Renaissance is a portfolio of photographs in the ongoing Infinity series, an extensive body of work I have been photographing since 1997. Renaissance is made using my unique process of photographing found images extremely out of focus, with the lens set at infinity. In this case, the source materials are reworked master drawings, mostly from the Renaissance, but some from other periods. The many layered process of reproduction and blurring, appropriating an image and subjecting it to a series of manipulations (photocopying, cutting, painting, re-photographing) transforms the original images, giving them a new meaning in a new context—a renaissance of the Renaissance, if you will.
The original drawings were attempts to capture the human figure in a specific action, either from Biblical, mythological or historical scenes, but the rough sketches were removed from the milieu of the larger whole. My process accentuates that extraction, removing them further from their context and adding a new psychology of color to the achromatic drawings. Extreme blurring erases features, dissolves identity and obscures individuality, while retaining the essence of the original gesture, so that a 15th century religious figure can have secular relevance today.
The themes of the images in Renaissance move in opposing directions. Some of the figures seem to be ascending—flying, floating, or otherwise suspended in ether—and represent man’s aspirations toward freedom. Or, conversely, they may seem to be falling, or doomed, as the crucifixes and divers become oddly interchangeable. Others are bound, bent, tethered or twisted and seem to be struggling against the frame, representing the limits and agonies of the human condition. At the same time, the photographs may be seen as motion studies of dancers or athletes, reminiscent of Isadora Duncan’s search for a Hellenic ideal, ironically fluid and active for reproductions of action frozen.
I spent a year in Italy in the late 1970’s, so working with Renaissance imagery has allowed me to return, in spirit, to a favorite time and place. These images are meant to be meditative pieces (like all the work in the Infinity series) transporting the viewer to another world, human-centered like the civic humanist ideals of the 15th century, but ethereal and luminous—an exaltation of the spirit.
The nature of visual perception intrigues me: how the eye continually tries to resolve these images, but is unable to do so, and how that is unsettling. I am drawn to the idea that we can believe something is real, while at the same time knowing it is illusory; that the experience of visual confusion, when the psyche is momentarily derailed, is what frees us to respond emotionally.
The Infinity Series is photo-collage made seamless by setting the camera's focusing ring at infinity. This sleight of hand allows me to conjure a mysterious tromp l'oeil world that hovers between the real and the fantastic. It is a world just beyond our grasp, where place may be suggested, but is never defined, and where the identity of the amorphous figures remains in question. It is a world that might exist in memory, in dreams, or, perhaps, in a parallel universe yet unvisited.
Bill Armstrong is a New York based fine art photographer who has been shooting in color for over 30 years. Mr. Armstrong is represented by ClampArt in New York; Hackelbury in London, and numerous galleries across the country and in Europe. His Mandala series was featured in a two-person exhibition at the Philadelphia Museum of Art in 2008, and he had a mid-career retrospective at the Southeast Museum of Photography in Daytona Beach in 2010. Mr. Armstrong’s work is in many museum collections including the Vatican Museum, Victoria & Albert Museum, Philadelphia Museum of Art, Brooklyn Museum, Houston Museum of Fine Arts, Santa Barbara Museum of Art, and the Bibliotheque National de France. He has presented work in numerous museum exhibitions including: Philadelphia Museum of Art; Hayward Gallery, London; Musee de l’Elysee, Lausanne; Centro Internazionale di Fotografia, Milan; and FOAM, Amsterdam.
One of Mr. Armstrong’s images was chosen for the cover of Lyle Rexer’s Aperture book, The Edge of Vision: The Rise of Abstraction in Photography. His work appears in Face: The New Photographic Portrait by William Ewing and Exploring Color Photography, by Robert Hirsch, among other books. He has also been published in numerous periodicals including The New Yorker, The New York Times, Harper’s, House and Garden and Eyemazing. He is on the faculty at the International Center of Photography and the School of Visual Arts. His web site is: www.billarmstrongphotography.com
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