"The Edge of Visibility: Photographs by Adam Katseff," from the 2012 Stanford University MFA Thesis Show Catalogue / by George Philip LeBourdais

For the photographer, who, by pushing me in the dark, has taught me to see so much.


6. Imagine you’re walking in the dark. You move in the compression of a warm, silent corridor of trees, whose black pine bodies rise high enough to block the light of a slim moon. There is a stretching out of hands in the blackness, and the expected yet still startling prick of unseen branches that draws you on, towards a sensation of terrible gravity. Vertigo arrives like a dull electric swell through your legs and stomach at the edge of a precipice; you kick a rock and listen for its clattering on a pale river bed below.

5. Refocus your eyes past your own squinting reflection in the glass, now, and things begin to emerge. Contours of rounded mountain peaks, an undulating snow drift, the black lattice of bare trees take form in the distance, seemingly far beyond the truculent flatness of the photograph its reflective, glossy shield. These photographs by Adam Katseff – images that obscure their photographic identity by shrouding their sacred descriptive force in uncertainty and darkness – deny us. They deny what we have come to expect from photographs, and from perception in general - a view of the world. They deny us, and that is frustrating.

4. Yet in that denial, there is revelation. If we muster the resolve to dwell in this darkness, this vacuum of vision, we begin to think. About blackness, perhaps, or about the hazy internal image we might have of the locations denoted by the titles of these photographs: Donner Lake, California; Franconia Notch, New Hampshire. Thinking, the philosopher Martin Heidegger believed, is a resignation to the world around you, a bodily presence of whole openness that allows for what he called the “Unconcealment of Being.” Walking through his beloved Black Forest in southwest Germany, Heidegger imagined that it was the duty of humans to be Thinking, in order to allow the truth of the world to reveal itself.[i]

3. To think truly and in full presence is not an easy thing, no less than daring to push your artwork to the edge of visibility. During the time that Adam developed these photographs, he and I spoke often about them, about what he hoped they would accomplish, and about how others had responded to the experience of seeing them. I wasn’t at all surprised when he said that people found the images just a bit too dark, that he needed to give the viewer just a little bit more to look at, something – anything – to hold on to. A quick survey of his earlier work, going back to haunting contact prints from his 8x10 view-camera negatives, testifies to Adam’s technical virtuosity, and his gift for summoning, in his own words, “the spirituality and deep historical time” latent in the land. So then why, the resistance of his reviewers seemed to ask, would you hide your craft, and, by extension, the presence of the artwork itself, behind a veil of printing ink? Why, then, do you push us into darkness?

2. I told Adam this resistance proved he was doing something uncommon, even important.[ii] Denying our easy understanding, forcing us to dwell in thought, as Heidegger would say, is the gift of this darkness, one that reaches towards what the philosopher identified as the fundamental nature of the work of art: “the truth of being setting itself to work.” The work of art, Heidegger wrote, “is not the reproduction of some particular entity that happens to be present at any given time; it is, on the contrary, the reproduction of the thing’s general essence.”[iii]

1. Adam called me (illegally, I reminded him) as he sped across the arid wilderness of California, stopping often to photograph a jagged sweep of the Sierra Nevada range and the curious contrast of black and white islands in Mono Lake. That he would take these masterfully exposed negatives upon his return and then print them so dark, effacing the details and contrasts that form these more or less familiar landscapes, is a kind of reproduction of essence, a nod to the knowledge of geologic time and to the existence of places that exist but in which we are not currently present. We think back to the terrors that the Donner Party suffered around that lake; we imagine the exultation of the first travelers and painters felt while moving through the dramatic cliffs of Franconia Notch. Barely visible photographic landscapes – more than the hidden tonal complexity of, say, Ad Reinhardt’s black paintings – become vessels for the light of our imagination to fill in its features, delving into the deep pools of memory and history that we all hold within ourselves.

0. I met Adam at Stanford shortly after we had both arrived in California. We had both driven across the country, charting the thrill of visiting National Parks and the hushed discovery of the unforeseen places that offered a singular experience of nature and wilderness. We had both drawn inspiration from the state of Maine, which encapsulated the coast of my childhood home and the lakes he had grown to love. We had both devoted years to photography (he was far better at it, of course, but I had some good stories). We had both decided, on that day, as on many others since, to wear a vest with buttons. We realized that we had a lot to talk about, and many walks in the woods to share.

-1. It’s easy to pigeonhole someone so enthusiastic about Henry David Thoreau, boiled wool, and photographs of Yosemite Valley from the 1860s as an old-timey romantic. Don’t let me mislead you; Adam would have been right at home if he had been born in the nineteenth century (I know because I feel that way about myself quite often, too). But despite the gazing-into-the-past sensation that crystallizes in his photographs, as a contemporary artist Adam creates work that speaks forcefully about our collective present. “The contemporary,” Giorgio Agamben poignantly wrote, “is he who firmly holds his gaze on his own time so as to perceive not its light, but rather its darkness. All eras, for those who experience contemporariness, are obscure. The contemporary is precisely the person who knows how to see this obscurity, who is able to write by dipping his pen in the obscurity of the present.”[iv]

-2. Adam’s recent photographs of the night sky emblematized this notion of drawing lines in the obscurity of the present. Setting his camera in his backyard in Palo Alto and aiming it directly upward, he made all-night-long exposures, opening the lens shutter just after dusk and closing it just before dawn. Inscribed on the negatives were not only celestial bodies, but also the lights that attend modern life: a dull gray haze from the traffic on nearby highway 101 reflected on nighttime clouds, while planes issuing from and returning to the SFO or San Jose airports ghosted their presence through lines created by their navigation lights. Such photographs do our dream work for us[v]; they trace stars and cars while we sleep, before the past dark of night yields to the present light of morning.

