being water/david goldes

A Tabletop Beyond Control Is a Still Life Beyond Desire


David Goldes, Being Water, Wright State University Art Galleries

The photographic tabletop is pure space: plastic, empty, dimensionless, free of the world, divorced from history, replete with immanence. Unlike other photographic spaces, the tabletop is under the total control of a photographer. Everything from camera angle to subject to scale is a completely conscious decision; nothing is left to chance, and no strings attached. The tabletop is also the production site of photographic still life, the purest manifestation of photographic desire; everything we see triangulates with a photographer’s intention and interior state and nothing more. Every shadow corresponds to a particular intuition; every highlight a wish fulfilled. On the tabletop, photographic control and a photographer’s interior space become a singular agency; decision and desire united in the same set of actions. David Goldes’ still lifes are exactly that: products of his control and desire manifest photographically; the world not as he knows it, but as he would like it to be.

Goldes’ first and most crucial decision is to chose a creative partner to his photographic self—in his case, an agent so common it escapes notice: water. Even though there are other arguably important materials in his photographs, water is the constant, the tie that binds. It’s hard to think of an idée fixe more challenging. The first problem is that, on first glance, water is nothing all that special: Every third grader knows that water covers two thirds of the earth’s surface and makes up over 90 percent of our body mass. The second is that the lesser-known qualities of water—the things that make it unique to our experience—are mostly hidden. Mysteries such as surface tension, wave generation, and state transformation are difficult processes to make visible.

Water is also a near-timeless, self-generating network, an endless cycle through time and space that has eluded specific scientific description. We wash our cars in the water we wash our children in; we irrigate our farms with the water used to hose down civil rights marchers; we drown in the water that we let run over our hands just because it feels good. Every ounce of water commands a narrative so rich as to be almost unimaginable. The water in any one of Goldes’ photographs might have been the water from the Johnstown Flood, from an Esther Williams movie, from my daughter’s baptism, or from all three.

In addition, water is endlessly metaphorical. From the wine-dark sea to the babbling brook, from the parting of the waves to the water become blood, water embodies important understandings that have no other method of expression. Its sparkling transparency has become a metaphor for the very possibility of life. In the same way, it’s difficult to look at a glass of water without thinking of pollution, global warming, and the pernicious effects of human agency on the natural world. In many ways, water has come to stand for both the natural world and the natural world defiled. Like no other substance, water carries with it all the ambiguities we now understand about the dark side of human agency and desire left unchecked.

When Goldes chose water, he was choosing the most ubiquitous and mysterious liquid in human experience and the most symbolic substance in human history. He was also choosing one of the most difficult and malleable naturally occurring substances to photograph. Like most materials, the photographic properties of water change with light intensity and direction, but that’s just the beginning. Water can be reflective, translucent, transparent, even opaque depending on camera angle, lighting, time factors, etc. Water also refuses to stand still or move in predictable ways, presenting an entirely new set of visual problems for a photographer. Because of all these variables, water forces Goldes to make very specific photographic decisions: stop time or blurred, transparent or reflective, highlights or even surface. On a tabletop, water means an incredible amount of opportunity, and most importantly, a constant level of unpredictability: reflectance can vary within human perceptual error, running water always surprises the camera, and wet surfaces and objects tend to change in unexpected ways. This is not a little thing on a tabletop. Introducing an agency beyond the photographer’s control, even in small doses, Goldes changes the equation of decision and desire in a crucial way. When he chooses water, Goldes provides a certain opening for the world to assert itself, to surprise him, to change the picture. Into that opening rushes all the historical signification, chemical characteristics, metaphorical embodiments, and visual properties of water and the world.

Goldes transcribes water’s narrative span and visual possibilities with the most abstract, economical, and graceful of photographic languages: the gray scale. From black to white to the infinite shades of tone between, the gray scale is the purest invention of photochemical reproduction. Even though it represents a direct or indexical correlation between light intensity and tonal reproduction, it also gives the photographer the most opportunity to manipulate those correlations, to transform the jarring highlights of the original scene into the smooth midtones of the final print. It’s only seldom that we see the kind of creative tonal manipulation that Goldes brings to every photograph he makes. Combining correspondence and manipulation into a seamless descriptive device, Goldes extends physical description into the metaphysical structure of metaphor. There are inky blacks surrounding pins; impenetrable, suggesting both the logic of shadows and the limits of knowledge. There are highlights in gathering pools; immaterial, active, an outline of abstract space and time. There are gray tones in running water, infinite, changing, the everyday in the timeless, describing endless change as a moment of perception. This is not what water looks like; this is what water means. Without us knowing it, Goldes has turned the water in his photographs into something else, something capable of translating water’s creative agency into suggestive symbolic language.

