John Neff’s small black-and-white photographs shift between sexually frank imagery and subjects that are intimate, quiet and relatively everyday: a lone carnation placed in a glass on a table; a fluffy storm cloud hovering over silhouetted buildings and trees; a pensive young man in a hoodie holding a Rubik’s Cube; a nude male ass, sporting a butt plug in the shape of a puppy dog’s tail. Like the works of some latter-day pervert pictorialist, Neff’s photos—mostly low-contrast, in a close tonal range of sober grays—are hazy, obscured by horizontal and vertical lines that evoke window screens or scratches on old film. These effects are mostly the result of the artist’s methods. Neff jury-rigs camera lenses to a flatbed scanner, using long exposures to produce the distortions that give his pictures their particular texture. And while many of these images appear resolutely ordinary, Neff’s technique makes a few seem more than passing strange: A view of a lake, built up like layers of sediment in horizontal bands, crests in uncannily dark and oddly elongated waves.
Employing consumer-grade digital devices to approximate the look of a previous, analog era (a shot of an unpeopled park in the rain could have been taken by Edward Steichen), Neff seems to be pointing, languidly, to ideas about traditional photography’s demise and the imaging technologies that have supplanted it. Yet for all their formal distancing, his images feel unguardedly honest and deeply experienced—slowly accumulated glimpses of a life lived with a highly attuned visual sensibility.—Joseph R. Wolin