At the New Museum installation, “Sarah Charlesworth: Doubleworld,” I came upon Charlesworth‘s emotionally gripping 1980 photograph series, “Stills.” It was the type of exhibit where the moment I walked into the room and realized what I was looking at, something inside my core sank.
For “Stills,” Charlesworth collected newspaper clippings of photos depicting various individuals falling or jumping off of tall structures, presumably to their deaths.* Charlesworth re-photographed and enlarged the clipped images to measure 6’6” in height. The result is that viewers experience the visuals at a size larger than their own physical bodies.
In the descriptions of each piece, the individuals depicted are identified with varying degrees of anonymity, depending upon the information that was available. They range in detail from completely unknown, i.e., “Unidentified man, Unidentified location,” to full name and location, i.e., “Patricia Crawlings, Los Angeles,” leaving viewers with infinite unanswered questions about each one.
For me, it was incredibly humbling to walk into a room surrounded by photographed portraits, larger than my physical body, which captured the last seconds of fourteen strangers’ lives. Their last breaths and the thoughts that were going through their minds during their final few seconds in the air live eternally inside these images.
It’s important to reiterate that Charlesworth didn’t take the original photographs herself. Her “photographing photos” technique for “Stills” wasn’t straightforward, and calls into question the definitions of “photographer” and “photography.” Upon looking into this further, I found out via a recent New York Times article that Charlesworth is known to be a part of the 1980s artist group dubbed, “The Pictures Generation.”** Per the article, “The Pictures Generation” is a loose title referring to a group of photo-based artists who gathered the imagery they worked with from the media. For reference, this group also includes other well-known artists Barbara Kruger, Jack Goldstein, Louise Lawler, Richard Prince, Sherrie Levine, Cindy Sherman, and Laurie Simmons.
*For the entirety of this post, I assume that the falls/jumps depicted in “Stills” resulted in death.
**Charlesworth’s connection to “The Pictures Generation” is also mentioned at the New Museum.