As I visit Stills by Sarah Charlesworth, I make a lap around the near-empty and silent room, my shoes echoing throughout the space, and then sit on the bench in the center of the gallery. From this vantage point, I am surrounded by the work and able to take in six of the behemoth silver gelatin prints all at once. Each image of an individual plunging through the air commands my attention, yet when viewed collectively, the conceptual density of the images is truly haunting. And I can hardly look away.
To create these evocative works, Charlesworth scoured news wires and the archives of the New York Public Library for photographs of a solitary individual jumping off of a building to commit suicide or because of a catastrophe such as a fire. The who and the why are almost always mysteries here, which is both incredibly poignant yet indicative of the desperation depicted in each image. After appropriating the photograph, Charlesworth cropped and ripped the edges ragged so it appeared to be casually torn. As one might tear out an important clipping from the newspaper, each image becomes something to remember – a macabre memento somehow worth keeping. She would then re-photograph the image and enlarge the work to a staggering seventy-eight inch height. It is this severe magnification that allows the point of entry into this palpable series of the last moments of life.
A tragic documentary, Stills, offers a glimpse of a moment many will never see – that last second after a human being decides to jump into the abyss (actual and metaphorical). Each individual was both observed and photographed in their final act, explicitly forcing an audience to consider the weight of such an intimate and irrevocable decision at either the time of impact and/or after the fact. Consequently, I (as well as the artist) am both witness and voyeur – we watch, we document, and we reflect. Charlesworth’s decision to reproduce an image that already carried a communal gravitas makes us (society) voyeurs for a second time; although, in this instance, there is an expectation of a more genuine and concerted consideration. The re-examination of these jumpers is not only a visual autopsy of the tragedy captured, but also a dissection into the manner in which images shape our everyday lives and society as a whole. Decisively printed in stark contrast, the blown-out whites and cavernous blacks offer empathetic depth reflective of the finality of the event, and undeniably beckons to our collective sensibilities of compassion as well as our own individual mortality.
Notably, for such heavy conceptual grounding, each work is a selective image of fractions: of background, of life, of death, of identity (only one image, UI Woman, Genessee Hotel, shows a full face). The ground and sky aren’t determined, I don’t see the point of choice (or push, or desperation) that sent this person over the edge, and I don’t see the end. But I know its there. It is a moment frozen, quiet and still. For a fleeting yet hopeful second, I consider that the end didn’t come for these individuals. But it did, for all of them, one after the other. After viewing 14 of them side-by-side, I am consciously heavy-hearted and feel as though at this junction, I’m not supposed to look away.
The most striking single image for me is Patricia Cawlings, Los Angeles – a particularly soft image of a woman plummeting face first to her inevitable death. Perhaps it is because she is a woman or perhaps it is that the distorted position of her body is in direct contrast to the calm expression on her face. Or perhaps it is that this image is so reminiscent of the harrowing Associated Press photograph of an anonymous man diving headfirst from the North Tower on September 11, 2001. In preparing Stills for the Chicago exhibition, Charlesworth was apparently aware that her work would be inevitably associated with Falling Man. Reportedly, according to Matthew Lange, Studio Manager of the Estate of Sarah Charlesworth, the artist realized it was “unavoidable” that her earlier work would be compared to this now iconic image. So “she faced those concerns by returning to her original intentions for the photographs, which was to force viewers to confront the humanity of those private, but incredibly traumatic, moments.”
As I go to exit the gallery, I’m suddenly aware that I have been holding my breath. Purposefully exhaling, I am compelled to consider that within each image, here in this room, is a body that also once held breath. As a member of humanity, so should we all.
The complete collection of Sarah Charlesworth: Stills (all 14 photographs including six that have never been exhibited) is on view together for the first time through Sunday, January 4, 2015 in Gallery 188.