Goldes utilizes water’s physical properties in another way unique to his still lifes. He doesn’t create a scene and then photograph it; instead, he creates a situation that activates water, and then photographs the results or duration of that activation. Goldes’ still lifes are like little performances with a cast of two. We’d think of them as science experiments except that they don’t have any of the goals associated with scientific experimentation: they don’t prove any outstanding theoretical or mathematical proposition, nor do they extend the reach of human knowledge of the natural world. Instead of goals, Goldes’ experiments have outcomes: still points that are not only about the natural world, but also about the representational world. Under the guise of scientific experiment, Goldes conducts experiments in metaphor, in the possibility of transforming the odd and beautiful characteristics of water into representations of human experience. Once again, Goldes compromises his control of the tabletop by releasing water’s creative agency in the production of these metaphors. Water motivates transparently, hides effortlessly, transforms ceaselessly, sets in motion relentlessly, responds gladly, denies implicitly, surprises without guile, manipulates without conscience; a source of endless possibility and undeniable causality. In Goldes’ still lifes, water is what the world visits on our lives and what our lives visit on the world. He weaves the loom, he cuts the thread, he displays the final fabric. Water does the rest.

Within the overarching language of tone and the operational mode of experiment, Goldes’ metaphors take different shapes from one body of work to another. The prints created through the collaboration between Cole Rogers and Goldes, Paths and Traces, are made by running water, letting it eddy and pool, and then transcribing the wanderings into stable etchings. The liquid looks fibrous, like traces of biological structure whose paths are both wild and purposeful. As structure and wildness overlap and coalesce, we move from the pictures’ myriad interior interactions to their long wandering line and then back again. Representing cellular differentiation and organic unity at the same time, these prints suggest a place in which the limitless and the causal exist in an ongoing harmony. Using the barest of tonalities—basically black field and white line—they hint at Goldes’ larger thesis: that control and unpredictability are not a zero-sum game but a matrix for desire, for meaning beyond the immediately foreseeable needs of the present.

Everything expands geologically in the “Flow Pictures.” In this work, Goldes set up his tabletop with glass and back lighting and then covered it with caulk and other substances. Next came a water pump, which redirected water after it flowed through the solid material back up to the tabletop to repeat the process over long periods of time. Goldes photographed the results of water cutting channels though the materials, creating stress lines and patterns. Once again, water is the agent provocateur, the activating force of the work, the substance that literally shapes the outcome. Like all geologies, these miniature riverbeds are discussions of power: the power of deep time and the power of instantaneous catastrophe to reinvent the world. Moving beyond theoretical description, Goldes’ work describes the world as a combination of both, but most importantly as a place in which power is constant and unyielding, a dark presence embodied in both the inactive yet resistant mass of solids and the torrential movement of the water. Importantly, the tonal differentiation between resistance and movement is barely discernible. Floating above it all appear certain highlights, a product of water interacting with light. Call it hope or a positive spin or an unexpected manifestation of desire against all the physical evidence, these highlights are the beginning of a new way to think about power: gloomy physical dialectic or not, the metaphysical is always present, an agent of representational transformation and true change. Power beyond control; hope beyond desire.

Goldes’ third body of still lifes brings water into the realm of the domestic. Exploring everything from surface tension to vortex to weight displacement, Goldes never gets more complicated than two champagne glasses. Creating situations in which water envisions its miraculous self among the aluminum cans, coffee cups, bowls, and strings, Goldes reintroduces the wonder and vulnerability of the natural world to the order and regularity of domestic desire. Pins float for an instant, a vortex spins confined and beautiful, a homemade turbine powers nothing. The combination of the natural and the domestic on Goldes’ tabletop feels a lot like looking into a family scene. The attempts to sustain structure, functionality, and harmony are constantly challenged by the vulnerability, unpredictability, and individual agency of human beings. The difference is that on Goldes’ tabletop, it all works out. The miraculous and the ordered don’t simply exist side by side, they activate each other, make each other visible. Once again, this is not only the domestic of David Goldes’ desire and decisions, it is a domestic beyond desire and decision, a domestic in which the miraculous in the form of water is free to unify and liberate.

The larger metaphor in all of Goldes’ still lifes is in his method: in the way he tempers complete photographic control with the immanent agency of water. Water undermines control, and in the process expands desire beyond Goldes’ conscious purpose. Being able to realize pure desire through complete control is not only the proposition guiding the photographic tabletop, it’s also a specter haunting postmodern Western culture. If modernism gloried in the utopian possibilities of control and the ultimate good of personal desire, postmodern society is saddled with the morning after: failed architectures, depleted ecosystems, meaningless and destructive economies. Rather than accept this set of propositions, Goldes has taken a courageous step toward something new. His genius is to set up situations in which there is a delicate balance between his decisions, his desires, and the vagaries of the world. That balance is where the unpredictable new is manifest, beyond control but not beyond creative agency. In Goldes’ work, desire and control are negotiated, not pure; they are discovered, not premeditated. Control is something we seek to undermine through trial and error and hard work; desire is something we noticed on the way to work and realize is gone the next instant. Desire and decision, linked through discovery, is also the way Goldes repairs the world, makes it new again as a place of beauty and wonder, understood for its possibilities rather than its limitations. This is the essence and the blessing of David Goldes’ tabletop: beyond control, beyond desire, a new world is always appearing.