Observing a Continuous Signal – Temporality in the Work of Zoe Leonard

In this essay which I wrote for one of my university courses last year, I consider Zoe Leonard’s work exhibited in the 2012 Camden Arts Centre exhibition ‘Observation Point’


In her article ‘Analogue: On Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean’ Margaret Iverson determines ‘exposure’ as a term that best describes American artist Zoe Leonard’s attitude to the world.[i] In German ‘exposure’ translates into ‘Belichtung’, the giving of light or becoming lit, the temporal subjecting of a surface or object to rays of light. This describes the activity on which most of Zoe Leonard’s work is based, as she has been working with analogue photography for more than three decades. One of Leonard’s best known works is her monumental photographic archive ‘Analogue’ (1997-2002) (fig.1)which consists of more than 400 pictures she took of store fronts in the lower eastside of New York City which were in the process of being neglected, and of commodities she tracked from the US to Africa. Subsequently, Zoe Leonard’s work is considering temporality in two ways. First of all, analogue photography is inevitably bound up with the temporal, running as a theme through this medium. Roland Barthes noted, photography mechanically reproduces in infinite number what took place only once and can never be repeated.[ii] As opposed to digital, analogue photography relies on the exposure of photosensitive material to light for a certain restricted period of time only – is the exposure too short or too long the resulting photography is under- or overexposed, and categorized as imperfect.  In the dark room an analogue photograph develops over time until it becomes fully visible on the photographic paper. Secondly, while Zoe Leonard’s work formally relies on time, it also considers time conceptually. As scholars Iverson, Svetlana Alpers, Jordan Troeller and Helen Molesworth have noticed, loss, separation, memory and the historical run as themes through Analogue and other works by Leonard. [iii] All of these themes suggest the possession of something, tangible or intangible, for a period of time that is restricted, thus temporal.

Fig.1: Installation view at Dia Art Foundation of Zoe Leonard, Analogue, 1998-2007/ Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain Source: http://www.diaart.org/exhibitions/main/1

In this essay, I will explore temporality as a formal and conceptual aspect in Leonard’s work. Moreover, I will do so by contrasting Analogue with her recent exhibition Observation Point (2012) at Camden Arts Centre (CAC), London, as Observation Point comes at a time when Leonard is reconsidering her work. Having not exhibited any new analogue photographs since her retrospective at Winterthur, Switzerland in 2007, the works included in this exhibition simultaneously present a break and a continuation of her former practice. Unsure of how to continue with photography, Leonard turned again to found images and sculpture and began to think about the subject of photography itself.[iv] While temporality and loss can still be identified as major concerns, the focus is undeniably shifted towards the practice of looking, more precisely observation, as Leonard states: ‘It’s about being present in and having a certain perspective on, the world around me[…] It’s more about responding.[…]. It’s not just what I’m looking at but how I look. […]I want to draw the viewer into the process of looking so we can look at these things together.’[v] Subsequently, Observation Point is also about the viewer and his participation in the process of looking. This aspect adds a new layer to the concern of the temporal, in such a way that it considers the restricted periods of time of the viewer’s observation as additive to the work, as opposed to the subtractive quality of loss and memory. Furthermore, while in the works of Observation Point Leonard continuous to consider analogue photography, she also goes beyond by including an element of abstraction in her photographs of the sun (2009-2012), by turning postcard-photographs into a sculptural installation in You see I am here after all (2008-2012), and through expanding on the fleeting moment of exposure in her Arkwright Road (2012).

Light as Continuous Signal

Leonard’s photographs of the sun were not the first works you would see when entering the Observation Point. However, formally and conceptually they are most similar to Analogu,e and therefore I will consider them first. Gallery 1 of the CAC extends as a white sterile rectangle only lit by the natural light that falls through the skylights in the ceiling (fig.2).

Fig.2: Installation view of Zoe Leonard’s photographs of the sun, 2009-2012, Observation Point 2012, Camden Arts Centre, London. Source: http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21

A selection of 10 prints is pinned without glass or frame directly on to the wall with nails that seem too thick for the paper. The photographs are positioned in irregular groups across the four walls of the gallery. Each picture shows a white orb. At first glance, besides their variation in format, the images seem almost identical. It requires a closer look to make out the differences in gradation and shading of grays that surround the white orbs. Different textures, little scratches and spills where the chemicals of the photograph’s developing process left a trace are only visible upon close inspection (fig. 3). The images show nothing but white glaring light and shades of grey, making you aware of the imperfections of the photographic print. Leonard’s work requires the viewer to take time to look closely, to fully engage in the act of looking. If you do not take the time these photos will leave you feeling unsatisfied.

