Jerry Spagnoli: Daguerreotypes and Photomicrographs

New York

29 November 2001 — 26 January 2002

Press Release

SPAGNOLI’s name is strongly linked with the rediscovery of the antique daguerreotype process. Working from scratch – he builds most of his camera and darkroom equipment - Spagnoli (born 1956) has literally reinvented this complex 19th century technique which is the first registered photographic device. Based on a direct positive process, the daguerreotype is a unique and highly detailed image captured on a mirror like silver coated copper plate. There is a particular jewel-like quality to this precious shiny object that is an important element of Spagnoli’s fascination for the medium. At the same time, Spagnoli imbues his images with a distinctively contemporary sensibility. The unsurpassed precision of the daguerreotype becomes the vehicle for a questioning of photography’s intrinsic objectivity, and on a deeper level of human perception and of the way in which the mind analyzes the world as a surface.

The present exhibition explores this key notion of surface by way of an installation that dynamically confronts two representations of skin and texture: daguerreotypes of anatomical details, on the one hand, and highly abstract life-size gelatin silver prints of bodies in motion, on the other. The daguerreotypes are enigmatically composed close-ups of hands, eyes, ears, necks, knees and shoulders that reveal with uncanny clarity the minutest elements of the human skin. Freckles, wrinkles and pores create an almost abstract pattern. At the same time, the daguerreotypes stand out for their lushness and density. They unite a clinical rendering of detail with a rich sensuality that brings to mind the voluptuous abstraction of Edward Weston’s nudes as well as Alfred Stieglitz’s elegiac studies of Georgia O’Keefe.


The prints, on the other hand, concentrate on the texture or “skin” of the photograph itself. These “photomicrographs” are made from the enlargement in a microscope of a detail isolated on pre-existing photographs which were shot using a 35 mm camera and represent full figures of people falling through space. The resulting prints compose a series of archetypal images that do not refer back to an object in reality but are in essence a picture of the film itself. Their distinctive graininess - which is a direct consequence of the particular process involved – mirrors the representation of the human skin’s very “grain” that is at work in the daguerreotypes. Hung scrim-like, at a distance from the exhibition walls, the photomicrographs assume the complexity of a densely woven tapestry.

Spagnoli’s work is featured in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Museum, the Hallmark Photographic Collection and the Museum of the City of New York. It is regularly exhibited and has been shown at the Museum of the City of New York, the Boston University Art Gallery and the George Eastman House. Spagnoli’s mastery of the daguerreotype recently led to a fruitful collaboration with the artist Chuck Close.

Spagnoli, who received his art education at the San Francisco Art Institute, currently lives and works in New York City.