Arts Curriculum

Photography

These other mediums [photography, artist’s books, painting, digital work] kind of loop back on each other in the work.10

 

Photography

Absent Without Leave, 1993. 188 black-and-white photocopies, 21.6 x 27.9 cm each. Collection of the artist

In the late 1980s, Christopher Wool began to incorporate photography into his artistic process. He was not interested in making the refined large-format color photographs that were popular at the time. Rather, his photographs were almost exclusively black and white, small in scale, and presented in groups instead of individually. His work in the medium rejects precise composition and finish in favor of a raw, almost casual aesthetic that was deliberately imperfect.

His first series, Absent Without Leave (1993), was first published in the form of an artist’s book. It consists of snapshots that are illcomposed, out of focus, and poorly lit. The images, shot during Wool’s travels in Europe and elsewhere, were made with 35 mm film, developed at over-the-counter photo labs in 4 x 6–inch format, and then transformed with a photocopier into 8 1/2 x 11–inch sheets. For his next photobook, East Broadway Breakdown (1994–95/2002), he took thousands of photos at night, using a flash, of the dilapidated areas of New York City between his East Village studio and Chinatown home. Again, he produced over-the-counter 4 x 6–inch prints, but this time he used Photoshop to make tonal adjustments.

Themes or motifs from his paintings can be frequently traced in his photographs. Language, blemishes, and patterns can be found in the images, as well as an overall exploration of degradation and decay.

Wool is also well-known for photographing his own paintings, again without the expected emphasis on technical “skill.” He shoots his works installed in his studio, galleries, and domestic spaces in black-and-white compositions that defy conventional guidelines for photographing artworks. Frequently, his works are shown leaning against something, partially obstructed by doorways or columns, or even still in progress. Curator James Rondeau writes that by presenting his work this way, Wool fights “the precise, polished nature of typical gallery or museum documentation. With his photographs, the artist insists on retaining the sense of insubordination found in his paintings.”11

10. Youtube.com/watch?v=7nbJMXyyMNs.

11. James Rondeau, “Christopher Wool’s Photography: Uses and Abuses,” in Christopher Wool, ed. Katherine Brinson (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2013), p. 231.

Christopher Wool

Absent Without Leave, 1993. 188 black-and-white photocopies, 21.6 x 27.9 cm each. Collection of the artist

Christopher Wool

East Broadway Breakdown, 1994–95/2002. 160 inkjet prints, 21.6 x 27.9 cm each, P.P. 1/1, edition of 3. Private collection

 

Show: Absent Without Leave (1993)

  • Ask students what they notice about the photograph from Wool’s series Absent Without Leave (1993). Compare this photo to the one from Wool’s photobook East Broadway Breakdown (1994–95/2002).
  • Ask students to work in pairs and discuss the photos in terms of these elements: lighting, focus, composition, cropping, subject matter, and perspective. What choices did Wool make? Are these the choices students would expect?
  • Wool deliberately ignored the conventional “skills” of a good photographer. Sometimes, he did not even use his viewfinder when he was taking pictures, which meant he would not know the borders of the photograph. What do students think about this methodology? How does it relate to the subject matter?
  • Some say the imperfection of the photos deliberately undermines the art world’s emphasis on image quality and balanced composition. Do students agree and do they think this is a good thing? Why or why not?
  • Wool took the photographs in East Broadway Breakdown (1994–95/2002) while walking between his home and where he worked in his art studio. As his friend, the artist Richard Prince (b. 1940), has written: “They’re evidence of where he’s been. What he’s done. What he looks at. . . . His photographs are not that different from his paintings. I’m talking aesthetically. SIDE BY SIDE. They have the same look.”12
  • Ask students to compare these photographs to Wool’s paintings in the other sections.

12. Richard Prince, “WOOLWLOOOLOWOOWLLOWOOWOLOOLWLOOW,” in Christopher Wool, ed. Katherine Brinson (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 2013), p. 236.

Absent Without Leave, 1993. 188 black-and-white photocopies, 21.6 x 27.9 cm each. Collection of the artist
East Broadway Breakdown, 1994–95/2002. 160 inkjet prints, 21.6 x 27.9 cm each, P.P. 1/1, edition of 3. Private collection


  • Wool chose as his subject matter many things that he observes in the course of his own life. He photographed what he saw on his walks between his home and his art studio. He photographed the paintings he made. In January 1996, when a fire destroyed much of his studio, Wool documented the loss for an insurance claim with his camera. Later, he started to consider these photographs art. As critic James Rondeau has said: “In this respect, his photographs constitute the biography of his paintings. And, at the same time, they suggestively structure a loose autobiography of their maker.”13 Ask students to take a camera—even a cell phone camera—around with them for a day. Challenge them to capture the things that they see on their daily walks, the events that happen to them, and the objects that matter to them. Ask them to share these photographs with other students in small groups. In what ways do these photographs “structure a loose autobiography of their maker?” (If you do not have access to cameras, ask students to make a list throughout the day of things they would like to capture. Turn this list into “extended captions” in which students describe the intended photograph.)
    Visual Arts
    Photography
  • Some of Wool’s photographs seem to have given rise to certain gestures or patterns in his paintings, or perhaps the paintings themselves inspired his choice of subject matter for his photographs! For this assignment, students will take photographs to inspire an abstract painting. They should be on the lookout for patterns, shapes, or lines in their environment that they might be able to use in a painting. They can use elements from multiple photographs in their paintings. At the end, ask them what it was like to have “source material” for their abstractions versus starting from scratch.
    Visual Arts
  • Wool created Absent Without Leave (1993) by printing his photographs at a cheap over-the-counter photo lab in a 4 x 6–inch format and enlarging them on photocopiers to create 8 1/2 x 11–inch versions. The photocopier further degraded the quality of the photographs, heightening the contrast between the blacks and whites. For this activity, ask students to create books of photographs, images, drawings, or writing. Then create these books using a photocopier. Ask students: What themes or motifs tie the books together? How did the photocopier alter their original work?
    Visual Arts

13. Rondeau, “Christopher Wool’s Photography,” p. 232.