Border flashpoints

Fi Churchman on the photographs of Zoe Leonard

Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1986, Gelatin silver print 44.5 x 60 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled, 1989, Gelatin silver prints, 43.2 x 61 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1986/2007, Gelatin silver print 82 x 57 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1987, Gelatin silver print 43.2 x 61 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled, 1989/2008, Gelatin silver print, 40.3 x 27.3 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1988/2008, Gelatin silver print 60.6 x 44.1 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled, 1989/2008, Gelatin silver print, 93.6 x 65.7 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1988/2008, Gelatin silver print 86.3 x 60.5 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Prologue: El Rio / The River, 2018, c-prints. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Crossing the Equator, 2016, one of five pigment prints, 22 × 27 cm each. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, Detail (Tree + Fence), 1998/1999, gelatin silver print, 30 × 21 cm. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, June 3, frame 33, 2011, gelatin silver print, 28 x 41 cm. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, 100 North Nevill Street, 2013, lens, darkened room, Chinati Foundation, Marfa. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth Zoe Leonard, 100 North Nevill Street, 2013, lens, darkened room, Chinati Foundation, Marfa. Photo: Fredrik Nilsen. © the artist. Courtesy the artist, Galerie Gisela Capitain, Cologne, and Hauser & Wirth

For the past 12 years, the photographer and sculptor Zoe Leonard has divided her time between New York City and West Texas, close to the border between the US and Mexico. 

Her latest series of photographs charts the course of the Rio Grande from El Paso/Ciudad Juárez, the point at which it becomes the ‘natural border’ between the two countries, down to the Gulf of Mexico. This 2,000km stretch of river, defined as a border between the countries in the 1848 (Article 5 of ‘Peace, Friendship, Limits, and Settlement’) and 1889 (‘Water & Boundary Commission’) treaties has, since the end of the Mexican-American War that deprived the former of over half of its prewar territory, described a line that meanders through the scorched landscape even as it is pulled taut by the political tensions on either side.

This natural border continues to define the region’s culture and politics (the voters of West Texas, a Republican stronghold, played a significant part in holding off the insurgent challenge of the Democratic candidate for the US Senate, Beto O’Rourke, a supporter of more liberal immigration reforms, in the recent midterm elections), and the state has in the past two years, Leonard tells me, “become a flashpoint. I think it’s an area that’s very little understood. There are a lot of platitudes, clichés and even caricatures about that part of the country, of the people who are living there, and about what it means to be Texan or Mexican.” The confluence of social, political, geographical and historical tensions and disputes in the Rio Grande presents a challenge and serves as a point of reference for Leonard’s new series. Until recently, in an oeuvre that has consistently addressed issues of borders, limits, migration, environment and marginalisation, she had never photographed the deserts of West Texas. To avoid the aforementioned caricatures required her to find a way of representing the area that didn’t fall into the tropes of either nineteenth-century American landscape photography, with its celebration of ‘manifest destiny’, or those of the contemporary news media, with its compulsion to sensationalise.

[The Rio Grande] meanders through the scorched landscape even as it is pulled taut by the political tensions on either side

Prologue: El Rio/The River (2018), currently on display in the Hall of Sculpture at Carnegie International, marks the first chapter of Leonard’s Rio Grande series. Unframed and pinned to the wall that circuits the hall’s balcony level, each of the 70 photographs is a closeup shot of the water’s surface. Opaque with silt, split currents whorl and clash into splashes, form disrupted eddies or force ripples on the surface where the flow runs into backwater. Leonard says she has been photographing the river from both sides of the bank, and that she prefers to keep the camera moving, in order to “upend either set of clichés”, taking photos off the side of boats to capture the water from above.

If this sounds like a metaphor for seeing Mexican-American relations ‘from both sides’, that’s because it is. But Leonard’s works can’t be reduced to straightforward representations of isolated political, or social or ecological issues: what you read into her photographs depends on your perspective, and even that should be interrogated. As with all of her photos, Leonard leaves a thin black frame of unexposed negative film (which is normally cropped out during the developing process) around each of these, as if to remind the viewer – and maybe herself – that these are compositions: the world framed by another’s viewpoint. Put simply, all perspectives are constructs.

Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1988/2008, Gelatin silver print 86 x 61 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & WirthZoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial,1988/2008. Gelatin silver print, 86.3 x 60.5 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Leonard says that before she began the Rio Grande series, she was due to spend some time in West Texas (and more specifically Marfa, where she has made a number of works) after the 2016 election. Although the results caused her to hesitate about returning to the south, she tells me that she soon discovered that the same issues shaping New York were at play in Texas. Moreover that the different perspectives and framing of those issues in that landscape have taught her much about the country she lives in.

The idea of ‘perspective’ as a personal (that’s to say emotional and sociopolitical, for as Leonard puts it, “We don’t have the luxury to say politics doesn’t matter… it’s right here on our doorstep”) or formal position from which to look at Leonard’s works is a recurring feature. In 2016 she presented a new collection of photographs of found family snapshots that, as she earlier described, present ‘statelessness as both an individual experience and a shared social condition’. Crossing the Equator (2016) is a series of five photographs of three family snapshots taken in the years following the Second World War, when Leonard’s mother, grandmother and great aunt were displaced from Poland and were eventually able to emigrate to the US. Rephotographed by Leonard on a black background that then becomes part of the new image, this collapse in distance both alludes to the fact that the US as a country – as a concept – was constructed by immigration, and that the same issues surrounding borders and migration are playing out today.