-3. The German philosopher Walter Benjamin had linked stars directly with the language of photography, a language with a syntax of oppositions between dark and light, past and present, death and life, reading and writing, knowledge and representation.[vi] He viewed the astrologer as a reader of constellations, which represent, through their ancient myths and always-present inspirations, the excitement of knowledge. Though they might indicate flights that had passed one another at great distance or at different times, or the remote glow of stars traversing the night sky, lines arc and intersect on the flatness of Adam’s photographs, compressing time and space into simple, geometric marks. It is as if an astrologer with white pencils and dark paper triangulated our view from earth with a ruler and a compass.

-4. Another series of photographs, this one capturing the life of flame, further conjures to Benjamin’s tropes of cycles and time, in particular the fleeting passage of the present into the past. “The true picture of the past flits by,” Benjamin wrote. “The past can be seized only as an image which flashes up at the instant when it can be recognized and is never seen again.”[vii] I remember Adam’s long process of experimentation with this work: a variety of materials to ignite, volumes between “too much” and “waaaay to much” lighter fluid, slower and slower film speeds, and the rise from spotted and round into rigid and vertical compositions. I like to think that the process of creation itself had become purified in this incinerated work, leaving only incandescent pillars to glow through a fire as it is born, blooms, and dies. And I think that like Benjamin’s Theses on the Philosophy of History, this writing itself needed to flicker between the forms of essay, fragment, note. This is, after all, just one of many stories I could write about these images.

-5. Looking at his most recent photographs – hermetic models of rooms stripped bare of fixtures and color – I think of carte blanche, a new apartment, Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space, and Emerson: “Fast, almost too fast for the wistful curiosity of the parents, studious of the witchcraft of curls and dimple and broken words, the little talker grows to be a boy. He walks daily among wonders; fire, light, darkness, the moon, the stars, the furniture of the house…and the new knowledge is taken up into the life of to-day and becomes the means of more. The blowing rose is a new event; the garden full of flowers is Eden over again to the small Adam; the rain, the ice, the frost, make epochs in his life.”[viii]

-6. Imagine you’re walking in the dark. The space – the home of your childhood – begins to take form not through the strain of your eyes, but rather in the resurgence of memory. With eyes closed, you fall back on the subtle pressure of your hand reaching for a corner of the wall, on the number of steps it takes to reach the door, on the angle of your arm as you reach to push it open. The dark space becomes illuminated by memory, flash-bulb white and barren and gridded in the register of your small body, now grown so big into your bright present.



[i] See Martin Heidegger, Martin Heidegger: Basic Writings from Being and Time (1927) to The Task of Thinking (1964), ed. David Farrell Krell (San Francisco: Harper Collins, 1977).

[ii] My inspiration here flows from the wellspring of German Romanticism, namely its latter-day lodestones Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin, but by extension the foundational writing of Emmanuel Kant and J.B. Fichte. If my gestures in their direction bring the reader any clarity, it is thanks to the guidance of Professor Sepp Gumbrecht, whose Stanford MTL seminar in the fall of 2011 helped me to crystallize these ideas. See also Hans Ulrich Gumbrecht, Production of Presence: What Meaning Cannot Convey (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2004).

[iii] Martin Heidegger, Poetry, Language, Thought, trans. Albert Hofstadter, 1st ed. (New York: Harper & Row, 1971), 36, 37.

[iv] Giorgio Agamben, What Is an Apparatus? And Other Essays (Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009), 44.

[v] The saliency of a Freudian interpretation occurred to me many times during the development of this text: the subconscious reverie in the darkness in these photographs, the familiar but strange doubling of the viewer in the reflective glaze that protects their fragile surfaces, the play between the secret (Geheimnis) and the uncanny (Unheimlich). Yet the “analysis” quotient of this psychoanalytic view would sterilize the richness of presence that I feel these photographs enable. Better, then, to let Freud keep his uncanny secrets.

[vi] I owe this explication to Eduardo Cadava, whose sensitive dialectical phrasing of Benjamin’s photographic concepts required only my small realignments to satisfy the particular parallelism of meanings I wanted to construct. Eduardo Cadava, Words of Light: Theses on the Photography of History (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1997), 26–30.

[vii] Walter Benjamin, Illuminations, ed. Hannah Arendt (New York: Schocken Books, 1988), 255, Thesis V.

[viii] Ralph Waldo Emerson, The Works of Ralph Waldo Emerson, ed. Chester Noyes Greenough (New York: Hearst’s international library, 1914), 276.


Published in Never odd or even: Stanford University 2012 MFA thesis exhibition : Andrew Chapman, Yvette Deas, Rhonda Holberton, Adam Katseff, Yulia Pinkusevich. Stanford, California: Stanford University Department of Art & Art History, 2012: pp. 27-32.