The subjects of the 10 color Ultrachromes in Amir Zaki’s new series, “Relics,” are, at least nominally, lifeguard towers on beaches in Southern California. The photographs—seven large prints (60 by 76 inches) and three smaller ones (20 by 26 inches), all from 2009—were shot from below, with sand, water and every other contextualizing clue eliminated. They suggest architectural studies or, occasionally, portraits—the small buildings standing in for awkward heads balanced on skinny necks. Zaki digitally altered the photographs—combining one image of a lifeguard station with another of the sky taken on a different day, for example, or removing ladders and ramps, leaving the structures essentially dysfunctional and often unidentifiable. He photographed the pink structure in Untitled (Tower 51) and placed it against an ominous sky; the small, angular building tilts back, like a surprised face looking up. Untitled (Tower 30) is practically monochrome: a robin’s egg blue lifeguard stand nearly melts into the cerulean sky behind it. It’s one of the few photographs in the series that conforms to the stereotype of a sunny California day at the beach. There’s something too picture-postcard perfect about it. Which, of course, is Zaki’s intention: to make photographs that are slightly off-key, like a troubling thought you can’t dislodge.
Contemporary photographers such as the Germans Florian Maier-Aichen (who, like Zaki, earned his MFA from UCLA and spends much of his time in Southern California) and Beate Gütschow incorporate digital alterations that give a disorienting twist to pictures of familiar buildings and landscapes. Zaki’s Untitled (Tower 63-64), showing a spindly stand of gray brick and metal against a background of dark, portentous cliffs, recalls Maier-Aichen’s Salton Seas I (2008), in which the domesticated landscape of geometrically plotted farmlands gives way to harsh, rocky terrain. Zaki’s Untitled (Tower 21), on the other hand, a white cottagelike building with cheerful red and blue trim, perches in the sky like a birdhouse.
Architectural studies, of a sort, were the focus of Zaki’s previous series as well, in which he incorporated strange, invented symbols into the signage of ordinary churches, gas stations and strip mall eateries. Here he also manipulates his images in order to disrupt the assumed veracity of the photograph. It’s not a new idea, but his pictures are seamless and quite beautiful. And the subject is well chosen. Iconic and easily overlooked, lifeguard towers—pedestals for tanned, robust, youthful saviors—become, in Zaki’s work, unexpectedly and unforgettably alien.
Photo: Amir Zaki: Untitled (Tower 21), 2009, Ultrachrome photograph, 60 by 76 inches; at Perry Rubenstein.