In the Flesh by Amelia Groom

In the Flesh by Amelia Groom

Untitled Walk #4 (sorrowful gesture), Untitled Walk #5 (soft gesture), 2014 © Sarah Mosca

Here are some photographs of Sarah Mosca. They don’t look much like Sarah Mosca’s body, but they are the direct results of its movements, heat, sweat and breath. They took place when she went on a series of long walks through the mountains in Abruzzo, Italy, with sheets of large-format colour negatives attached to the insides of her clothing. Over the duration of each walk, a long-exposure photographic image was inscribed into the film surface – leaving these nebulous, semi-eroded fields of violets and ambers, without any recognisable forms.

Friedrich Schelling, Hermann Biow, 1848

The photographic process can be thought of as a sculptural process. Look at this haunting photograph of Friedrich Schelling from 1848, which features in Walter Benjamin’s Little History of Photography (1931). It’s a daguerreotype, so the picture is the one-off result of a direct, physical inscription into a photosensitive metal surface, over an extended duration. Sitters for studio portraits in the mid-nineteenth century were required to be still for as long as fifteen minutes, while their image was slowly carved into the daguerreotype plate. Benjamin writes that this lengthy processing time allowed the photographed subject to “grow into the picture.” In sharp contrast to the notion of the instantaneous snapshot that freezes a passing moment, Schelling’s portrait appears as a gradual focusing of his life and aura. And just as Schelling has grown into this lasting picture, the old coat that he wears in it has, bit by bit, taken on the form of his body. Benjamin writes of Schelling’s coat, “the shape it has borrowed from its wearer is not unworthy of the creases in his face.” The well-worn garment and the wrinkled face are marks of longevity; like a daguerreotype, they carry unique, accumulated imprints of a person in time.

Photosculpture, Alina Szapocznikow, 1971

Photography also came out as sculptural in Alina Szapocznikow’s Photosculpture series, from 1971. Having experimented for several years with latex casts of body parts (limbs, bellies, breasts, feet, lips, torsos), Szapocznikow presented twenty black-and-white photographs showing various formations of chewed up chewing gum, along with this statement:

"The other day, Saturday, tired from having spent hours polishing my Rolls-Royce in pink Portuguese marble, I sat in the sun and day-dreamed as I mechanically chewed a bit of gum. In shaping with my mouth odd-looking and bizarre forms, I suddenly realised what an extraordinary collection of abstract sculptures was between my teeth. One has only to photograph and enlarge my masticated creations in order to achieve a sculptural presence. Chew well then. Look around you. Creation lies just between dreams and daily work."

The Photosculptures are photos depicting sculptural forms – and the depicted forms are themselves photographic, carrying impressions left behind on receptive surfaces. The artist found her “extraordinary collection of abstract sculptures” in her mouth, as a result of the direct imprints that were occurring while she daydreamed and chewed. The achromatic, vaguely anthropomorphic forms bare memories of former bodily presence, and the photos leave us with indexical traces of these indexical traces.

Photographs of photography: Francesca Woodman’s It must be time for lunch now, 1979, and Providence, Rhode Island, 1976.

In 1996, some men robbed a bank in Spokane, Washington State. They wore balaclavas and gloves to hide who they were, and their generic outfits of sneakers, parkers and jeans further obfuscated their identities. But when the CCTV footage ended up at the FBI Laboratory’s Special Photographic Unit, close inspection of the seams of one of the robber’s jeans revealed unique characteristics, which ultimately led to the suspect’s prosecution. Despite their ubiquity, it turns out that mass-produced denim jeans can carry very distinctive visual information. Over time, jeans accumulate particular patterns of wear and fading, depending on the shape and posture of the wearer’s body, the way they move and sit, what they carry in their pockets, the way they wash the jeans, and so on. Kitty Hauser wrote an excellent article about this, which was published in the Journal of Material Culture in 2004. According to her, the Spokane bank robber’s jeans are a reminder that identity is carried “not just in the body (in the face, in fingerprints, or in the DNA encoded in an eyelash), but in its cultural wrappings too, in the very fabric of its disguises.”

The Shroud of Turin, author unknown, date unknown

If you’re wearing jeans right now, think of them as photographs. The fade patterning on the fabric surface is a distinct arrangement of light and dark – photo graphé. The seams and hems probably show the most pronounced patterning. These parts of the garment tend to have unique ridges, where the pigment becomes unevenly distributed, making them as distinctive as fingerprints, or barcodes, or the mountainous terrain of Abruzzo. Like Sarah Mosca’s ambulatory photograms, the fade patterns in your jeans carry after-images of corporeal presence. Through direct physical contact, over long durations, a body has inscribed itself into a surface. You aren’t photographed as a delineated form at a specific moment, but through a gathering of imprints built up over spans of time, so that object dissolves into process.

Useless Gestures installation view, Galerie Pompom, Sarah Mosca, 2014 (photo by: Brett East)

This is an extended version of a text written to accompany Sarah Mosca’s exhibition ‘Useless Gestures’ at Galerie Pompom, Sydney (July-August 2014)


Amelia Groom is a London-based writer.