Beguilingly Incomplete: Our Origins at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Alison Ruttan, Mullet, ballpoint pen on inkjet print, 2006, courtesy of the artis

In the increasingly rigorous quest for knowledge acquisition and verification, photography and science are uneasy bedfellows. Allison Grant‘s curatorial statement for Our Origins, showing at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, puts it so: “Like science, photography offers arrangements of information, pulled out of the complexity of the world as a whole, presented with seemingly impartial clarity.” Sure, data in visual form can aid us in more fully analyzing and authenticating abstract concepts; it can contribute to a collectively shared, reproducible, foundational knowledge base.

But, after years of convenient digital manipulation built upon decades more of tediously produced and often lo-fi, though no less convincing, visual fictions–from spirit photography to Stalin’s ‘retouched’ propaganda–if there’s one thing we’ve learned about photography, if not yet science, it’s that seeming ‘evidence’ can be deceiving. That’s not even to mention the now relatively widespread practice of illustrating, and claiming new if sometimes unfounded comprehensibility in, sophisticated hypotheses by way of compelling pieces of information design. (GOOD Magazine, I’m talking to you.) In this, it’s clear that images, not only in their contents, but in their arrangements and relationships to one another, can tell a misleading story.

In its approach, Eric William Carroll’s G.U.T. Feeling series featured in the show, is reminiscent of Larry Sultan and Mike Mandel’s Evidence, one of the original masters of the beguilingly incomplete visual account. Carroll gathers found scientific documents and his original drawings and photos in a classification that seeks a coherent grand narrative, while also taking humorous comfort in its impossibility.

Penelope Umbrico, Suns (From Sunsets) from Flickr, inkjet prints, 2006-ongoing, courtesy of the artist

More often than deliberate misdirection, though, both science and photography engage in presenting a purportedly complete picture as a culturally or biologically shared phenomenon while removing it from its context. Though I haven’t seen Penelope Umbrico‘s 7,626,056 Suns From Flickr in it’s entirety—like most installations of the work, the partial in this show only exhibits a grid of a couple hundred of them—I already feel like it’s everywhere. Haven’t seen the suns yet? Sure you have. Each of these few million snapshots pulled from the popular photo-sharing website, feature our nearest star as the main character. You’ve already experienced multitudes of these sun shining/setting images, just like in Umbrico’s collection. What you haven’t experienced, and the absence of which her obsessive compilation emphasizes for us, is each of the unique circumstances in which those photos were captured.

Aspen Mays, Punched Out Stars 2, 2011, courtesy of the artist and Golden Gallery

While Aspen Mays’s Punched Out Stars highlight their vacancies much more aggressively. Rather than depicting the suns of other galaxies in her images of night skies, Mays chooses to redact them, literally removing them with a hole punch, precisely asserting the lack of information present. And here the show highlights the use of photography in pursuits of scientific endeavor as both powerfully illuminating and uneasily incomplete, while also articulating the insufficiency of the scientific effort itself. There are just so many gaps in our knowledge and thus gaps in our ability to accurately represent that knowledge.

Our Origins is on view at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Photography through October 15.