STEVEN POSTER: WONDERWORLD
By Peter Frank
Wielding a camera for almost half a century, Steven Poster understands that the world is a different place because he has been able to look at it through a lens--and his photographs commute that understanding to us. It's put together differently than we might think; the relationships of things and beings are different than they might at first appear; things simply look different when a photographer like Poster trains his camera on them. They don't lose their quotidian meaning, but gain a heightened effect, a kind of aura of epiphany, a momentousness that, captured by the camera, outlasts the moment. Maybe that's what's meant by the "ghost in the machine"–the anima that pervades everything Steven Poster photographs.
Those familiar with Poster's long professional history probably know him as a leading cinematographer for the Hollywood studios. He has worked on everything from Close Encounters of the Third Kind and Blade Runner to Mrs. Harris and cult favorite Donny Darko and recent releases The Box and Spread. Poster has also worked extensively in television and even on music video (notably on Madonna's Like a Prayer. He is very active in the nuts and bolts of his profession; currently President of the International Cinematographers Guild, a trade union for camera workers and film publicists, he is past president of the American Society of Cinematographers, for which he continues to serve as co-chair of its important Technology Committee. Poster has become an internationally known spokesman for the transition to digital imaging.
It would seem an affectation, then, if not a downright anachronism, for such a successful Hollywood cinematographer, a man who has the most advanced imaging devices at hand, to wander the streets taking black and white still photographs. But Poster's eye is rooted in this once-prevalent vision of the real world, and it is precisely the understanding of formal and contextual nuance he has gained from decades of composing silver and shadow that has brought him awards and accolades for his big-screen work. In Poster's hands, the act of looking yields the pleasure of seeing, but yields even more the poetry of what is seen.
Poster is exquisitely sensitive to the depth of mystery black and white film can reveal. Or is the discovery of mystery a revelation, or a confabulation? He is in fact complicit in making his often ordinary subjects that much more fantastical. The movements of humans, the babble of billboards, the obduracy of architecture, the dignity of animals, all take on urgency when rendered in metallic chiaroscuro—and when captured by a roaming camera looking to nail moments with the quick reflexes of a news photographer and the intuitive grace of a painter. The stylization in Poster's work begins and ends with the medium; his rapid eye struggles joyfully to keep up with the spontaneity of life. In fact, he exploits both life and sight in bringing the world to us through his gray-scale values.
The distinctiveness of Poster's vision comes not from its voice so much as from its hand. That is, Poster speaks to a number of subjects, and is able to change his voice to step into various given photographic traditions—the street photographer, the ironist, the human-interest reporter, the draughtsman, the topographer, the storyteller, and so forth. But the inflection he gives every one of these disparate "voices" is invariably his own, finding the harmony of light and grain, mass and contour in even the most fleeting moment. This suspends the viewer in between the moment's immediacy and the image's immortality; like a dream, the apparition never fixes, and yet is never forgotten. Poster depends on the corner of his eye to find a camera-ready circumstance, depends on the camera to capture that circumstance, and depends on all the corners of his eye--and his darkroom skills—to frame that circumstance into a picture at once monumental and evanescent. As the Zen koan avers, things are not as they seem in Poster's lens; nor are they otherwise.
His conflation of momentousness and iconicity, reality and dream, precision and nuance gives Poster's photographs the quality of newsreels—newsreels, that is, run without soundtrack or intertitles, run at half-speed, shown perhaps with a fading bulb or on a dark gray screen. The familiar becomes otherworldly; the quotidian awesome; the here and now improbable. Poster admits to investing his work with the quality of fiction, but the aura of that quality is that of the spectacle, the enveloping of the witness in luminosity and bustle, urgency and confusion, interludes of calm briefly allowing life's cacophonic vaudeville to catch its breath. Again, Poster's approach captures that dream quality that puts you in the middle of a riot or atop a mountain and lets the bullets and the snow pass right through you, and he does so without resort to camera shenanigans, surrealist trickery, or the manipulation of anything more than the silver on the photo paper--and the willingness of the human mind to be taken along for a wild ride.
When we embark on that ride, we're not sure how wild it's going to be. Poster can be something of a trickster, depending on how you approach his work. An oeuvre spanning forty-some years, after all, has multiple entryways, and you may come into it through an oasis of quiet, even introspective lucidity. All hell may break loose, however, in the very next image. Similarly, if your first impression is one Poster shot in broad daylight, you may not be ready for his masterful depictions of nocturnal events. And a particular image or two may set you up to expect a series of images dealing with similar content or composition or location, but no such series coalesces. Poster prefers to roam unmoored in time and space, shooting in Spain one moment, Mt. Rushmore the next, Tokyo the next, and the Louvre the next. These locales sound glamorous, but it is not their glamour Poster celebrates, but their magic. And he celebrates the magic of mean streets no less, finding a rough-hewn poetry at an intersection he passes every day in Los Angeles or a stretch of Chicago near where he grew up.
Nothing may be occurring in these photographs, but something is always happening. This is not Steven Poster's world, it's ours; but he knows it slightly better than we do. This is the kind of guide you want most to take you on the tour, the one who knows where the truly picturesque can be found—and who knows exactly how to show it to you.
May 2007-May 2008