University of Rochester

‘Interactive Reading’

A photographer explores the power of art as he reinterprets some of the Memorial Art Gallery’s collections in a new book. By Douglas Holleley

Original works of art are images—images with specific stories to tell, facts to display, and nuances to appreciate. It is these messages, expressed directly and uncompromisingly as visual structure, that underpin the power of art. Thus the challenge is to devise a method of working that allows these messages to transcend the limitations of conventional photography.

To effect this, I adopted an approach based on the premise that if it is legitimate for a photographer to roam through the world, selecting from a series of events to create a coherent perspective, so too can a photographer roam through an art gallery, or even an individual painting, and create a microcosmic visual reality that simultaneously draws from, comments upon, and adds to, the original reality.

Detail, M. W. Hopkins’s painting, Pierrepont Edward Lacey and His Dog, Gun
M. W. Hopkins’s painting, Pierrepont Edward Lacey and His Dog, Gun
VISUAL DIALOG: Focused on details, the images in the book Better Things explore how viewers can find new perspectives on paintings, sculptures, and other artistic works in the Memorial Art Gallery. A Holleley photograph (top left) interprets a gallery portrait attributed to M. W. Hopkins (Pierrepont Edward Lacey (1832–after 1860) and His Dog, Gun, 1835–1836; gift of Mr. and Mrs. Robert H. Dunn) while another (bottom right) focuses on the tears in a Lily Martin Spencer painting (Peeling Onions, circa 1852; gift of the Women’s Council).
Lily Martin Spencer’s painting, Peeling Onions
Detail, Lily Martin Spencer’s painting, Peeling Onions

I term this act “interactive reading,” as the images so made represent a visual manifestation of the commonplace, yet highly complex, act of cognition we call “reading.” Reading is not a passive act. When we read a book, not only are the eyes engaged, but also the sense of touch, as the book is cradled in the hand while the pages are turned. It can also be argued that the sense of hearing is similarly involved, in that the words and images on the page are also capable of conjuring up sound in the mind of the reader. However, the most important aspect of reading is that the mind of the reader must participate with the page in order to make sense of the marks printed thereon.

The photographs that result from this method are not expressions of “ownership” or even “documentation.” Instead, by engaging in a (visual) dialog with the artworks, the photographs make visible not only the artwork as an object but also, through their framing and structure, the process of selective attention, personal identification, intellectual curiosity, and judgment that occurs when we read and attempt to understand a text, an image, or a collection of images.

The method I employed was to regard the paintings as fields of choice and potential. In other words I concentrated on details rather than the whole image. A precedent for this seemingly arbitrary act is the notion of the “punctum.” The French critic Roland Barthes coined this term while engaged in an extended meditation on a photograph of his deceased mother. Barthes described the sometimes unbearable poignancy generated by a small, often initially unnoticed detail in the photograph. He saw the punctum not so much as a summation of the content of the image, but a minute yet significant structure that insistently calls the viewer back to view the image again and again.

Adapted from Better Things: An Annotated Visual Essay of Photographs Interpreting the Collection of the Memorial Art Gallery of the University of Rochester (Clarellen Press, 2005), by photographer Douglas Holleley, coordinator of the Visual Studies Workshop in Rochester. Text and images reprinted with permission.