Fig. 3: Zoe Leonard, April 4, frame 2, 2011, Gelatine silver print, Observation Point 2012, Camden Arts Centre, London. Source:http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21

In this work Leonard is still practicing in the medium of analogue photography. However, besides focusing on the viewer’s engagement, she turns towards abstraction of her subject and a more direct exploration of time. As she turned her gaze upwards in her depiction of everyday urban life in New York, Leonard began to do exactly what you are not supposed to do in photography – directing the lens towards the unfiltered light of the sun. Progressing from photographs of the sun that still included parts of rooftops and trees (fig. 4), the images included in Observation Point are reduced to showing only one thing –light. These photographs make it possible to look at the sun’s light directly, turning them paradoxical as they reverse the characteristics by which the sun has been defined since antiquity – it makes things visible, but looking at it leads to blindness.[vi] The work ultimately lays bare the timely process of photographic exposure itself, as one is never in doubt that what we are looking at are analogue photographs. Like in Analogue, every photographic print includes the black frame that is mark of its medium. Each print is the making visible of a different time frame, made evident through the fact that every one of them is named after the date on which it was taken. Leonard states that her aim in doing so is to show that every photograph is an ‘edited, subjective image.’[vii] She makes no claim to illusion. Although her subject, the sun, is abstracted through the cutting out of objects other than light, the viewer is always aware of looking at a photograph. Similarly to Analogue, depicting the sun and her journey throughout the day, the work is also a documentation of something that belongs to the realm of the everyday. In this installation we are looking at the passage of time, but we are also immersed in it. The room has been transformed, a new floor was installed and the covers of the skylights removed, to best show the change of natural light as it falls into the room, onto the images and the visitor himself. Including the architecture into her installation and making the visitor aware of the space around him, Leonard aimed at creating a ‘state of real awareness’ of the surroundings, an awareness of not only what you are looking at, but how you are looking.[viii]

Fig. 4: Zoe Leonard, February 1, frame 26, 2012, Gelatine silver print Source: http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21

In their reductiveness, Leonard’s photographs of the sun constitute a break with those of Analogue. However, they are also a continuation of her exploration into the medium of analogue photography which has been at the centre of her practice prior to and throughout Analogue.  As the word analogue describes the sending of a continuous measurable signal, Leonard makes this process visible in her transfixion of the continuous signal onto photographic paper. The infinite radiation of solar light rays, void of any perishable human presence, has been chopped into numerical segments and frozen in time. Thus, these photographs are not only a documentation of how analogue photography functions, but also an advancement towards the exploration of temporality. There is a feeling of loss which connects the sun photographs to those of Analogue. While the sun images depict a time that has passed and is lost forever, Analogue’s photographs of lower eastside shop fronts are a documentation of a New York that now too is lost. However, there is no sense of nostalgia in either of these works. The loss that both depict is part of a cyclical process. As some of Analogue’s photographs trace the route of commodities, big batches of textiles, from the US to Africa and back, it becomes apparent that everything either returns or is replaced with something new, no void remains. The rays emitted from the sun which are fixed in the photographs in Observation Point are forever lost, but they since have been replaced by new ones a million times over – in a continuous signal.

The Suspension of Temporality

Zoe Leonard describes her building of a camera obscura as an expansion of her inquiry into photographic practices and at the same time, as a way of starting over, stepping back to the basics of producing and looking at images.[ix] The camera obscura makes visible the process of seeing. Like light which is filtered through the lens of the eye and an inverted image projected onto the human retina, in the camera obscura light rays are bundled through a glass lens into a dark closed space, projecting an upside down image onto the surface opposite of the lens (fig. 5).

Fig. 5: Diagram of a camera obscura Source:http://pixxel-blog.de/wp-content/uploads/2010/12/Camera_obscura.jpg

The apparatus that Leonard constructed for Observation Point is named ‘Arkwright Road’ after the road the lens faces and whose scenery is projected onto the wall of Gallery 3 (fig.6). As an antique phenomenon the camera obscura was first described by Aristotle in circa 350 BC. [x] However, Leonard made several choices ,sometimes unconventional, which turned her camera obscura into a unique and personal adaptation of the antique apparatus. The artist chose a lens with a specific diameter which defines the sharpness of the projected image and systematically placed the glass into the window of the north-south axis of the gallery, providing a constant exposure to light throughout the day. Instead of providing a flat surface for the projection, Leonard chose to leave the wall functioning as a screen completely unaltered, thus incorporating the arches and columns of the Victorian architecture into her work.

Fig. 6: Installation view of Arkwright Road, 2012, Observation Point 2012, Camden Arts Centre, London. Source:http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21

As every-day urban life comes to pass on Arkwright road outside, it is projected like an inverted real-time movie onto the gallery walls. After entering into the seemingly complete darkness of Gallery 3, the viewer, once his eyes are adjusted, is able to see clouds floating by on the floor, people walking on the wall and cars moving on the ceiling. Everything is happening against a wallpaper of the road’s buildings and construction site. It appears like the backdrop to a theatre play. The choice of scenery mirrors the urban subjects of Analogue. The noise produced by the scene outside is barely audible and emerges detached from the moving images. Inside and out happen simultaneously, but through the transition into light and back into sight, the images the viewer observes seem once removed from reality.

