Photographing Without Photography: A review of Nathalie Boutté at Yossi Milo gallery

The advent of photography was an event of seismic proportions, one that rippled into all aspects of human life. Its biggest power may be attributed to how easily its effect on human comprehension of the world flew under the radar. A photograph of  a group of locals in India, could perpetuate the colonialist mindset, a well-angled photo of a steamboat could propagate the grandeur of a nation.[1] Photography also, quietly, changed the art world. Despite the eternal battle to be considered a fine art, with the emersion of photography, the other “beaux” shifted and become more photographic. Enter Nathalie Boutté’s show at Yossi Milo gallery in Chelsea.

The walls of the space are filled with what seem to be large scale prints, only at closer inspection to be discovered as layered bits of hand-cut paper. The shreds of letters left over in the bits create a value, a tone, which when strewn together with others reveal a texture, and finally an image.

The majority of the images are the likes of indigenous people, as well as people of color. In this, Boutté reveals the colonialist gaze, perpetuated historically in the identity-appropriating act of photography. The bits of paper reproduce an image of an individual, but unlike photography, there's a dissonance, a questioning of their original existence. So far have the faces been reproduced, that they claim no humanity. The closer the viewer’s gaze, the more abstract the images become. As one inspects the piece, a face is shredded down into fragmented words on paper. This is not dissimilar from subjects of a photograph, who appear to be human, real, when glanced, but when probed and thought out, the really are just light, a manipulated physicality turned flat, a shred of the original life.

It is fascinating the way in which Boutté can discuss photography without even the most remote flick of a shutter. She pushes forth her notion of the photographic gaze, as well as plays homage to the first picture-taking techniques. Though she claims to replicate the style of daguerreotypes, I would place her more with both calotypes and cyanotypes; their hue and lack of sharpness place Boutté’s creations more within that realm. Be it as it may, these mentioned techniques were implemented from the advent of photography in capturing and categorizing the colonies of Europe, and anyone considered to be “lesser”, under the guise of exploration (and ethnography). This state of mind and style are brilliantly remodeled in the precise cutting and pasting of Nathalie Boutté.


[1] The Steamship "The Great Eastern" being built in the docks at Millwall, Robert Howlett (1857)