Sarah Charlesworth’s (1947–2013) conceptual practice centered the photographic image as an object. Much has been written about the artist’s analogue process of clipping images from magazines and art history textbooks and arranging and rephotographing them against bright backgrounds, a method that produced what look today like highly photoshopped works. But an equally important, and less often explored, aspect of her practice is her longstanding engagement with publishing: she was an active writer and critic, and made several artist books and photo catalogues. She was also involved in the founding and production of a number of magazines, such as BOMB in the early 1980s (she adorned the magazine’s first cover with her dramatic black and white image of the Empire State building) and, in the mid-’70s, The Fox, a short-lived artist-run critical theory magazine. A recent exhibition of her publishing work, Image Language at Printed Matter, takes a deeper look at Charlesworth’s archive, collecting habits, and publishing achievements as both a critic and image-maker.
Like many of her Pictures Generation contemporaries, Charlesworth was deeply engaged with conceptual considerations of the photographic image, as evidenced by her early writings. In 1983 she reviewed the English translation of Roland Barthes’s Camera Lucida (which was published shortly after his death) for Artforum, in which she linked his associations between photography as a memento mori and the death of his mother with her experience of reading the text after his death. A copy of this review is among the items in this exhibition, along with draft notes and images of Charlesworth’s work inspired by Barthes’s writing.
Her interest in photographic theory was expansive; in 1982, she published In-Photography in response to Susan Sontag’s On Photography (1977). The catalogue, which accompanied an exhibition of a print series with the same title, includes an opening essay in which Charlesworth writes, “Representation is not a singular act, but a continuous and repetitive process of symbolization, a dense and hierarchical vocabulary of the world once removed.”
Her investigations into this cycle of representation were largely carried out through series, in which she explored repetition and seriality, motifs that translate easily into book form. She produced a number of photo books, many of which feature her writings (as with In-Photography), revealing an interest in what Image Language curator Christine Robinson called during the virtual tour, “seriality in paginated sequences.”
Her first series, Modern History (1977-79), used as source material global newspapers focused on specific events from 1977-79, including the 1979 eclipse and Pope John Paul II’s visit to pray near the Auschwitz concentration camp. Charlesworth would develop a set of parameters for selecting the pages, such as the appearance of a specific photograph or mention of an event, and then remove all the text from the pages, leaving only the images and newspaper heading. Though usually displayed in a row on the gallery wall, the series works well as a publication; the book shows a limited selection of these prints, each on its own page, with some introductory notes by the artist in the opening essay, “UNWRITING: Notes On Modern History.” Charlesworth writes:
The visual materials which comprise the primary text of this catalogue are reproductions of single “details” of larger works, usually comprising a number of textual reproductions whose selection and edition describe a figure at once “imaginary” and “objective.” Imaginary, in the sense that they position us in a hypothetical or imaginary perspective; objective, in that they are constructed of actual concrete objects (newspapers, photos — texts) which I have found and whose formal order I have maintained.
Charlesworth’s interest in the way texts and images work together to build narratives, and thereby become representations of events, is further complicated by her creation of an object of serial representation, the book. The representational chain continues from the event documented in the paper to the event of experiencing this through its representation in the paper through the event of her image-making, and, finally, the event of reading.
Several years after her newspaper investigation, Charlesworth continued to interrogate how serial images are read. Her 26-page photobook A Lover’s Tale (1983) pairs black-and-white film stills from monster movies with those from Hollywood romances. Unlike Modern History and In-Photography, there is no text. Instead the narrative derives from the sequencing and pacing of photos; alternating images of monsters and pin-up girls climax to films scenes where women are taken captive, before the book concludes with stills of heroic men coming to save them. Stripped of their context, the visuals underscore how prevalent and trite these narratives are.
Each still retains Charlesworth’s characteristic analog touch. She reminds us that these are reproductions by leaving evidence of the materiality of the source image: torn sides, uneven partial white borders, and page numbers from the source. By laying bare their objectness, she foregrounds all the ways these narratives circulate in magazines, movie posters, and visual culture at large. A Lover’s Tale is bookended with a still of a woman standing on a pedestal in a coy Birth of Venus-like pose — a note that women are treated as objects, too.
The exhibition opened just days before New York’s COVID-19 shutdown, but it is accessible through a video tour, digital exhibition guide, and online selection of archival materials, and it will remain on view once Printed Matter reopens to the public. The exhibition guide includes installation shots, including one of a vitrine filled with working materials for In-Photography: folders of found images grouped by the subjects “explosions,” “lightning,” and “planets (NASA),” alongside her clipping and text from the In-Photography book. Having visited Charlesworth’s archive myself, I can attest to her commitment to archiving, collecting, and research. Through its presentation of her completed artworks, writings, and books, as well as many examples of her drafting, note-taking, and ephemera, Image Language strikingly captures this.