As a photographer, Adam Jeppesen is known for large-format, beautifully composed and melancholic pictures. His aesthetic combines sensuous pleasure—his images reward long looking—and emotional distance. The title of his 2008 monograph, Wake, is characteristic in its double entendre: are we meant to read it as verb or noun?
Recently Jeppesen has been scrutinizing the photograph not just as image but as object—an ink and paper thing, made by people and bumping up against the world. The large-scale works of his Flatlands Camp Project are built from photocopies tiled and visibly pinned in place to produce a coherent photographic image that, it is clear, can come apart at any time. His new photogravure series take this notion of the disintegration of the photographic record in a different direction.
For each of 12 sets of prints made in 2013 a single gravure plate was inked once then printed repeatedly, in fainter and fainter iterations, until nothing remained but the plate mark. In some cases there are five images, in others seven or eight, and one plate generated no fewer than twelve impressions before the picture faded from sight.
This print-it-till-it-dies device has been used by other artists, but rarely with such poetic resonance. This is partly the result of the Jeppesen workshop’s famously delicate printerly hand and partly to do with the images themselves, which were taken on a 487-day solo trip that Jeppesen made in 2009–2010 from the North American Arctic to the tip of Antarctica. They show open empty places, uninhabited and seemingly uninhabitable: cracked earth stretching to the horizon, rock-strewn desert, barren crumpled ground. While mankind’s handiwork can occasionally be seen (a locomotive, an abandoned shed), people never are. Vast spaces are made intimate: the horizontal plates are modest size and each series is a unique work. This defiance of the multiplicity that photography and photogravure were engineered to produce extends the melancholic disposition of the work: the plate gets just one life.
Jeppesen’s most recent gravure proect, September 5th (from BO Mulato), is different: to begin with, the plate is enormous—nearly six feet high—and though the image of the Bolivian Altiplano gets paler over the course of five impressions, it never fully fades away.
The scale of the prints, combined with the seductive crumble of the photogravure surface, lures the viewer in. Scattered activity in the broad blank sky initially suggests a flock of birds, but is quickly revealed as a concatenation of scratches on the negative, the result of grit in the camera. Close up, the desert disappears into the physical object before us—instead of a picture, we see ink sitting atop paper, the residue of intaglio; we see the photographic grain imposed by the film in Jeppesen’s camera; we see scratches and abrasions, tiny hairs and motes of dust, now as large as the small stones depicted. In short we see a document that charts neither a place nor a moment in time, but a trajectory.
This set, unlike the others, was produced in an edition of five, which makes sense: if the narrative gist of the 2013 series was the irrevocable loss of the past (each is titled with a date, but not a location), this suggests transformation. The moment is irretrievable, the place is distant, the film is damaged, the ink wears away, and yet we get to stand in a gallery looking at magisterial beauty.
Art has its consolations.