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Lynn Saville: The Plenitude of Emptiness

West 125th Street, New York, New York. Copyright Lynn Saville.
The French writer Roland Barthes, in his book Camera Lucida, said of photography that it “can be the object of three practices (or of three emotions, or of three intentions): to do, to undergo, to look.” It’s a banal statement, amounting to a plain summary of the photograph as something transmitted between an object and a spectator via the camera. All that this phrase really tells us is how a photograph is made, not about the differences between one photograph and another, or one photographer and another. But in looking at Vacancy, a series of photographs by Lynn Saville on show recently at Schneider Gallery in Chicago, that phrase by Barthes came to mind, particularly the second of those verbs, “to undergo.”

Saville trained her lens on vacant storefronts on streets across the United States, at night or nearly night, so that the luminance of artificial lighting from streetside or inside determines how we see the spaces. We see warehouses, restaurants, stores, all emptied of people and commerce, but filled with the geometry of modern structures, garish neon light, reflections, shadows. There is careful attention to framing, but that’s what you’d expect of any professional photographer. Saville seems equally to be transfixed by the transition of colors from one side of the picture to another, as in West 125th St, NY, where the underwater green tone is modulated by splashes of red and blue, and Closed Restaurant, in which our eyes are drawn to the shadows of an interior room glimpsed through an open door, and the heavenly blue suggesting a corridor to the left. There are inevitable political associations in the project, to do with documenting what happens to businesses during a recession, but the closest that gets to something explicit is in Warehouse, Houston, where we see a warehouse on the left, the lights of houses on the right, and a lot of vacant space between, suggesting the separation between people and this former place of work.

Warehouse, Houston. Copyright Lynn Saville
These are not spectacular photographs. Nothing appears to be happening, but that nothing is filled with possibility, signified by all those doorways that stand half open, all those windows with light behind them, all those vacancies waiting to be filled. They are contemplative, meditative images. You see them, but you also experience them, undergoing a slow unfolding of light and time.

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