“Beneath Even the Old Adam” The Photographs of Robert Stivers

By A. D. Coleman Back to

Bed Bed

. . . the evolution of Stone-Age man entailed a gradual dominance of vision over the other senses . . . beneath our visual selves, beneath even the old Adam, lies buried that mammalian and pre-mammalian self, which feels and smells and intuitively or instinctively apprehends. When the dominating eyes are blunted, these “older” senses again become the masters, and to that extent a new persona is born.

— Patrick Trevor-Roper,
The World through Blunted Sight

Photographs, by their very nature, ask us to experience the world through someone else’s perceptual system, to consider it as seen with someone else’s eyes. In all cases, this assumes the filtration effect of the biases of the photographer. Yet what happens when we add to that analogue of personal vision, as Robert Stivers does, a specific perceptual handicap or flaw−the inability to focus?

Individually and as a group, Stivers’s images replicate the phenomena of myopia and hypermetropia−what we commonly call near and far-sightedness, respectively. The near-sighted person cannot focus on distant objects; the far-sighted one has the opposite problem. Affliction with one or another condition is common, and of course affects one’s performance as a visual artist: Holbein, El Greco, Monet and Modigliani are only a few of those whose work gives clues to possible optical problems.

Notably, both conditions alternately rule these photographs by Stivers; regardless of its apparent distance from us within the frame, only rarely does an object appear in sharp focus, and no foreground-background relationship suggests even the possibility of a progressive clarification. Since these are the basic visual cues by which we locate ourselves in physical space, the world according to Stivers is thus an anxious place in which the vision of all is impaired, and in which no one, introvert or extrovert, can immediately feel entirely comfortable or secure.

Robert Stivers, a.d. coleman

Image from "Works on Paper"

How, then, might one negotiate one’s way through an environment in which everything floats eerily and unresolvedly in ambiguous darkness? It is here that I think Stivers brings to bear his knowledge of two distinct media, because if I understand this suite of images aright his dancer’s answer to that question is: with a dance.

The dance he proposes and encourages here is not merely a dance of the eye—not uncommon in engaging with photographs—but an imaginary dance of the whole body. The elimination of hard edges works against the two-dimensionalizing tendency of the crisply focused image, turns his subjects from shapes into forms, emphasizes the volumetric aspect of them, locates them in a cavernously deep space, proposes them as shifting and mobile, and challenges us to adapt to them by a perceptual and psychological positioning process not dissimilar to the improvisatory dancer’s strategies for relating to the space of the darkened stage, the spotlit cone of concentrated attention, and the other forms− animate and inanimate−that occupy it.

robert stivers, a.d. coleman

Image from "Works on Paper"

One cannot simply see one’s way across these pictures; one must think and feel one’s way into, around and through them all but blindly, almost as if one were the dreadfully vulnerable, exposed spine and pelvis that figures in one of them. They demand the application of a whole-body consciousness, a confidence in one’s own sense of balance and a trust in one’s ability to read fragmentary, partially glimpsed gestures. If ontogeny does indeed recapitulate phylogeny, as Charles Darwin proposed, then this process’s evocation of the infant’s struggle to organize visual experience in some way mirrors our species’ struggle in learning to use our eyes.

Without denying the periodic value of close and careful scrutiny of things held still, one can say that seeing is not a process that benefits from stasis. According to specialists, it’s unlikely that, if our eyeballs and bodies were immobilized and what was before them stayed absolutely still in unchanging light, we’d ever learn to interpret the signals transmitted from retina to brain.

Our eyes are in constant motion in their sockets, our sockets move as our heads accompany our bodies, light fluctuates constantly, and much of the stuff of the visible world alters its place and shape as well. Seeing, then, is a relativistic, positional procedure—a dance of the eyes and, by necessity, of the body that houses them.

robert stivers, a.d. coleman

Ancient Tree

I think that Robert Stivers’s ambition here is to help us relearn how to look at things by teaching our eyes to dance, using a photographic version of those exercises that instructors in the craft of movement employ to instill and/or refine the ability to respond inventively to new and unpredictable configurations. Spun around, unmoored from our reference points, off-cen- ter, stripped of the comfort of clarity and specifics, we are thrust abruptly into this astigmatic dramaturgy, rife with hints of ancient ritual, elemental forms, animal spirits, charged objects, celebrants and mourners, births and sacrifices, rushes and pauses, gaps and proximities. Once in this illusionary space there is no choice but to join the dance, listening to those “older” senses, allowing that “new persona” to be born, fully alive and squalling like an infant who doesn’t even know yet that he has eyes to see.

For his representational images Stivers works exclusively with black & white negatives, which he generates sometimes by photographing his subjects directly (for example, animal specimens on display in a museum of natural history) and sometimes by making still images from projections of videotapes of dances he has choreographed. He began by actualizing these im- ages as straightforward gelatin-silver prints. Then he began expanding his vocabulary as a printmaker, and diversifying the impact of his prints, with two additional techniques: making color transparencies of some of his black & white prints and printing those on Cibachrome color paper, which results in an unusual spectrum of polychromatic effects; and toning his gelatin-silver prints, which generates a range of subtle monochromatic hues. Some of his images have under- gone more than one of these treatments, so that the basic iconography reappears in variant interpretations.

The experiments with toning, in turn, led Stivers to initiate an ongoing series of one-of-a-kind prints that, collectively, he calls “works on paper.” All of these pieces, of which no two are alike, involve play with darkroom chemistry, the light-sensitive paper exposed variously to light and to photo chemicals brushed on or worked by hand. One set of these images begins with exposure of the paper to a single negative of a circular form (an image of an ostrich egg). The other group involves no negative whatsoever, and is in that sense a “cameraless” image; it incorporates a recurrent X form, created by the photographic paper’s contact with the ridged bottom of the developing tray.

Made with exclusively photographic tools, materials, and processes, these “works on paper” reject the assumption of representation that we associate with photography. They come as close to full abstraction as photographic works can. Like all of Stivers’s works, these images push us to enlarge our definition of what we consider a photograph, and of what constitutes the photographic. Perhaps because his background is in dance, and not in photography, Stivers has not felt constrained by the traditions of realism and representation that form the bulk of photography’s history and practice. Instead, he has felt free to play—to dance— with its possibilities. Whether representational or abstract, his images invite us to join in that dance.

robert stivers, a.d. coleman

Two Seated Figures

About the Author

A. D. Coleman
A. D. Coleman has published eight books and more than 2000 essays on photography and related subjects. Formerly a columnist for the Village Voice, the New York Times and the New York Observer, Coleman has contributed to ARTnews, Art On Paper, Technology Review, Juliet Art Magazine (Italy), European Photography (Germany), La Fotografia (Spain) and Art Today (China). His work has been translated into 21 languages and published in 31 countries. Coleman’s widely read blog, “Photocritic International,” appears at photocritic. com. Since 2005, exhibitions that he has curated have opened at museums and galleries in Canada, China, Finland, Italy, Rumania, Slovakia and the U.S. © Copyright 2011 by A. D. Coleman. All rights reserved. By permission of the author and Image/World Syndication Services, imageworld@nearbycafe.com.