Shadow Puppets explores the blurred edges of documentary
Photoshop works by Debbie Grossman sum up the ambitions of the group exhibition
If you look to the left side of the gallery when entering Shadow Puppets: Traces of New Documentary Practices, the new group exhibition at GSU’s Welch School Galleries, you’ll see three photographs credited to Debbie Grossman that more or less sum up the ambitions of the exhibition. The 10 artists included in the show are engaged with what curator Stephanie Dowda calls “realistic illusions,” images that appear factual regardless of their veracity. GSU lecturer and photographer Jill Frank co-curated the show - Editor. This is a contemporary phenomenon, to be surrounded by images but rarely know which are real. Grossman’s photos are of an unmistakably Depression-era vintage and feature typical scenes: a farmer harvesting cabbage, a family walking down a dirt road, another farmer pointing a rifle to the sky. They stem from the work of photographer Russell Lee in Pie Town, N.M., in 1940, an assignment for the Farm Security Administration that now resides in the Library of Congress. So, why are they credited to Debbie Grossman? Whose pictures are these, exactly?
In the Library of Congress archive, Lee’s photograph of the farmer with the rifle is titled “Mr. Leatherman, homesteader, shooting hawks which have been carrying away his chickens.” Grossman’s version in the gallery bears the slightly altered title, “Nell Leathers, homesteader, shooting hawks which have been carrying away her chickens.” A close inspection of Grossman’s photograph shows a similarly subtle alteration: The farmer’s waist is slimmer and, at the chest, there is the slight shade and curve of a bust. Grossman has switched the gender of the farmer, a technique she has repeated with a number of Lee’s Pie Town photos to depict the town as populated exclusively by women.
It’s possible to see this as a parlor trick, an exercise in clever photo editing. Indeed, Grossman says, “I’ve begun to think of Photoshop itself as my medium,” in a statement about her Pie Town works. Beyond Grossman’s skills for shading and carving pixels, though, is a boundary-pushing exploration of the Documentary Practices that this group show sets out to discuss.
Lee took a camera to Pie Town and photographed the people living there without altering or misconstruing the basic facts of their lives. Grossman’s alterations remind us that he arrived with an agenda, made decisions about what should or shouldn’t be in the frame. That’s the tension that runs throughout Shadow Puppets: the difficulty of locating the line or, in this case, pixel between fact and fiction. As with Lee’s, Grossman’s photos are simply true to the story she’s trying to tell.