This text is based on notes I took at ACA Gallery’s Fall 2021 exhibition on the photographer Hugh Magnum. Not much is known about this image other than that it has suffered emulsion from decades of improper storage in a barn.
Hugh Magnum (1897-1922). Untitled 27, date unknown Archival pigment print 17 x 12.5 inches Image courtesy of ACA Galleries and MB Abram Galleries
Two pairs of inquisitive eyes pierce through a dappled layer of blue and grey film, seemingly demanding answers from me. I’m not sure what they’re asking or what kind of answers they are expecting, but there is an urgent curiosity to their gaze that immediately arrests me, and also haunts me. I can’t shake a strange feeling of disorientation: the image feels old, spectral, but at the same time, the two sitters and their insistent eyes seem intractably present and contemporary. The image has been “ruined” by some kind of chemical reaction, which is to say it’s been made
perfect in my eyes. Though the sitters’ faces are half obscured by this emulsion in the film, they refuse to surrender to the blur of textures that swarm the frame. They rise above the image.
This isn’t like any turn-of-the-century studio portrait. Gone is the typical stiffness, which has been evacuated from image by animacy and life force. I begin to observe the rhythm of the work more carefully, allowing myself to get caught up in its swirl of crackling patterns that dance above, around, and within the faces. It’s almost as if the two sitters are caught in a blaze of blue fire. Ironically, it is the violence of the emulsion—which some might interpret as the death of the photograph—that makes the image feel so alive. As I trace the almost psychedelic patterning, I can’t resist the feeling that this is a sentient image, that the chemical changes testify to some kind of life.
And then I am called back to where I began: the faces. Simultaneously embedded in and set apart from the fiery patterns, their faces are still, placidly self assured, measuredly cool. Of course our sitters could not predict that this image would become what it is now, but it is hard not to read the calm of their faces against the panicked patterns that texture the photograph. I imagine the history of the image unfolding as if in a timelapse video. A grey background grows bespeckled with blue, its wholeness becoming increasingly fragmented by these dazzling accidental abstractions. But at every moment overtime, the visages of our two sitters remain constant, meeting the world with the same urgency as they do today in the gallery.
I don’t linger in front of this image. It lingers with me. As I turn away from the photograph, towards the exit of the gallery, my imagination is awash with questions about who these two women might be. How did they come to Magnum’s studio? How did they know eachother? Were they related? What were they thinking at the moment Magnum captured this image? It dawns on me that I won’t be forgetting this image, or the two women living inside it, any time soon.