Are These Even Photographs?

A new photo exhibition challenges Eugene’s conventional photography

If you’re a Eugene photographer, be forewarned. A visit to Joseph Peila’s current show Annexed might push you out of your comfort zone.

Not only do Peila’s photos challenge the modernist trope that a photograph should be a recognizable translation of reality. They question the nitpicky requirement that a good photo reflect technical mastery, or that it be original. For good measure the exhibition tweaks traditional presentation standards and calls into question the very idea of “gallery.” The show hangs in the waiting area of a dental office at the base of College Hill.

In other words, Annexed challenges the hulking majority of photography exhibited over the past 40-something years in Eugene, a city whose photographic fashions can be generally categorized in a word as, well, musty. Think for example of Brett Weston and Bernie Freemesser. Both were great photographers in their time, and both were deservedly influential here in the 1970s. But times change. That their straight documentary style still maintains a curiously outsized grip on the local photo scene is problematic.  

Into this staid environment Peila’s Annexed — his first solo show in Eugene — tosses a knuckleball. Peila uses color photographs from The New York Times travel and arts sections as his raw material. To create an image he captures these originals with his iPhone. He then severely crops the appropriated version to create what he terms “a thumbnail of a thumbnail.”

The resulting photographs — tightly boxed color fields — are abstracted beyond recognition. They owe more to Mark Rothko or Helen Frankenthaler than to photojournalism. In the end almost all traces of the original Gray Lady have been removed except one. Peila enlarges the finished work to fill tabloid-sized newsprint pages the same shape and dimension as The New York Times

Annexed was produced in an initial edition of 20, the entirety of which is on display. Each iteration is reshuffled to show a distinct cover page. They’re bunched across the walls of the waiting room, where they maintain a certain standoffish posture over the nearby Good Housekeeping, Sports Illustrated and Highlights magazines.

What are these photos about? I’ll be the first to admit I have no idea. Some forms are roughly visible, such as seascapes, clouds and flowers. But generally they defy easy interpretation. Are they even photographs? Well, yes, sort of. Peila’s coy explanation isn’t much help. “A whispered memory in a dream,” he calls them.

In other words, use your imagination. I haven’t yet tried viewing Annexed under psychoactive influence —nitrous oxide, perhaps? — but I bet that if pressed into duty, the photos would pull their weight to foster a mind-blowing or two. Even seen soberly, they’re odd enough to trigger general bemusement and a sense of wonder. They may not describe the world accurately, but as invitations to fantasy they do the trick.

Peila hasn’t always drifted so far from reality. He comes from the world of analog film-based photography. After years shooting traditional subjects such as tableau and portraiture with large-format cameras, the conversion to digital opened up new possibilities. His iPhone in particular proved an artistic boon. He tossed off cellphone snaps initially as experiments before gradually realizing he had “an amazing tool in my pocket.”

A long-time reader of the Sunday New York Times with a particular interest in mundane subjects, he found source material close at hand. Appropriation and abstraction pulled him in, perhaps sparked by the murky artistic waters of copyright, authorship and originality. He toyed around, went down the rabbit hole, and Annexed was born. “Originally [the photos] were never meant to be seen. It was an exercise in creating. Then I realized I should let them see the light of day,” Peila says. Seeing the dim fluorescence proves just as good.  

To date Peila has produced more than 50 images for the series. Its Eugene debut rocks the local photo boat. Count me as one local photo fan hoping for continued stormy seas.

Annexed is on display 8 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday, through Dec. 18, at Don Dexter’s dental office gallery, 2233 Willamette Street, Suite B.