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This essay by Brian Robert Hischier was written especially for my 2009 exhibit at the Pratt Institute, and is available as a printed handout at the show.

On the Work of Fred Camper

by Brian Robert Hischier


The photograph tells more lies than any human being ever will. At a glance we hear, "On this day...", "Behind these walls...", "Passersby set in without remorse..."; or worse: "How sad these skies...", "The home of no-man breeds thoughts of death..." and the tongueless photograph yammers on. Abetted by our memories, the photograph tells stories and evokes response. Assisted by our experience, the photograph claims to have experienced. Allotted the space of a frame, honored by its place on the wall, the photograph declares itself to be definitive. Complicating the issue, the human need for logic, narrative, nostalgia and assurance leads us to the photograph for proof of the same: we can know, we can tell, we can feel once more, and what once we lived is lived again. Unfortunately, our hearts know better, and the photograph is less than reality, less than imagination: it is the void, dimmer than the light, brighter than the dark.

But Fred Camper's works are not photographs. They are compounded sight of sights super-seen. Composed of photographs, the sheer number of images in the collected sheets undoes the photographic elements present in them. Narrative disappears and the ears become immersed in their skull. There are no tales to be heard in Camper's works. There is only place and even that begins to fade the longer one stands in front of a sheet. There is no response but sub-response, and the eye darts to and fro. Ask any wanderer to describe a place, and he will tell stories of hospitality, of wealth squandered, of feasts and famines and the swelling of bellies from both; he will tell of sore feet and tired eyes, of friends, acquaintances, lovers, and enemies. Winter, summer, spring, and autumn figure little in the tales, except, perhaps, for a wistful acknowledgement of the snows of yesteryear and the rains of tomorrow. The world around the wanderer is survived and experienced, and is best remembered in words. But the wanderer who produces photographs undermines the veracity and ferocity of the experiences: he becomes charlatan, businessman, salesman, and judge. His stories becomes less interesting because the stories are not in the photos. Photographs distract from the human element.

Camper's pictures have come from journeys, quests, trips, or wanderings—call them what you will. Whether on bicycle or on foot, he goes somewhere and photographs what catches his eye. But the journeys matter little to the viewer of his works. They were not our journeys, and nothing of note happened during their duration to either Camper or the people around him: but his eye was caught, and not just caught, but captured. His eye saw and he could not tear his eye away. Having with him the ultimate tool of the twentieth century, he used it to pry himself free.


Once he extricated himself from the presence of his subject, Camper created his art. But they become our journeys the instant the images multiply before our very eyes, as our corneas were shattered and the splinters of glass refracted the images tenfold, twenty-fold, forty-fold. The feet are forgotten, the bicycle is dust, and the brain is pushed to the limit of comprehension: we are not seeing multiple angles of a single place: we are seeing the place as it is, without regard for aesthetics, mood, effect, style, or any of the typical seductions of art.

When faced with photographs presented as art, I am immediately skeptical. Art tends to have a meaning extrinsic to itself, originating in two minds that meet accidentally in front of the product of the artist. But the photograph typically undercuts the process by having a subject that cannot be ignored. Unlike figurative art, which undoes the subject via technique and idea, the photograph undoes the idea with its technique and meaningful subject. Few photographers overcome this problem. Camper overcomes this problem. By allowing the myriad images to over-represent the subject, the subject becomes null, even as it dominates our sense of sight. There is a hypnotic effect to Camper's works that is more closely related to film than to photography; there is a nonnarrative element that recalls the fictions of Robbe-Grillet. Camper's sheets reduce the stratified hierarchy of architecture and art to the sediment layers of the archaeologist, laboring beneath a plain sky. We lose interest in the photographs per se because there are no photographs in Camper's art. There are only retinal projections, petrified, processed, reduced, and reproduced. The shimmer stutters and the edges of vision are blurred into darkness: the viewer, whether wearing corrective lenses or not, sees the sheet as a multi-faceted lens, and outside the lens there is nothing of import to see (nothing we know of anyway). The presence of the digital in his work shouldn't surprise us either: it is simply another lens through which we more or less see, again and again.

