Photography’s dual functions—to re-present what the eye sees and also to suggest what it cannot—merge in Joyce Campbell’s quietly forceful recent work. Born in New Zealand and based in Auckland and Los Angeles, Campbell showed two series here, side by side. Title information was available on a printed handout (as well as in a small catalogue), but no labels or didactic texts were affixed to the gallery walls. That decision, made by the artist with curator Ciara Ennis, inevitably intensified the visual impact of the work, while underscoring its power as a visceral appeal rather than an intellectual argument.
Twenty pictures from the “Crown Coach” series (shot in 2008, printed 2012) portray plant specimens growing on a contaminated industrial site in downtown L.A. Campbell focuses on grasses, shrubs and flowers that blanket the 20-acre lot like weeds but bear rich backstories, having been originally cultivated by the native population or immigrants for their medicinal properties or as food. Practicing a kind of soulful taxonomy, she emphasizes overall character more than detailed information. These are not the crisp forms of New Objectivity (à la Karl Blossfeldt) but the impressionistic products of a keen, sensitive subjectivity. Each plant is illuminated sculpturally against darkness, seen fragmentarily and often partially blurred by motion or a shallow depth of field.
The “Crown Coach” prints were made from ambrotypes. Campbell exploits this glass-plate process, which was popular in the 1850s and ’60s, for its imperfections and irregularities. Viscous emulsion pools at the edges of the images. Foggy presences and spidery patterns interrupt logical spatial continuity. Datura with Spirit, which features milky, marbled puddles and a white blur, suggests a vision induced by the medicinal and hallucinogenic plant it depicts.
Campbell taps into the history of spirit photography in the “Te Taniwha” series (2010-12), which consists of daguerreotypes, photographic prints and a short, silent 16mm film. Shot in New Zealand’s Te Reinga Maori tribal area, where, as a legacy of colonialism, land and water rights continue to be contested, the images record a place of primordial beauty and conjure the unseen forces at play within it, particularly those of the taniwha, mythic water-dwelling creatures thought to be both destructive and protective. Fifteen large, unframed photographs (42 to 67 inches per side) were pinned to a black wall in the manner of a provisional collage. Some overlapped, and the bottom edges of most of the prints curled up freely, the images literally and metaphorically unfixed. Pictures of a turbulent river, dramatic waterfall and sheer rocky cliffs hung above shots of the ribboning curves of a pale gray eel. Together, these prints read as a breathtaking ode to the sacred and elusive. The daguerreotypes likewise attest to the incomplete legibility of the external world, their mirrored surfaces oscillating between documentary precision and poetic abstraction.
Campbell uses imaging technologies that date from a time when native populations were stripped of power in both places she photographs. The land, too, has lost its former status, as a source of spiritual nourishment and cultural identity. Her imposition of a historical lens, as it were, restores to her natural subjects a generous share of their purity and mystery.
Photo: Joyce Campbell: Datura with Spirit, 2008/2012, fiber-based silver gelatin hand-printed photograph (from ambrotypes), 33½ by 25¼ inches; at Pitzer Art Galleries.