The Museum's collection includes four large-scale photographs by Barbara Ess, each made in her signature style, using black-and-white film and a simple pinhole camera and then printing on color photographic paper. Her choice of equipment and process makes pictures with a soft focus, especially around the edges. Usually printed with just one earthy color, such as amber or muted blue-black, her images become ambient, shadowy, and flickering.
In one respect, her photographs are clearly figurative, yet they are also blurred, with space distorted to the point of abstraction. Each is entitled "no title," reinforcing the idea that they are not direct representations of specific places or things. Rather, the imagery works within the realm of ambiguity and metaphor—it is meant to trigger memory and nostalgia based on personal experience and the associations we make with what we see.
Varied symbolism and meaning can be found within each of the Museum's pictures. At center frame of the vertical piece no title, 1989, is a stuffed ram's head enveloped in a soft orange glow. Its eyes and nose glisten as if animated, yet it is clearly lifeless, cleanly cut at the neck and mounted on a wood backdrop. Similarly, no title, 1994 is a fluttery glimpse of a spread white wing and a faint bird's body that resembles a dove seemingly caught in a struggle. No title, 1991, is an intense orange blurred face, disfigured by the close-up view. All three of these images verge on the supernatural—receding and hazy—and are enigmatic to the point of being distressing. Perhaps the most unsettling, however, is no title, 1989, a vertical, predominantly black-and-white image of what appears to be an infant left alone on a bed.
Like these images, all of Ess's works have a distinct narrative quality. Not surprisingly, she studied filmmaking in the early 1970s at the London School of Film Technique. Yet her pictures, more like film stills than a complete story, are unresolved. As such, they initiate a range of emotions from anxiety and helplessness, to being captivated by a fantasy and the romantic aesthetic quality of her old-fashioned method.
Her pictures not only relate to film, but also hark back to the nineteenth-century approach to fine-art photography known as Pictorialism and to the well-known amateur photographer Julia Margaret Cameron. The Pictorialists and Cameron often included nature, women, and children as subject matter, creating tableau vivant imagery that either reinforced fixed notions about society and women and children, including moral messages, or—as is most often the case with Cameron and Ess—evoked moody, open-ended narratives.
Of her intent as a photographer, Ess has said, "In a way I try to photograph what cannot be photographed."(1) Her success in this endeavor is evident in the Modern's four pictures, each of which potentially and probably sparks a memory that relates to reality, but is not an exact representation of it.
– Andrea Karnes
(1) "Barbara Ess," Camera Austria 27 (October 1988): 17.