Fourteen of Professor Katherine Hubbard’s photographs now reside at the Whitney Museum of American Art after the museum purchased them for its permanent collection. Together, these works challenge the conventions and prevailing rhetoric of traditional darkroom photography by reexamining ideas of flatness, darkness, and perspective.
The Whitney works come from three different exhibitions and were acquired through Hubbard’s gallery, Company. The acquisition was the result of a conversation that had been ongoing for a year and a half, but was accelerated by the pandemic. When COVID-19 hit, Hubbard says, “the Whitney took a position of being very committed to continuing to show support for small and mid-tier galleries.
Most of the works in the acquisition are the ten images of the series “Bend the rays more sharply” (2016), a body of work Hubbard made for a solo exhibition at The Kitchen, an art and performance space in New York City’s Chelsea neighborhood. Inspired by the space’s history as an ice storage facility, Hubbard devised a camera-less process to capture refractions of light through ice at different increments of ten-degree angles from zero to 90.
Hubbard explains that she was interested in resisting the idea of flatness, which is inherent in how a camera captures a photographic image. “Photography is a medium built on very consistent and very controllable relationships to flattening,” she says. First, the camera records an image of the three-dimensional world onto a flat negative, and then the flat negative is projected by an enlarger onto a flat sheet of paper.
Since she worked directly with negatives—which are 100 percent sensitive to light—Hubbard had to complete the series in pitch dark. She designed custom boxes, filled them with water from where the Hudson River meets the Atlantic Ocean in Red Hook Brooklyn, and submerged a negative at a different angle in each box. These boxes were then frozen in a commercial freezer she bought for her studio before each negative was exposed to light, thawed, dried, and processed.
“It’s unbelievably hard to do such a complicated set of maneuvers in pitch dark and to remember where everything is, what you’ve already taken care of and what you haven’t” Hubbard reflects.
Rather than using photography as a tool to capture what the eye sees, this series captures images one could never see. “This is a different kind of photography,” Hubbard says. “You can’t physically see a millimeter-thin sliver of ice as it’s understood based on a series of refractions of light.”
The oldest work that the Whitney collected, “Four shoulders (how things stack up)” (2014), also demonstrates Hubbard’s interest in how photography translates three-dimensional space into a flat image. In an effort to capture a delineated portion of the vastness of the Utah landscape, Hubbard faced two cameras across from one another, thereby creating a diamond where the two cameras’ fields of vision overlapped and creating a stage. From the two vantage points of the cameras, Hubbard photographed herself at the outer points where the two fields of vision met.
The Whitney also acquired three works from Hubbard’s most recent exhibition at Company, which was on view in early 2020, just a couple weeks before New York City instituted a widespread lockdown due to COVID-19. The work “blue stone bed rock” (2019) returns to the idea of darkness by capturing a view of Hubbard’s basement, which is also her dark room. Like many spaces where darkrooms are located, her basement can be wet, leaky, and considered undesirable. Yet this same space is literally foundational to the structure of her house, as well as her photography practice. Working against common Western ideology, Hubbard’s work presents darkness as a place of potential and possibility.
Hubbard explains that this most recent body of work reflects the greater social and cultural reckoning that has been underway for the last few years. “You start in the basement, you start from the ground up,” she explains. Similarly, the work “still life spoon” (2019) presents a minimalistic image of a leverage bar, a simple tool instrumental in demolition and renovation. “I had been learning about how to control leverage with my own body. How to use by body to leverage things,” she says. The last work, “sculling” (2019), also reflects on the current cultural moment. Produced at a time when many felt they were treading water, “sculling” captures a close up view of two feet submerged in water.