Essays & Press



The Transitory Instinct

by David Gibson

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Photography has long been considered mainly as expression in the service of a language of the eye. Yet certain practitioners of the form have achieved impressive disciplines that diverge from this assumption. They have taught us that the act of looking changes the object of attention, and that by also changing the rules and by consequence the expectations, of that act, they can also redefine the role that photography can fulfill. They give us more than an eyeful; they alter time itself.

Leah Oates is just such a photographer. Her vision is by turns darkly psychological, instinctually immediate, and reflectively transcendent. Her photographs dating back through 2021 are especially moving. Oates has over time expressed a single concept, of the impermanence of her subject despite every effort to have it formally bestilled. Despite the popularity and abundance of means of creating digital images, Oates’ works are achieved via traditional analog means as creative interpretations and experimentation with the physical material of film itself. This allows her to maintain both a technical skill and creative authority that rest on their own laurels.

The photographer’s metier is to stop time. To alter our perception of the passage of time. To freeze our attention with images that are so potent, so transformative, that they introduce a new experience into the universe of things known. Leah Oates’ work, especially her work since 2021, achieves this with both authority and aplomb. There’s nothing stylistic to her vision, though it does rely upon chance entanglements of multiply-exposed images within the same roll of film. She also allows extra light to enter the camera at the moment of depressing the shutter, to give her images both a transitive, kaleidoscopic quality and to allow the film itself, in a state of vulnerable exposure beyond its standard use, to create areas of solid or disintegrating color. These are employed as boundaries or territories that break up cognitive reception of narrative comprehension within separate and consecutive images. Of course, Oates is no cold technician, she has an emotional response to the environments she depicts. She mainly uses the color bands as a sculptural means to delineate increments of time similar to the shutter click on a camera, and how the viewer perceives this in a visually sculptural manner. Yet in thinking about these interruptions in a meaningful manner beyond mere technical virtuosity, Oates now sees them as points along a timeline of climate crisis, with alternating views between a landscape that is safe and healthy and a landscape that is disintegrating and dissolving. If this perspective lessens the aesthetic impact of the work, so be it. If art can’t serve many masters it has less right to court complexity.

Luckily, the image in Oates’ care is never just an image. It owes a debt to a vision that’s always in motion, like nature itself, and the evolution of human consciousness. Likewise, it’s impossible to view multiple images from Leah Oates’ continuing oeuvre without being personally transformed. As chance dictates the range of possible effects within her work, so will chance allow us to enter it where we are most able, and to travel instinctually from one image to the next, creating an imaginary narrative patched together from random moments of sensory overload. These photographs place us at the threshold between reason and imagination. where an instinct for the transitory is both a requirement and a pleasure.

Paradura Catalog Essay

by David Gibson

When we look at a photograph, chances are it will remind us of something in our own lives. We have a tendency to personalize whatever we see, to own it with our senses before judgment sweeps in and separates its essential function for us from its palpable uniqueness as an image or its utility as an expression of beauty. Photography created a world in which every thing has an internal referent to its conventional appearance, and via memory or media, to some role that we suspect has a source in intimate experience, whether as metaphor or use value.

Yet much of our common experience is branded not by our memory, but by the demands of time. Every object or place has had some role not only in activities related to industry, leisure, or distraction, but once it loses its utility, is once and for all marked by time. It becomes a relic. In our culture, the relic has an especially short half-life. But the photograph reanimates the essential significance of experience itself, creating a form of discursive archaeology, in which the artist pursues hidden truths in seemingly useless and random effects. As a photographer, Leah Oates is interested in using the documentary aspect of the photograph, not only to dramatize a prior event through reference to its effluvia, but to frame objects in the utility of the presented image, making every scrap of paper or dirty wall into an artifact of lost knowledge. Oates sees the role of the photograph not as a document, but as an artifact. The essential difference between these two perspectives is that one maintains the utilitarian aspect of the photographic image as something sensible and practical, and the other retains the aura of the object, place, or action, which it freezes in perception. The subject of the photograph immerses the viewer in an engagement with the difference between what is perceptible and what is imaginable.

Since 2003, Oates has been actively engaged in discovering the essential temporality of the photographic image. Isolated from narrative, these images convey an unspecified mise-en-scene which is specifically poignant though also universal. They seem to have been the result of mere chance, of letting the aperture fall in a certain direction and document what it may. Perhaps this is the efficacy of a narrative emerging from our dependence on the senses. We view a given scene and certain judgments inevitably arise, complicating sensate reality and adding a context of human presence even when none is in evidence. Oates seems to eschew various manifestations of fluidic and transparent natural reality for its own sake.

