the Collection of Allen Thomas Jr.
Through Oct. 7
CAM Raleigh

Photography and reality have gotten a divorce. According to the terms of their custody agreement, we the viewers shuttle back and forth between the fun parent who lets us use our imagination to construct what we see, and the strict parent who takes a sheer objective view.

But which is the strict parent, and which is the fun one?

CAM Raleigh provides a small but charged exhibition of works by nine emerging photographers asking that question. Curated by Nils Ericson, Currents draws upon Wilson, N.C.-based Allen Thomas’ collection, which should be familiar to Triangle viewers by now. Several recent shows, most notably Light Sensitive at the Nasher, have borrowed from Thomas’ impressive stash.

Most images in Currents have been substantially manipulated from what the camera recorded when its shutter opened and closed. Sarah Anne Johnson’s “Party Boat” (2011) leads off the exhibition with a mass of fireworks-shaped bursts of ink, gouache and marker overtop deep scratches in a chromogenic print’s surface. The print depicts a schooner in an arctic inlet, but Johnson’s bruise-like fireworks display drips pigment all the way down into the water, practically obscuring the boat. The fireworks, an aestheticized war gesture, ruin the placidity of the scene and force you to analyze Johnson’s choices rather than simply see the image. Interference provokes analysis.

Matthew Brandt’s two images of California lakes seem at first to be poorly framed since the prints warp within the frames. But that’s the result of his soaking the prints for extended periods of time in the water of the lakes they picture. “Yuba Lake, UT 2″(2009) seems flecked with a spray of fire, which combines with the desolate scrubland to suggest nuclear testing in the Western statesa corrupted and uninhabitable landscape. Like Johnson, taking the picture is just Brandt’s first step. By relinquishing the image back to the subject of the image, he implies photography as a corrupting act.

The subject has even more agency in Chris McCaw’s “Sunburn” series (2007–13). Using a long-exposure process arrived at by accident, the sunlight entering the camera burns entirely through a gelatin silver paper negative, leaving a scorched hole or trail through a solarized landscape image. McCaw’s radical literality (“photograph” means “light writing”) puts that writing ahead of the idea of taking an image of what’s in front of the camera. These are pictures of light rather than of the desert trees or old-growth forest ghosted in negative relief.

Debbie Grossman’s “My Pie Town” series takes a radical social tack. Not using a camera at all, Grossman manipulated Russell Lee’s classic Farm Security Administration images shot in Pie Town, N.M., in the early 1940s, re-imagining, revising and reconstructing them (her terms, from the afterword of her book of them) so they’re entirely populated by women. Using Photoshop, Grossman worked at the pixel level to feminize facial features and to reposition women within the frame.

By changing the husband in a family portrait into a second wife, or by making a cow wrangler into a woman, Grossman overturns the traditional gender roles of the myth of American frontier, daring to dream that what she’s picturing could actually have existed. What if there had been a lesbian farm town? What if iconic American images had come out of that Pie Town? How might now be different as a result?

Three other photographers use manipulation techniques toward more painterly ends. Carolyn Janssen, a recent UNC-Chapel Hill MFA graduate, wields Photoshop masterfully to produce huge phantasmagoric landscapes from a set of fundamental photographic textures such as pine straw, dirty snow and stones. In “Massive Failure” (2012), she builds colorful hills and peaks with these textures, placing hundreds of miniscule female figures upon them in ritualistic formations. Other areas of the work contain icons that almost suggest a rebus.

Single works by Maciek Jasik and Michele Abeles aren’t as overwhelming or fun as Janssen’s piece. Jasik’s deep blue portrait of a standing nude man, his lower half fading into a nearly indeterminate blur, seems to want to subvert the figure into color fields while retaining his posture’s defiant attitude. Instead it does neither. Abeles centers a Renaissance-style composition upon the pelvic area of a reclining male nude shown from shoulders to knees across the middle of the frame, with yellow rectangular filters placed upon him like cellophane. The man’s penis is so prevalent that it subsumes him, drawing attention away from a substantial scar around his navel. Is the image really about the scar? A narrative element (What happened?) comes in with the scar. Abeles makes an image that’s conceptually difficult to resolve, as opposed to Jasik’s blur.

The two unmanipulated images in the show don’t suffer from their minority stake. One from Arne Svenson’s infamous Neighbors series, for which he’s being sued for invasion of privacy for shooting his Manhattan neighbors in their apartments using a telephoto lens, represents the series perfectly. There’s even a stuffed giraffe looking back out of the shadowy apartment, transforming it into a kind of reciprocal camera focused back on Svenson. Matthew Baum’s modern triptych of a line of engagement in the Battle of Fredericksburg isn’t as visually interestingreally just a field and a treeline. But the frank emptiness of the image and the way the trees stand out against unmodulated sky evokes how arbitrary war borders are, raising the inhumanity of such lineation of space while avoiding mawkish expressionism.

Although “Photoshop” has become our default verb for manipulating photos, early processes were profoundly experimental and the earliest photographs were altered in illusionistic ways. There has never been an objective image. Every purportedly objective image is an act of imagination. While it’s true that the camera never lies, people still doas well as dream, theorize and actso photographers must too.

This article appeared in print with the headline “Photography against reality.”