The way human vision works is better modeled by one of the composite photographs of Thomas Kellner than by a painting of Johann Moritz Rugendas (1803-1858), a German traveler who visited Mexico around 1832. This claim is not based on the difference between the two media, but between them and human vision. The photographic camera is a misleading model for human vision, and vice versa. It is only an illusion generated by our synthesizing brain that human vision captures an entire scene at once the way a photographic camera does. In fact, by adding rapid eye scans that fix on small portions of the visual field at a time the brain constructs a ‘scene’ that never really ‘holds’ but is constantly being ‘reconstructed’ as we shift the focus of our attention. The technique of composing with multiple photographic images that Kellner has been using since 1997 to make us see anew the most iconic architectural structures in the world —from Stonehenge to Teotihuacán—closely parallels that visual process.
In a sense analog film photography, the material means of Kellner’s technique, is rapidly becoming as historical as the buildings he photographs. Kellner constructs a scene by a succession of photographic ‘shots’ that are arranged in a grid of columns and rows. Once developed, the photographic film is contact-printed so that a composite scene comes together from the small rectangular frames. Along the edges of each filmstrip one can read the information of the brand and kind of film he used, and of the number of each “frame.” At least these two elements —contact printing and film information—would vanish if Kellner were to continue his project with digital photography. Its fragmented look could remain the same, but the means of delivery would have to be other than that very intimate way of delivering images by having film ‘touch’ the photographic paper: contact printing.
Thus Kellner’s technique, aesthetic, and project have the overtones of a swan song for they come at a point of transition of the medium. Moreover, in the entropic look of his depictions there is something both archaeological and calamitous. That elusive quality is partially addressed by his choice of “Ozymandias” for the title of one of his earlier books. “Ozymandias” is an alias of Egyptian pharaoh Ramesses II and it is generally associated with the vanity of power so blind that it is doomed to ruin. The name transfigured into literature in the 1818 poem Ozymandias by the Romantic English poet Percy Bisshe Shelley (1792-1822). 1 To be sure, Kellner’s aesthetic is not Romantic, but rather a post-modern tour-de-force that takes on the challenge of re-presenting architectural landmarks that have been copiously photographed by both amateurs and professionals since the invention of photography and of continuing that tradition with more recent buildings. By its very technique though, the aesthetic of the project connotes breakdown. Although it is an aesthetic that certainly diverges from the documentary tradition to which it alludes, it does not negate it altogether. So in engaging Kellner’s work there is still some leeway and indeed, reason, to speak not only about the depiction but also about its referents.
Thomas Kellner is not the first or only artist to have used this technique, but he is the only one to have turned it into a personal poetics. Granting crucial differences, an important counterpart to his work is the one the English painter David Hockney explored in the 1980s. However, Hockney did not contact print but collaged small prints guided by the alternative sense of space and time with which he wished to nuance actual scenes.