Stop. Look.

Some photos from Sarah Charlesworth's Stills series

I’ve been organizing my LA trip photos, more than half of which cover our LACMA visit. The expansive LACMA campus houses more art than my phone memory can hold, but I did snap my favorites from the impressive modern and contemporary art collections and the rotating exhibits. As it turns out, that means amassing shots of one exhibit in particular: Doubleworld.

Collecting work from the artist Sarah Charlesworth’s 40-year career, Doubleworld is a striking examination of photos and how they shape contemporary culture. Sounds especially relevant, right? But Charlesworth died in 2013, and the bulk of her work took place in the pre-digital era. That contextual disjunct struck me right away: with so much of the digital age justifiably described as “unprecedented,” I wasn’t expecting someone to address it so well, and before it had even come about.

To be clear, Charlesworth wasn’t exactly responding to our world of Snapchat and Instagram and endless-scrolling newsfeeds. As part of the New York-based group that came to be known as the Pictures Generation, Charlesworth instead spoke to the swirl of low-definition ads, in-color media, nuclear war anxieties, and gnawing disillusionment that marked ’70s-’80s America. (You can see how the group’s taken on new relevance.)

In The New York Times, Gary Indiana notes that Charlesworth and her peers created art informed by deconstruction, by an acute awareness of the contrived nature and fallibility of institutions and popular narratives. As a result, the Pictures Generation’s work brings a pointed, critical self-consciousness to bear on representation — its subjects, its methods, its reception.

Take the Stills collection, my favorite section from Doubleworld. First shown in 1980, the series comprises 14 photos of photos: images clipped from newspapers, all of people falling. Each blown to just over six feet tall, these rephotographed clippings carry a solemn, arresting power. Viewers don’t just browse; they plunge into the images themselves, and hover, suspended, in their consideration. There’s no scrolling — or in this case, strolling — past.


L-R: Unidentified Man, Otani Hotel, Los Angeles; Unidentified Woman (Vera Atwool, Trinity Towers, Louisville, KY); Jerry Hollins, Chicago Federal Courthouse, from the “Stills” series, 1980. Black & white mural print, 78 in x 42 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, IL. Photo taken at LACMA.

Charlesworth’s choice of subject contributes a lot to that effect. There’s the morbid pull of a moment snatched before final, devastating impact, sure. But beyond that, there’s the draw of knowing that these moments are slivers of a bigger process, a larger sequence of stories and events. Something set these falls in motion (an accident, a decision); moments after these snapshots, these people would not be the same. Charlesworth, by holding these transitional moments up for consideration, nudges the viewer to envision beyond the images in front of them — and reminds them of a photograph’s inherent incompleteness, or at least of that inescapable conflict between essence and fragment at any photograph’s heart.

A Vogue article on the exhibit quotes a 1980 Cover Magazine interview where Charlesworth had this to say about the series:

“One of the things that fascinated me was the tension inherent in the image, the contradiction between the desire for information that completes the ‘story’ and the experience of an incomplete moment. One knows there’s a human history which exists outside the image, and yet as photographs they are complete. They are static. They never fucking fall.”


Dar Robinson, Toronto, from the “Stills” series, 1980. Black & white mural print, 78 in x 42 in. The Art Institute of Chicago, IL. Photo taken at LACMA.

Stills’ presentation highlights this tension. Each image bears the name and location of its subjects, if available; it’s enough supplementary detail to pass for “completion.” But those details themselves imply whole landscapes of lives that the photograph doesn’t capture, and Charlesworth adds layers to that whispered limitation by retaining the cut-outs’ ragged edges and bringing out the grain of the source newspapers. These photos of photos themselves are lacking, giving us the image without its original context, inviting us to consider the blanks.

In an interview quoted by The New Yorker, Charlesworth says of her process:

“I think of myself as a robber. … I plunder and pillage on paper. … I possess these things and give them my own meaning.”

Quietly, Stills emphasizes the photo’s nature as bounded — limited — yet polysemous artifact and challenges the notion of photographs as indisputable manifestations of reality, of truth. Images are objects, open for plunder, pillage, and possession — not just by people like Charlesworth in the process of constructing work like Stills, but also by people who view these exhibits and engage in the process of extrapolating meaning from them.


Doubleworld, from the “Doubleworld” series, 1995. Cibachrome print with mahogany frame, 51 x 41 in (129.5 x 104.1 cm). Courtesy the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth and Maccarone Gallery, New York.

Doubleworld takes its name from a 1995 photo of two stereoscopic devices holding images of two women standing beside each other. For Charlesworth, photographs were an “alternate universe,” increasingly ubiquitous and constantly suspect. She tried to articulate that by making the constructed nature of photos obvious (if not literal) through techniques like collage and re-appropriation, but the image’s spread to digital has given us tools like Photoshop and memes that could have worked just as well. Sarah Charlesworth’s world might not be an exact reflection (heh) of ours, but it is a rhyme, and that adds a whole new dimension to the exhibit’s doublings.

That resonance puts a new spin on the exhibit’s name, too. Doubleworld reaches beyond Charlesworth’s particular historical moment and visual culture to touch our own. The potent, incisive understatement of Stills and other series confronts us with the incomplete photo, the unfinished rhyme, and asks how we might craft the rest.

You can hear more about Sarah Charlesworth’s work in this fantastic panel organized by The Art Institute Chicago in 2014.