In Taking Pictures, Nicholas Knight haunts the galleries of art museums, photographing people in the act of taking pictures. Like an anthropologist in the bush, Knight captures the peculiar comportment of the museum-goer, and finds that directly looking at an artwork is often replaced by the need to see the thing through the camera's screen.
His own pictures of pictures of pictures create a breathless daisy chain of picture-taking that finds its endgame in a crepuscular video G'tterd'mmerung, in which the artist is seen hand-cranking a slide projector show of his own picture-taking. It's picture-in-picture as a repeating decimal.
Like the painter of yore establishing his frame with outstretched thumb, Knight uses peoples hands-holding-cameras to organize the compositions in this series. Sometimes the back of the photographer's head is seen. But it is the hands that grab your attention, as though they were trying to message something beyond the functionality of their gesture. They recall John Baldessari's finger-pointing photos of the early 1970s and Wallace Berman's mystical verifaxes of the 1960s, in which hands hold radios with mysterious images inside of them.
Michael Kimmelman's recent lamentation in the New York Times that tourists speed through museums, stopping only to take pictures, is rooted in the conventional wisdom that the original is preferable to the reproduction, and belies a pastoral distinction that a thing experienced through the five senses is more real than one mediated by technology. Knight's moral compass doesn't point in that direction. His photos luxuriate in the details of the new world of appropriation: the twinkling lights of the camera's viewfinder, the simultaneity of the image and its reproduction, and the digitization and miniaturization of the masterpiece.
For art historical purposes, Knight's photos are the punctum in the story written by the Pictures Generation, in which artists like Sherrie Levine came to prominence by rephotographing original works by other people. Taking Pictures documents how the public has bought into the new authority those artists conveyed on the reproduction, personalizing the democratizing process. What photographer Louise Lawler did for art in the back rooms of auction houses, the public is now doing for art in the public realm, and we can all watch it on Flickr.
The most compelling art in these photos, however, is not the one on the camera's screen but the tableau created by Knight. In staging this duel over representation of the object, Knight has created photos whose bipolar dynamic entertains to the extent that it destabilizes. And while these photos, just like the reproductions within them, are almost clones of each other, the compositions that emerge and the particularities of the subjects are distinctly original and, ironically, reward a close reading. One set of female hands with a Goth manicure snaps a jpeg of a monstrous de Kooning female. In another, a bald male head with biker jacket and silver skull ring hones in on Jean Baptise Carpeaux's marble grouping Ugolino and His Sons. And in a miracle of metaphorical self-reference, the light from a Dan Flavin fluorescent tube sculpture illuminates Knight's camera, as the Flavin itself alights on the subject's screen, with a glow part Heaven, part Westinghouse.