In 2004, Oates turned to an urban environment to uncover the temporality in the transient evidence at hand that was related to the flow of the elements and to the duties and whims of a constantly milling populace. Oates has traveled to to Taiwan, Newfoundland, Finland and Chicago to discover how the transitory elements of everyday life were manifested in different locations. In one city she found that the inhabitants, one day after a large of noisy annual holiday, would immediately discard of all decorative and symbol materials related to the ritual of that event, along with all other forms of household refuse, combining a ritual purging with spring cleaning, and leaving a huge mess in the back alleys of every major housing area, which when documented by the artists takes on a material deluge of Biblical proportions, except that here it is limited to commercial goods.

Another part of the same series depicts the hidden corners of the city, where everyday labor occurs, and sometimes where construction and refuse share the same space. In further images from the same section, Oates portrays the hidden corners of the city, lost and forgotten alleyways and plots of land that are not even considered ‘real estate,’ but are lost except in the few random moments when these thresholds or cul-de-sacs receive the workers of their adjacent structures.

More recent work from the same series is comprised of photographs of deserted factories, their chained front gates with gaping holes torn in the chain link fences, and dirt roads trodden heavily through the otherwise tall and unkempt grass. Inside its deserted offices and work stations, despite windows lacking panes of glass, there are signs of human presence: food and clothing strewn about, the new mixed with the old, small signs of a beleaguered domesticity. The language of urban anarchy and freedom is present in scrawls of graffiti that appear on many surfaces, even in the merest of corners, non-places that echo back their baldness except for these scant markings.

One series of images consists entirely of rediscovered print media—newspapers and magazines—which have been weighted down with stones and pieces of broken brick and left open to display important headlines of days past. It’s hard to know from these images how long ago the use of these spaces was made—it could have been years before, or earlier that same day. The space is definitely marked by its use.

A third part of the same series traces Oates’s journey through the natural beauty of her surroundings which either approaching or departing the deserted work places described above. As the conscience behind an aperture moving through the world, she records what she sees in a fashion which allows the inherent randomness of sensation to lead her to new and different imagery. One image shows a factory whose walls are intermingled with the ephemeral blue sky and a diffuse mixture of whispery white clouds that halfway resemble steam, so that we are confused as to which it really is. In another image we have the front gate of the property, but instead of being a fixed object, perceptibly solid, it reverberates, as if the mutability of its role as a portal were at war with its more recent one as a mere barrier to human interaction.

What all of these images share is an interest in the susceptibility of the senses to guide us through experience, in which sensation and intuition are more important than logic. When we see scenes in a photograph we have a tendency to own them—to allow or disallow the artist to gain access to our imagination, for even images of real things, sensible and useful as they may be, must have a role as referents to the power of the imagination. That is, we have to be able to extend the intuitive and reflective quality of idiosyncratic projection around any given image in order that it may succeed for us in any real sense. This is how knowledge is received, and imagination is a sort of knowledge. Learning to see through a photographer’s eyes is less a social contract than the chance for a collusion to occur in which free will and a sense of wonder irrevocably commingle.

In her own way, Oates is a visual purist. In an era when digital processes are overwhelming traditional ones not only initially but in earnest, she continues to apply herself to the methods of mechanical picture-making. Yet her work, as thematic process, is also gauged against the ideological context of the visual image in the age of reproduction. Most photographic images of this sort are tributes to the technological skill the artist has in sculpting a visually succinct moment out of the subtleties of perception. They create a form of sensate nuanced evidence that has ties to the artifice of the painter. Oates is instead interested in how the photographic image may accrue visual knowledge in the same degree of intensity as did the experience which first inspired it. We are allowed to capture the moment of recognition where Oates images leave off.

Time Share

by David Gibson

The power of the photographic image has always been to stop time—to create instant artifacts. But these days, since digital media has overwhelmed the processes by which photographs are made, this original logic seems to have been turned upon its ear. How do we judge a static reality when images are considered as mere samples of perception rather than documents of beauty commingled with truth? It is equally a matter of the photographic image, the objective it depicts, and our approach to it. The photograph, if taken in consideration of static and transitory elements, can be said to share time with reality, because as a document it represents both the actual and the symbolic.  

The photographs of Leah Oates are meant as documents not of an object frozen in time, but animated by it. Hers is a visual register similar to the literary trope called “stream of consciousness” in which the perspective of the writer--in this case the artist or viewer—creates a fluidic narrative that affects the way the text is recognized as a metaphor for actuality. It is not filled with symbols but is symbolically actualized.  

