Ghostly Doubles: The Art of Charlie Bidwell
Buildings, unlike people, tend to sit still for their portraits, so it’s not surprising that the first surviving permanent photograph showed not people, but a couple of buildings. In 1827, the French inventor Joseph Nicéphore Niépce (1765-1833), who had been experimenting with light-sensitive substances for several years, came up with a new strategy: he dissolved bitumen in oil of lavender, applied a thin coating of the mix to a polished plate of pewter, inserted it into his camera obscura, placed the contraption in front of his window, and waited. And waited. And waited. Scholars disagree as to where exactly Niépce had placed his camera, whether it was on the first floor of his house or in his attic. Niépce’s estate at Chalon-sur-Saône in the Burgundy region of France still exists, but so much has changed over the years that it is now impossible to recreate that iconic first shot. But Niépce’s plate, known as View from the Window at Le Gras, has survived; it now sits, in its own climate-controlled case, at the Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas.
The untrained eye cannot make out very much on this faded piece of metal. A modern enhancement, produced in 1952, reveals a rooftop and a courtyard framed by taller structures on the right and left, perhaps some trees in the distance: a ghostly image written by sunlight, many hours of it, almost two hundred years ago (hence the name Niépce invented for the new technique, “héliographe” or heliograph).
Thus, we see today, as if standing in his room again, what Niépce saw back then in 1824—and the fact that it took Niépce so long to capture this view renders it perhaps even more poignant. Buildings aren’t people, but the veil of mist that shrouds them in Niépce’s photograph, wreathed by the soft shimmer illuminating the houses from behind and from either side (thanks to the long exposure time), gives the finished picture a mystical, supernatural quality—as if these houses and roofs and trees, lest they be forgotten, had briefly come to life that day and imprinted themselves for all eternity on Niépce’s dimming pewter plate.
Blending art and architecture, Niépce’s photograph sits at the beginning of a distinguished tradition blending art and architecture that includes such names as Frederick Evans, Francis Bedford, Edward Steichen, Margaret Bourke-White, and Berenice Abbott. By taking his photograph from an elevated position, Niépce had, without realizing it, avoided a common problem of architectural photography, the choice of the right angle. As everyone knows who has tried it, it is hard to capture, when standing on the ground, the full size of a building without perspectival distortion. Modern photographers, when not relying on view cameras or tilt/shift lenses, have often, through their cameras, shifted or tilted the buildings themselves. Charlie Bidwell, a Los Angeles-based photographer, belongs to this modern tradition. Like some of his predecessors, he also supports himself through commercial work, selling his photographs to hotel chains or Ralph Lauren. Yet Bidwell’s images also return us, in some way, to the mystical aura captured in that very first successful Niépce photograph. Bidwell’s The Chrysler Building, for example, certainly evokes memories of Berenice Abbott, the intrepid chronicler of New York architecture, and of Margaret Bourke-White, self-declared lover of “industrial forms” (one of her clients was the Otis Steel Company).
Bourke-White once had herself portrayed, camera in hand, riding astride one of the metallic eagles on top of the Chrysler. One of her best-known works, made in 1930/31, shows the Chrysler’s spire, whose design is said to allude to a car radiator, rising before us, as if we were right there with her on the sixty-first floor of the still unfinished building, at the time the tallest in the world (Bourke-White would later occupy a studio there). By contrast, Bidwell gives us a view of the Chrysler’s 122-foot crown as seen from much farther below and from a greater distance, pushed to the composition’s right side. Using double exposure, Bidwell adds, in the middle of the picture’s foreground, a blurry close-up of several of the spire’s arched terraces, an indistinct, somewhat wobbly shape looking like a weird kind of ice sculpture straight out of one of the winter scenes of Dr. Zhivago or like the toppling layers of a frosted cake. A ghostly twin, the Chrysler Building in our minds is juxtaposed with the postcard reality of the actual structure in the background.