Naturally, an absence of meaning will lead us to considerations of concept and abstraction, but this will lead to nowhere but self-congratulation. Any meaning pulled from Camper's sheets could be precisely located in the mind of the viewer, yet one cannot deny that an overwhelming vision, a purely subjective force has produced these works. Camper's sheets lead the viewer into one of the rare, good engagements with Art that so many desire when visiting a gallery. Furthermore, chance and randomness have been applied to the production in a way that is neither aleatory nor child's play: a decidedly adult perspective on chance is rigorously followed. For Figments, chance operations were applied to dozens of low-resolution images of a single subject in order to produce the visions that we see. The deliberate removal of selective subjectivity from the production of the sheets has led Camper (logically, one might say) from Adjacencies to Accretions to Details and further on to Figments, Supers, and Alls, with the great surprise being the return to subjective selection which is Clouds.

Clouds is the gift Camper has given himself: after years spent in a self-made prison of restraint, he is now given the freedom to choose the object of his desire once more. Long ago, during the course of a dozen journeys, Camper saw the same buildings that many others saw, and photographed them as they photographed them: with perhaps a little more fastidiousness, he took snapshot after snapshot after snapshot. Upon his return home, he saw something in the shots that wasn't visible while in the presence of the subject: he saw that no single picture was necessarily better than any other. He sought the means to show us that what he saw was worth the time it took to see, the energy it took to capture, and the effort it took to remember. He couldn't make a film: there weren't enough frames to convey either the movement through space or the cessation of time; besides, a film would bore the audience to tears. Neither could he simply choose ten images to represent the whole, because such a number would merely be indicative of Camper's selectivity, and cover the production with a patina of stupidity and pride. Camper faced the dangers of artistic certainty head on, and developed a method of production that created works which were equal parts objectivity and subjectivity. It was imperative that he allow the entire digital roll of photographs to take their place in the production of the sheets. A single sheet is truly unique because it contains what no other sheet can contain: a collapsed stretch of time. On the other hand, all sheets of a particular place are the same sheet again and again, fraternal twins with different hobbies, incongruous attitudes, and non-contiguous accents. There is little rhyme and less reason behind the particular snapshots in the sheets: but there is poetry and there is precision. I can't speak for anyone but myself, but I believe that in the art of Fred Camper, we have finally transcended art.


Artists have been seeking to recreate the sublime for centuries. Often, their attempts were gestural, spectacular, effervescent, or monumental. But what they forgot to consider was the very nature of the sublime as it manifested itself to them: from the torpor of a relaxing journey through an ordinary landscape arose a monumental sight too monstrous to comprehend. The artist, having experienced this, recreates the moment of comprehension, after he has conquered the sublime by transcending it himself. But the receiver of the art has no context from which he might be either reduced or transcendent, no place in the sublime that the artist has tried to create. The artist failed because he didn't take the viewer on an uneventful journey to the sublime. His only concern was pulling thunderstorms out of stone and majesty out of oil, varnish, and air.

For over a year, I have been fascinated by the effect that Camper's work has had on me. I find that single sheets don't satisfy me: I want to see more. However, I am fascinated by the effect that arises from too many images at once: the brain slows, the metabolism disappears, and the eyes become fixated on a sheet even as they dart from shot to shot within—leading, ultimately, to an experience that is simultaneously horrible and wonderful. How fortunate is the viewer, who while in this sub-lingual, sub-logical state of mind has now the potential for the sublime.

The sublime is an intensely personal experience, not dissimilar from the orgasm: impossible to describe, we yet want to share it with the world. The bare facts of the matter (the careful layouts, the hypnotic repetition, the slow loss of individuality) do not help us in our quest to explain what we have felt. It stands to reason that we shouldn't try, knowing that we are bound to fail. If we are lucky, our failure will perhaps be called Art.

Brian Robert Hischier
Chicago, 2009

Copyright © Brian Robert Hischier, 2009

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