‘Adam Bartos’s photographs of Marker’s Paris studio offer a powerful answer; they are beautiful portraits from which the subject has gone missing’— Ben Lerner examines the work of photographer Adam Bartos:
Chris Marker, whose name was not “Chris Marker,” was a play of masks and avatars, an artist who leapt, like one of his beloved cats, from medium to medium. If, as Walter Benjamin said, a great work either dissolves a genre or invents one, if each great work is a special case, Marker produced a series of special cases. He invented the genre of the essay film; he composed what is widely considered the greatest short film ever made, La Jetée, in 1962; in the late nineties, he issued one of the first major artworks of the digital age, the CD-ROM Immemory. Even Marker’s relation to his own celebrity was an evasive masterpiece: until his death in 2012, at ninety-one, he was everywhere and nowhere, refusing both the haughty fantasy of nonparticipation and the seductions of spectacle. How do you memorialize an artist who refused to remain identical to himself? How do you remember one of the great philosopher-artists of memory?
Adam Bartos’s photographs of Marker’s Paris studio offer a powerful answer; they are beautiful portraits from which the subject has gone missing.
In Bartos’s photographs, people are everywhere and nowhere. The first of his books I encountered was International Territory (1994), a series of images of the UN building in New York. Emptied of people, the architecture is left to dream its modernist dream of a future that never arrives. In many of the images, a distinctly postapocalyptic feeling obtains: without a speaker atop it, the General Assembly podium appears like a giant tomb; the subtle signs of aging infrastructure—cracks in the walls, peeling paint—make the building look less momentarily vacated than abandoned. I can’t quite decide, for instance, whether the coat hanging in the photograph of the Russian Translation Service indicates that someone is working just beyond the frame or whether the garment has been hanging there for years. The healthy-looking office plants that appear in several images look less like reassuring signs of habitation than ominous indications that nature is starting to reclaim the buildings of a depopulated city. And the single rose in a vase at the center of the image of the Delegates Dining Room—is that freshly cut or plastic? Bartos’s photographs are full of such ambiguities, undecidable temporalities. Across his projects, I experience the contradictory sense that the human figure is just about to reenter the picture and that the architecture and furniture will never again be occupied. Of course, this shifting sense of presence and absence isn’t an effect merely of what’s depicted, but of how: Bartos’s images feel both perfectly composed and simply found, patterned and yet unmanipulated, which means that my awareness of someone “behind” the camera dims and intensifies and dims again as I look.