The use of found materials as a means by which to reframe our perspective is demonstrated, in a formal sense, in You see I am here after all (2008), a several-thousand-strong installation of found vintage postcards depicting Niagara Falls that, when exhibited as an installation at Dia:Beacon, New York, were arranged on the walls to reflect the vantage point from which they were taken. Spanning the early 1900s to the 1950s, the postcards also show the transformation of a natural form (falling along the border between the US and Canada) into a tourist site, at once a critique of what consumer culture does to landscape and an acknowledgement of photography’s role in the mass-production of images, and therefore stereotypes.

Put simply, all perspectives are constructs

Earlier photographs by Leonard like Niagara Falls no. 4 (1986/ 1991 – she includes the dates on which the image was taken and on which it was printed) and Untitled Aerial (1988/2008) show the artist’s preoccupation with shifting the angle from which we, and she, look at the subject. The former shows the curve of the waterfall’s crest – cut off at the frame – reaching around a tourist boat made tiny by distance; in the latter, part of a series of photographs taken from an airplane in which a river appears as a thin rivulet made visible by the light that flashes off its surface, the viewer is situated by the curve of the passenger window through which the photograph is taken. In both examples, there is the unsettling effect of giving the viewer a god’s-eye perspective while at the same time, with a nod to the Burkean sublime, alluding to the insignificant scale of the human against nature.

Zoe Leonard, Untitled Aerial, 1987, Gelatin silver print 43 x 61 cm. © Zoe Leonard. Courtesy the artist and Hauser & Wirth

Leonard’s works resist the genre of ‘landscape photography’ in the traditional sense that early proponents such as Timothy O’Sullivan (who documented the American Civil War and, during the 1870s, photographed the landscape of the Southwest) and, later, Ansel Adams (best known for his iconic photos of Yosemite Valley) made popular. Indeed, rather than subscribing to the trope of ‘capturing’ the sublime – which you might say is an act of domestication – Leonard’s photographs often depict moments of conflict between the natural world and the manmade, be it the growth of trees through the confines of fences in urban New York (Tree + Fence series, 1998), produced shortly after spending two years living alone in Alaska, or of the camera as a tool, the limits of which Leonard underscores by leaving the black frames on her photographs.

Leonard not only invites the viewer to consider their position in relation to the subject, but also always questions her own

More defiant still are her Sun Photographs (2011–12): flouting the rules of photography, Leonard points her lens to the sun, shooting the source of light itself and creating a series of black-and-white photographs that are at once luminous and melancholic. The harder you look at these photographs, the less focused the sun appears; as the levels of light blend into a uniform grey, each photograph becomes an abyss that gazes back. Using both formal and subjective aspects of her photographs, Leonard not only invites the viewer to consider their position in relation to the subject, but also always questions her own. When I ask what drew her to the wilds of West Texas and what that meant for her work, she tells me that it’s the first time since spending two years in northern Alaska during the mid-1990s that she felt she was in a truly wild place – and that it’s the feeling of being off grid, the sense of wonder, fear and scale, and of being very small, that she missed.

For an exhibition with the Chinati Foundation in Marfa she transformed an entire gallery space into a camera obscura, a 15cm hole in a dark room letting in rays of light to project an upside-down image of the outside world onto the far wall. Titled 100 North Nevill Street (2013), it was the final instalment of a series shown in New York, Venice, London and Cologne, and unlike its previous iterations, depicted a primarily natural landscape. By presenting an inverted image of the world outside as it carries on and placing the viewer inside the camera, Leonard disrupts normal patterns of looking, and instead offers, as she put it in an interview with Elisabeth Lebovici, a way of ‘photographic seeing as… a space that can be entered and inhabited’.

Inviting viewers to inhabit the spaces she creates is central to Leonard’s method of installing exhibitions: “I’m consciously making space for the viewer and unfolding a kind of visual and spatial essay for them, in the hope that the viewer responds with their opinions, experiences, emotions. It’s not about trying to convince you of mine, but to elicit yours.” She says that critics often comment on how sparse her exhibitions can be, but she likes the ‘negative spaces’ because they allow room for the viewer to respond to her work, and for the exhibition to become a meeting point.

It’s this last that brings all the perspectives – formal, personal, political, geographical – that Leonard has spent over three decades exploring, together: the meeting point, or negative space, is where photographer, viewer, subject and camera converge. For Leonard, “making work is about opening a dialogue so that we can think and talk about who we are, how we got here and where we want to go next. Where you look from is always half the picture.”

Zoe Leonard: Survey is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, through 25 March, while Hauser & Wirth present two solo exhibitions: Analogue (Los Angeles, through 20 January) and Aerials (London, through 9 February). Leonard’s latest series on the Rio Grande is on view at Carnegie International, Pittsburgh, through 25 March 

From the December 2018 issue of ArtReview