Reductive yet expansive, abstract yet universally real, and with seemingly infinite possibilities, the unique tapestries of 3.25-by-4.25-inch Polaroid prints John Messinger has been making for the past year should, one might think, keep him occupied for many more to come.
With a Watermill Center residency just recently behind him, however, Mr. Messinger is ready for his next act. He will continue to work in this format, but the project currently occupying him is a book, “The Estate of Joseph A. Porter,” to be published by Harper’s Books this year.
Joseph Porter, a New York City homeless man, was the subject of Mr. Messinger’s master’s thesis at the School of Visual Arts in Manhattan. The pair spent two years together, sharing not only lives but creative visions, he said in his East Hampton studio recently. “I gave him a camera to use, I shared my journal entries; he shared his entries. We blurred the lines between observer and subject and fact and fiction.”
At one point, Mr. Porter pitched a tent on Mr. Messinger’s lawn in East Hampton. Eventually, though, he ceased all communication and withdrew his support for the photo-documentary project. Still, the man without a home listed the documentarian as his next of kin on an intake form at a city shelter, and when he died, Mr. Messinger inherited what there was of his estate: two undeveloped rolls of film, his diaries, and the objects he carried around with him.
The book will “make a portrait of this man,” seen through the eyes of Mr. Messinger as a curator of his life.
“I think all documentary work is on some level a self-portrait of the docmentarian,” Mr. Messinger said. He draws his influence in this, he said, from artists such as Walid Raad and Sophie Calle, who meld constructed histories into a documentary format to question the perception of truth.
“Historically, we look at a camera as an object by which we render reality. It’s led to a lot of mythologies and idyllic ways of thinking about what a camera is and what it is capable of,” he said. Only recently, with the advent of Photoshop and other photo-editing programs, has the realization that photographs are capable of lying taken hold. “On some level, though, cameras have always lied,” said Mr. Messinger. “There’s a selective curation of reality . . . we always ignore the presence and ideas and ideologies of the person behind the camera, and I find that fascinating.”
Mr. Messinger is no stranger to romantic notions about photography. He has been actively involved with cameras since he was 9 years old and his godmother, who came to live with his family, put a darkroom in the basement and gave him one. He had always been artistically inclined by nature, but with other mediums he “found it terribly frustrating not to recreate what was in my mind’s eye. Photography was such a revelation. I knew it was what I wanted to do.”
Thinking he might one day work for National Geographic, Mr. Messinger, who teaches at the Ross School now, enrolled as a Ross student to concentrate on photography. He went on to earn a degree in photojournalism from Boston University and a master’s of fine arts at the School of Visual Arts.
He has been working with the Polaroid tapestry structure for the past year. It started with a cross-country trip in a borrowed van and grew and deepened from there. The format worked within the close confines of the van. “I slept on a big bed in the back of the van,” he explained. “The Polaroids can’t be placed on top of each other while they’re drying. It takes time for the emulsion to set, so I would lay them out on the back of the bed.”
Seeing the photos laid out that way gave him the spark to connect them. It also limited the size of those early works to the size of the bed.
His goal for the trip was to find, see, and capture sites of historical or natural significance. He went to Spring Green, Wisc., where Frank Lloyd Wright had a hand in the local architecture; Angel’s Landing in Utah, a natural rock formation captured frequently in the discovery of the American West; the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, and Detroit, a mecca for photographers looking for the abject and decrepit in the landscape, a trend some have taken to calling “ruin porn.”
The initial series has been popular, but Mr. Messinger began to think that the critical eye he was taking to the project and the themes he was examining — “the ubiquity of the photograph and the proliferation of digital images in the digital age” as well as “the imperialistic male-centric dominance of the West”— were starting to get lost.
Citing Don DeLillo’s “White Noise” and its examination of the self-perpetuating aura of “the most photographed barn in America,” the artist said he began to feel that he was photographing the most photographed barn in America and “perpetuating the very thing I was exploring.”
Arriving at the Watermill Center and surrounded by new and alien objects and surroundings, he said the one connection he still had to the outside world was his iPhone. “I started photographing my computer screen for the first time.” It was the key to a deeper examination of “our relationship with technology and images in the digital age,” he said. The series he created there is called “Facebook Makes Us Lonely.”
“I’m not being professorial or wagging my finger at anyone,” said Mr. Messinger. “I’m not above it myself. In fact, I’m exploring things that define my day-to-day.” He found computer monitors fitting as subject matter because they connect people. “That’s sad to me on some level, another kind of ruin.”
In this digitized context, his Polaroid images can also be registered as pixels, which are also square in shape. The things he chose to photograph on the monitors allowed him to broaden the theme, such as screen savers, his own Facebook profile picture, and the precise color used to make a “green screen,” what filmmakers use to animate live-action movies, “a blank space in which you can fill in your own reality.”
For his 16-foot-wide tapestry, “I went into Photoshop and keyed in the code for the color of a green screen and photographed it 400 times.” The color variation comes from distance from the screen and the light conditions in the room at the different times it was photographed. It was a way of reintroducing the human element into a process that is otherwise coolly mechanical.
For Mr. Messinger, Facebook is related to a similar overall concept. He calls his self-portrait “Echo and Narcissus in the Digital Age.” “It’s interesting to me how we co-exist with a virtual identity,” he said. “Facebook is a hall of vanity mirrors and we all fall guilty to it. Our relationship to our virtual personality is as delusional as our relationship to ourselves.”
Furthering these concepts, the screen savers in “While We Were Sleeping” and other works give machines the human quality of sleep, while also serving as a nightlight for adulthood as one drifts off staring at them. “At the same time, they suggest that what we see on those screens in our waking hours may change our perception of reality” in our unconscious hours, said the artist.
These explorations allowed him to interact with his initial themes in a way that truly fulfilled his original intent. “Bob said, ‘If you run into blocks here, they’re your blocks,’ ” said Mr. Messinger, speaking of Robert Wilson, the founder and artistic director of the Watermill Center. Conversely, “ ‘If you get to a good place, you’re bringing that as well.’ I ended up completely agreeing with him.”
Mr. Messenger's work can be seen at Eric Firestone Gallery in East Hampton or on his Web site johnmessinger.com.