Nicola Loder told me she felt like she was disappearing teaching blind kids photography. Not surprising, I guess, when you try to describe the camera, the lens, optics, focus, framing, composition. When your identity or your role as a photographer dissipates along with the explanatory power of these foundation terms and concepts. And practical demonstrations must seem frustratingly pointless.
That profound experience seems to have led Loder to use photography in reverse, as the means to decompose images; to utilize Photoshop’s algorithms, not to augment or highlight certain attributes in the portraits she ultimately took of these kids, but return images to an undifferentiated field of static, the digital correlate to the original photochemical chaos, the entropy of raw silver halides, which the ‘irrefutable sun’ miraculously sorts into resemblance. In short, to unphotograph the kids somehow, commensurate with their disability, their blindness and her own disappearance in the workshops.
Disappearance is Loder’s leitmotif and her long ‘apprenticeship of silence’ – as she calls it – from a post-grad student in 1992 to her current shows, features the disappearance of one subject or another from photographs, excising each using Photoshop – a building torn down, a pet that may have passed, a holiday snap from Hawaii, a loved one gone missing, or ultimately kids from one of her workshops. She leaves behind a whorl of digital effect in the vacant space, set in high relief against a lounge-room, or a yard, or other family members.
Yet on closer inspection this is perhaps a matter of transformation, since ‘disappearing’ may be very different from ‘deletion’. In Photoshop we are each just so much chroma, luma and shape. A touch of the magic wand and we are separated from the rest of our lives, ‘lassooed’, a godly power to designate us liberated from special-effects cinema by the Knoll brothers in 1988 and given to every geek with a Mac II. Since when it’s just too easy to be deleted; two clicks and we’re in the trash.
But in Loder’s work our data is recast, colour intensified, details blurred, outlines softened, curves modified, screens overlaid and so it seem Photoshop’s myriad algorithms – set against their intended technical imperative to optimise appearances – provide a metaphor for our disappearing, which is indeed not a removal or deletion but a reconfiguration beyond verisimilitude, beyond our appearance to others and ourselves.
And while we might lose visual coherence as an image, we are inscribed upon another plane altogether, one at odds with photographic realism, and which Loder describes as a “de-constructed non-space somewhere between image, imagination, identity, language and being,” like the shimmering dissipation of Kirk on the teleporter’s deck in Star Trek, these subjects are transported to another realm, different orders of reality merging into a new volatile blend. Perhaps it’s a higher plane too where all souls mingle and coalesce as either zeros or ones, a digital afterlife in which everything is equivalent and a new digital equanimity prevails.
It certainly feels like something hallucinatory is irrupting from the picture plane, that we are inside the machine, or the software, or the pigment of the print, in amongst the data flows, the dotscreen, adrift in the fluvial moire. It can be a bit of a shock like watching a film when the stock gets caught in the projector-gate and starts melting and then bursts into flames. Or the effect is at the very lest least disjunctive, like the blurry, wavy images in film that signal a transition from cinematic or photographic realism to a dream state. Just as cinema (or any medium) develops the means or tropes for self-reflection, so too Loder has found a way to visualize experiences or sensations that are ostensibly resistant or contrary to visualization. In which sense, Photoshop eats itself.
And yet Photoshop is not actually optical, just uses optics as a metaphor. The material transformation of a photograph into a digital image – from light and photochemical emulsion to code and pixels – is a fundamental, substantive shift, where an original, ephemeral ray of reflected light acquires a new, virtual plasticity, “sort of like making the image into clay and pulling and pushing until you get the desired result” says Loder. Each face or figure is rendered within a new topography, the space of a computer, ‘a virtual terrain’.
Indeed, we immediately sense this excessive visuality in Loder’s images in the exaggerated line and colour, the high contrast topography and the discrete plateaus, as if colour and form were sedimentary layers under pressure or force. Visuality doesn’t so much breakdown by reduction or through attrition, as it overloads in a kind of feedback; clicking the mouse until it can be clicked no more, reaching the end of the math, the algorithm spent, the child’s face barely legible, technical effect pouring out of the eyes, nose and mouth. Here there is too much visuality, overflowing similitude, exceeding good taste, beyond all propriety.
While the images tend toward formlessness – and the chidlren’s faces especially – teeter on the brink of recognition, the process stops just short of our incomprehension. At this remove, where the image has become bits, it could indeed be as easily reformulated or reformatted in other media. Digitisation enables this extraordinary reconstitution that might then portend another sense or even a kind of synaesthesia, wherein seeing abuts and meshes with the other senses. From here I can sense these images as a sound or object, even smell them, almost as easily as I can see them.
At this original liminal threshold, visuality is recalled in combination with other senses, not as a discrete realm of experience but “a visual sensation of a large, doughy, shadowy mass, usually round, growing larger as it comes nearer and nearer … accompanied by sensations of tactile roughness on the skin and inside the mouth, and a milky or salty taste in the back of the throat.” The original experience is multi-faceted; a visual experience is commensurate with a taste, a sound, a texture.
We might think of Loder’s work as ‘undoing’ visuality. She sets technology in reverse, working against the imperatives of photography to clarify, focus, refine and sharpen images, as if our eyes worked backwards, as if acuity worsened. The face is an obvious (originary) limit beyond which chaos prevails and other senses are engaged to interpret what looks like abstract static but which many now believe is an unstriated sensory realm, a liberated space of interrelated, undifferentiated holistic sensory experiences; the original synaesthesia from which perception emerges as a travesty according to 5 distinct categories.
But it’s not blindness after all that the work references, not the failing of vision, but the first moments of looking, when ‘seeing’ begins to separate from the other senses and consolidates into a face, a percept, then into a code, a genre, a representation.