In her recent series of photographs, Leah Oates deals with physical areas in Newfoundland, Beijing, China, and in several public parks in of New York City including Pelham Bay, Jamaica Bay and Prospect Park. What unifies all these areas is that they share once wild or cultivated natural areas with post-industrial, post-residential ones.  She creates fantastic vistas that, despite not being attached to the same static environments of her previous collections—that dealt with consumer detritus in an urban sphere of lost space—Oates is dealing with nature as a by-product of Bourgeois appetites for conspicuous consumption, an idea that was birthed in the late 19th century with the advent of cities built around industrial habits. So called “civilized people” were attempting to maintain the rituals of court society in a post-imperial world. These manicured and landscaped environments created a doppelganger to the grounds of great castles like Versailles or Vaux-Le-Vicompte, or city parks such as the Luxembourg Gardens. Over the interval of progressing eras, these parks shifted in the use value and their reference to the urban areas surrounding them.  

In her famous book about urbanism and urban blight, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs talks about how neighborhoods that are organized around a public park invariably lose their focus as communities, and become centerless. This is because they do not resemble court society, but a more complex version of Main Street America, in which services and residences take up different areas not always en face with one another. The community that develops in an urban community is interior and is unified by ethnicity and nationalism and their shared commonality, not by imposed class-based values. Parks in cities changed as the 20th century progressed, because they suffered the same fate as the streets ringing them. They became places that nobody went, for not only were they in disrepair, they were a loss of ideals, a degradation of a glorious past, a ruined purity. Yet today many of the parks have been returned to a version of their glory, in some case s completely re-landscaped so as to hew to the original wishes of their historical builders and preservers. In Oates’s images they take on a wildness that is both diffuse and sublime, like entering a glade in a place we’ve never visited before. Oates reaffirms the primal character of nature by allowing the eye to meander and vibrate among optical perspectives enlivened by the rigor of the transitory.   Alternatively, the images of hers originating in faraway places such as Newfoundland and Beijing tend to reference abandoned residences around which nature is slowly creeping and taking over, turning them into mordant relics; or she focuses specifically upon objects such as electric and telephone wire towers, silently connecting human communities while creating an industrial periphery in uninhabited areas that are otherwise entirely natural. They are metal and energy totems representing the value system of human will with only the sky, wind, and clouds to symbolize and lay bare the alternately implied and emphasized manifest destiny that utility structures and the system of organic interactions that is nature itself, mean to one another.

Leah Oates brings our impressions of both worlds into one frame. Who could look upon any of her scenes and not agree that she had transformed our trained esthetic expectations into a manifestation of reality that creates beauty in its path, not because it makes the image more precious, but because they make us feel more alive. Like people who share a single space but never at the same time, always looking out the same window but perhaps seeing completely different things, we are given the chance to share moments of transcendent fragility that approach the originality of the empirical.      

The Artist Books of Leah Oates

by Maddy Rosenberg

Leah Oates approaches the book as a series of interweaving photographs. Within this medium, she can utilize the numerous photographs she shoots in a variety of combinations beyond what an individual photograph can offer. She will also occasionally invade the pristine surface of the photograph by sewing through it. Structures for her are basic, the book is bound simply as a traditional codex, sewn or spiral hin- ged more than bound; the structures are merely to create the unit but hold no particular fascination for her. She wants us to focus on the photographs and text and the overlays of text and photographs as the images sequence left to right or top to bottom.

Oates enjoys playing back and forth with the notion of photography as recording a recognizable world, and one of the flattening and patterning of that world into a totally abstracted one. Color is used both sparingly in a black and white book laden with text or hyped up and graphic in another. The color becomes lush in a series of unique books that metamorphose into a gentle landscape. Visually seductive as the images build upon each other to create their own narrative, they see- mingly capture a time and place that may or may not exist as a whole.

Poetry is the overriding concern for Oates, the poetry of a moment sometimes expressed without the need for words. A written text that may appear too didactic standing on its own is sof- tened by images, haunting eyes, faces full of longing appeal to us from the page. Another is composed mostly of writing that is harshly crossed out, meaning to cast emphasis on the remaining words. A cut-out figure looms over a textured ground or crou- ches on a white page that is juxtapo- sed with a texture inhabiting its own

space and page. A building is reduced to its geometric form and then is “humanized” by becoming the essence of a figure.

Though coming from a feminist perspective, Oates is really concerned with uncovering the levels beneath the surface in many contexts. Themes of time, paradoxes, and secrecy recur in her work, as we discover from her perspec- tive the complexities of the similarities and dichotomies of the male/female experience. The book form allows for Leah Oates the slow unfolding of these revelations of ideas that meld together through words and images.