Some of Bidwell’s images recall the spirit photography of the late nineteenth-century, pictures in which the recently deceased made their appearance next to or behind a living sitter. The most notorious example of this fad is perhaps the portrait of Mary Todd Lincoln by William H. Mumler (1832-1884), in which the dead president appears behind his wife, resting his appropriately pale hands reassuringly on her shoulders. But if Mumler drew on double exposure for fraudulent purposes, Bidwell uses it to tell us that buildings have their spirits, too, and that these are closer, more familiar, to us than the boring originals. When Bidwell is done with it, the Eiffel Tower seems like a toy souvenir next to the transparent white band that dramatically swooshes through the right half of the picture, a glimmering reminder of the structure’s wrought-iron latticework, given more prominence than the tower itself by its proximity to the viewer.
After the Oklahoma bombing and 9/11, we think of giant building as potential death traps, icons of lethal verticality, places from which debris and human bodies fall. It is shocking to see how Bidwell again transforms one of the lost towers of the World Trade Center into imagined mind space, forcing our eyes to travel diagonally along the tower’s exterior columns. Here, the building’s ghostly double, a twin to the twin tower, adds to the skewed kinetic energy of the picture: Bidwell’s deliberate avoidance of verticality increases the intensity of the composition. When he took the photograph, Bidwell could not have anticipated the tower’s ghastly fate. But in retrospect, his photograph affirms the power of the boldly designed building that, in this image, forever rises (if obliquely), forever refuses to fall.
In Mount Rushmore, Bidwell reverses the background/foreground dynamic he uses in his other photographs: here the subject’s dark, spectral double looms behind the smallish, lighter original image that has been squeezed into the lower right corner. Washington, Jefferson, Roosevelt, and Lincoln, sculpted by a Klansman, are the duplicates of duplicates: they look worn, washed out, caught up in their own, remote, petrified worlds, their heads about to sink back into the granite where they belong, the fading occupiers of an area stolen from the Lakota. Roosevelt and Lincoln have already become barely recognizable.
“Everyone is a photographer now,” Bidwell notes in a text accompanying this series, included at the end of this essay. And yet everyone isn’t. iPhones no doubt have created challenges for those whose livelihood is camera work (the resonant title of Alfred Stieglitz’s groundbreaking journal, published between 1903 and 1917). But such competition isn’t a new thing: Mark Twain’s tourists, the “innocents abroad” featured in his 1869 novel with the same title, already found that the crumbling reality of da Vinci’s Last Supper in Milan paled next to the reproductions they had seen, though that realization exhilarated rather than depressed them. Bidwell, too, delights in the camera’s ability to capture what everyone else sees. But instead of simply reproducing familiar views, he doubles and thus defamiliarizes them, making the competition between the original and its copy, between art and its double, the subject rather than the goal of his work.
And sometimes what wasn’t art, or was never intended to be, becomes such in the process of its photographic transformation. One doesn’t need to be a cultural elitist to claim that there’s a difference between da Vinci’s Milan mural (or, for that matter, the Chrysler Building) and the five-foot letters of the Hollywood sign planted, in 1923, on the hills overlooking Los Angeles. A giant advertisement for a real estate development, the sign was never meant to endure. Bidwell’s photograph acknowledges the structure’s tackiness but turns it into something else, making its spectral copy move, dance, and descend, as if finally unmoored from the hills to which it was fastened. The letters everyone knows appear as if they had been dropped from an apocalyptic sky, the picture we hold in our minds (and all it stands for) superseding the reality captured by a tourist’s phone, even as it threatens to fall and disappear.
Charlie Bidwell, Thoughts on Creating Art
You’ve seen them a thousand times.
On everyone’s mobile phones.
Photographs of the favorite destinations. The Eiffel Tower, Mount
Rushmore, The Hollywood Sign, The Chrysler Building.
Everyone is a photographer now.
So, what does it mean to actually be a photographer? I have no idea, but there still is the one code I’ve always tried to adhere to no matter what I am pursuing.
How can I show something that is unique, something that has potentially never been seen before in this particular way?
That’s the one goal I look to accomplish with everything I approach creatively. How can I push the boundaries in the most effective way? With these images I try to show a different viewpoint of the historic and the recognized. The double exposure gives the semi-permanent almost a ghostly feel, and as we all know, these objects eventually will disappear.
In the case of one of these, its subject was infamously destroyed and in turn, changed the course of society forever.