Like the sun photographs, this work is not only an exploration of looking, but once again it is also connected to temporality. What you observe on the wall is fleeting; the desire to fix what we see remains unsatisfied. Whether it be particularly beautiful formation of clouds, a change of light, the car lights shining like red moving eyes in the twilight, every image is produced and lost immediately.  As Friedrich Kittler noted, the camera obscura receives images, however the storing of images is reserved for the photo camera.[xi] A documentation of the temporal image is impossible within the device of this camera obscura. While we are inside it, temporality is suspended in favour of an experience of a continuous actuality of the image. It is only after we leave the darkened room that we realise that what we just observed was temporal only. Those images will never return. Only afterwards we become aware of a sensation of loss. Like in Analogue and the sun photographs, something is lost, but immediately replaced. If we return into the camera we find the images replaced with new ones. As long as the camera obscura exists the flow of signals is continuous.

Zoe Leonard said about the photographs of Analogue that they are images about place and time, ‘[t]hey are pictures of here and now, but also pictures of there and then. They look across place and across time.’[xii] Without knowing, Leonard partly cites Kubler’s definition of the nature of a signal as entailing a message that is ‘neither here nor now, but there and then,’ because, while the photographs are present, they document a signal that exists in the past only. [xiii]  Thus, the different experiences of time, provided through the sun photograph’s temporality and the camera obscura’s actuality, become apparent. ‘[T]he instant of actuality is all we ever can know directly.’[xiv] Refusing any documentation the images of Leonard’s camera obscura can only be experienced in this way.

Photographs of There and Then

In the same paragraph in which Leonard remarks that images are about place and time, she also talks about her fascination with the word anachronism, the possibility of an object being out of its time, carrying another time with it.[xv] The postcards of the Niagara Falls which form the material for Leonard’s sculptural installation You see I am here after all do precisely that. The work consists of several thousand postcards from the early 1900 to the 1950’s that not only reflect conventional views of the falls over time, but also, being hand-colored, black and white, coloured, cropped or uncropped, document the changing technologies of photography. Leonard’s own worktable, covered with papers and a plastic foil that underline the work-in-progress feel, was placed at the centre of Gallery 2.  Little towers of postcards of varying height are stacked with irregular gaps between them on the table (fig.7). Although we can only see the top card of each tower, we know that all the cards underneath will show the same view and the different heights of the stacks correspond to the number of cards and thus the popularity of their motif. The postcards are placed according to where their photograph was taken from, translating the falls topography onto the table. In addition to this sculptural arrangement two identical postcards showing a lookout with a sign reading ‘Observation Point’ are pinned at eye-height onto the adjacent wall.

Fig.7: Installation view of You see I am here after all, 2008, Observation Point 2012, Camden Arts Centre, London. Source:http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21

As You see… continues Leonard’s exploration into different modes of looking and the photographic medium, Leonard points towards the different vantage points explored in Observation Point. While in the camera obscura the visitor is required to look all around and the sun photographs are positioned at eye-height on the wall, this last work has to be looked down upon.[xvi] You see… is about how, through the privileging of certain viewpoints, we categorize the world into cultural constructions of seeing. It does consist of analogue photographs, and like Analogue, it is about documenting through anachronistic objects a time that has passed and the construction of memory. However, making apparent a break in Observation Point with her previous practices, when Leonard first installed this work at Dia:Beacon in New York in 2008 the similarities to Analogue were much more apparent. Translating the curved topography of the Niagara Falls into a straight line, Leonard mounted the postcards in a massive grid according to their vantage points onto the long wall of the Gallery (fig. 8). At Dia:Beacon You see… was, like Analogue, monumental, flat and structured into a grid. At CAC the work is condensed and sculptural.

Fig.8: You see I am here after all, 2008, Installation view at Dia:Beacon, Beacon, NY. Courtesy the Artist and Galerie Gisela Capitain Source:http://www.artslant.com/ew/works/show/565038

