On January 4, 2011, John Neff created what I suspect is the strangest photograph of Lake Michigan ever taken. The sky in the black-and-white image is marred by countless flecks—a sort of visual static—and thin horizontal streaks that extend from one end of the picture to the other. On the left, a dark mass obscures almost 25 percent of the photograph. Oddest of all are the waves: Look closely, and you’ll see they crest as sharp peaks instead of soothing postcard curves.
Earlier this month, as he finished installing his eponymous show at the Renaissance Society (5811 S Ellis Ave) in Hyde Park, Neff—accompanied by Renaissance Society associate curator Hamza Walker—explained how he took 1/4/11 and the other 57 photographs in the exhibition, which is on view through April 14.
Neff tells me he modified a “turn-of-the-aughts” Canon desktop scanner and attached it to the back of a Kodak folding camera made approximately a century earlier. Because of his alterations, the scanner can read the image captured by the camera, though he needs about 30 seconds to take a photograph. “It’s tethered, using a USB cord, to a laptop, and [mounted] on a tripod because of the long exposure time,” Neff says. The device has neither shutter, range finder nor viewfinder, so he can only adjust it between exposures. Its pictures appear on the artist’s laptop screen as he takes them. 1/4/11 looks so peculiar because his device takes photographs in increments rather than all at once.
In 5/31/12 (all of the works are titled by date), Neff’s unusual process makes a moving headphone cord appear to zigzag rather than blur. “That’s not possible anywhere outside of the photograph. That cord could never take that shape,” he says, describing the distinctive movement of objects in these photographs as “a shifting or stuttering.”
Walker identifies himself as a fan of Neff since the Chicago artist was pursuing his M.F.A. at UIC from 1999 to 2001. The curator was “shocked” by the photographs when Neff showed him his early efforts in 2011, in part because photography has never been an exclusive focus of the artist’s multifaceted conceptual practice. Walker remembers telling him, “Oh my God, these are really whacked-out. Call me when you have made some more of these.”
The curator compares Neff’s photographs to On Kawara’s date paintings. Though the series isn’t meant to be a diary, Walker believes it became “indexical” as it recorded moments from the artist’s daily life. Neff carried his hacked camera everywhere, but using it is not “something you can do casually,” Walker reminds me. Each image in the exhibition—which includes deliberately banal subjects such as landscapes and flowers alongside more idiosyncratic formal studies, portraits of friends, and intimate depictions of nude men—represents what Neff describes as a “stoppage”: a considered decision to pause and take a photograph.
Local artists Doug Ischar (who leads a tour of the show March 24) and Elijah Burgher appear several times in the series. “There was a kind of compact that we had, where they understood what I would want to do at a particular time and know how to sit for the camera,” Neff says. “They understood the process—and became active participants in it by being still.”