Like Analogue, the You see… consists not only of the gallery installation but also of an essay. Whereas Analogue’s essay “A continuous signal” retells the history of photography through quotes, ”This is where I was” is an essay made up from inscriptions taken from the back of the postcards that otherwise remain invisible in the gallery. The title of the essay makes apparent the temporality of the textual fragments of which it consists. In contrast to the phrase “This is where I was” which refers to a past tense, the work’s title “You see I am here after all,” also a fragment from the back of one of the postcards, is written in present tense. Talking in different temporal modes, the former recalling a memory and the latter recording a present state, both inscriptions at the moment of the visitor being in Leonard’s installation are relics of the past and the postcards which bear them anachronisms – objects that carry a different time within them, a time that is lost. Leonard is interested in the way in which ‘objects can be arranged, symbolically, to relate a story of the fragility of life, the temporal qualities of life’ and sees this ‘kind of archeology’ as a thread through her work.[xvii] Thus, the found objects of which You see… consists document a multi-layered temporality of past and present, absence and presence. With only the top postcard of each tower visible, in contrast to the Dia;Beacon installation, Leonard at CAC fosters an (unsatisfied) curiosity of the viewer to explore what lies underneath, an urge to travel back in time and explore the history of these objects. The inscriptions on the back of the postcards, as well as their photographs entail, again with Kubler’s words, ‘a message of neither here or now, but there and then.’[xviii] Thus, this work, like the sun photographs and Arkwright Road, has the emission of signals at its core. Detached from the original sender and receiver the initial message of the postcard has ceased to send its signal. However, considering the postcards as detached objects for their own sake, the linguistic messages on the back and the photographic images on the front continue to send signals, signals of a lost past and an iconic American sight of the present.


In the works of Observation Point Leonard partly frees herself from the practices of Analogue. She does so through the advancement from analogue photography as a medium to a broader inquiry into modes and practices of looking and the creation of different methods of recording, documenting or sending visual signals. The set of Leonard’s photographs of the sun require close immersive looking on the part of the viewer to make out their differences and particularities. They fix the continuous signal of the sun’s light through the short period of photographic exposure permanently onto paper. Thus, these images are not only records of a time that has passed, but also document the present of the continuous signal of solar light. Moving away from analogue photography, Leonard’s camera obscura Arkwright Road, a step back to the origins of photography, provides a comprehensive all-encompassing viewing experience for those who step inside it. As long as you are inside the camera obscura, temporality is suspended; and without the possibility to record the visual signal, actuality replaces it. You see I am here after all, again relies on analogue photographs as its medium, but transforms them into a sculptural installation. In this work, temporality is presented in yet another way. Through the linking of messages that record different temporalities, the postcards send signals of past and present. However, from all different ways of looking, from all observation points, the signals Leonard’s works sent are messages about photography and temporality.

[i] Iverson, Margaret. “On Zoe Leonard and Tacita Dean.” Critical Inquiery, Summer 2012: 796-818, 801.

[ii] Barthes, Roland. Die helle Kammer: Bemerkungen zur Photographie. Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag, 1989, 12.

[iii] Iverson, 808; Alpers, Svetlana. “Zoe Leonard- Analogue.” In Zoe Leonard Fotografien, by Urs Stahel, 218-223. Goettingen: Steidl Verlag, 2007, 218; Troeller, Jordan. “Against abstraction: Zoe Leonard’s Analogue.” Art Journal, Vol.69(4) Winter 2010: 108-123, 109; Molesworth, Helen. “Zoe Leonard, Analogue, 1998-2007.” In Antinomies of art and culture : modernity, postmodernity, contemporaneity , by Terry Smith, Okwui Enwezor and Nancy Condee, 187-206. London: Duke University Press , 2008, 203

Beth Dungan points out other works dealing with time, for example, Strange Fruit (1992-1997) and Leonards photographs of trees and bags, titled Untitled (2000). Dungan, Beth. “An Interview with Zoe Leonard.” Discourse 24.2, 2002: 70-85, 83.

[iv] Fiske, Courtney. “In-Camera: Q + A with Zoe Leonard.” Art in America Magazine. 11 June 2012. http://www.artinamericamagazine.com/news-opinion/conversations/2012-11-06/zoe-leonard-murray-guy/ (accessed December 22, 2012).

[v] Cottingham, Laura. “Zoe Leonard.” Journal of Contemporary Art. http://www.jca-online.com/leonard.html (accessed December 22, 2012).

[vi] Kittler, Friedrich. Optical Media: Berlin Lectures 1999. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2010, 51.

[vii] Dungan, Beth. “An Interview with Zoe Leonard.” Discourse 24.2, 2002: 70-85, 79.

[viii] Leonard, Zoe. “Zoe Leonard – Observation Point – 31 March 2012 – 24 June 2012.” Camden Arts Centre. 2012. http://www.camdenartscentre.org/whats-on/view/exh21#8 (accessed December 22, 2012).

[ix] Fiske

[x] Kittler, 51.

[xi] Kittler, 12.

[xii] Baker, George. “Artist Questionnaire: Zoe Leonard – Out of Time.” October 100, Spring 2002: 88-97, 93.

[xiii] Kubler, George. The Shape of Time: Remarks on the History of Things. New Haven, London: Yale University Press, 1962, 17.

[xiv] Ibid

[xv] Baker, 93.

[xvi] Leonard

[xvii] Baker, 97.

[xviii] Kubler, 17.


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