Sara Angelucci makes bad photographs. The large-scale, single and multi-exposure images of outdoor scenes that constitute her exhibition The Perfect Past read as textbook examples of what not to do. She uses a mass-produced toy camera held together with duct tape, and at times it is nearly impossible to make out what has been photographed for all the blurring, light leaks and bleeding that occur. Some of the images even have frame numbers in them, which is the result of light seeping in through the back of the camera, causing the film numbering to appear in the image. Furthermore, as if to flaunt her shoddy technique, she often shoots from the window of a moving vehicle. One might well ask: "Does she know what she's doing?!"
The answer, of course, is yes. Angelucci comes to photography via painting, drawing and art history and, though she may be aware of the imperative of making a "good" photograph, she is clearly less invested in mastering the medium in this way. Her criteria are clearly conceptual.
Title notwithstanding, there is nothing perfect about the images in The Perfect Past. If anything, they are self-consciously anti-perfect, courting photographic error. But Angelucci's new body of work is remarkable not simply because she's rejected the rules of the game. (We all know that this can become its own status quo.) Rather, her technical failures become mediating elements, reminders that we are looking at photographic representations. They insist that we acknowledge the contingencies inherent in meaning made by way of looking. As viewers, we are caught: half-expecting the erotic dance of seduction and the suspension of disbelief that is photography's stock-in-trade, we are instead offered images that effectively say, "I may be a cheaply manufactured illusion, but I'm all you've got."
For Angelucci, memory is a cheap, plastic camera. In the mind's eye, people, places and things of the past are so obscured as to be something different altogether. Eidetic images bear as slight a resemblance to reality as anything taken by Angelucci's toy camera; however, she acknowledges this not in order to reject what memory might offer, but to regard it realistically. Flawed as memories may be, sometimes they are all we've got.
Angelucci understands what it means to have only memories with which to contend. The child of Italian immigrants who, as an adult, has lived in various Canadian cities, she extends the enterprise of making a place for herself as part of her art. In conversation she admits a fascination with "being nowhere and trying to figure out where that is." The hackneyed phrase that is often used to describe this nowhere state is "living in the moment" - coincidentally, an apt metaphor for the practice of photography. Her photographs, then, are an agglomeration of lived moments, hundreds of exposures from which eventually a few will be selected for enlargement, printing and public presentation.
Considered in the context of her life experiences, Angelucci's photographic imperfections become visual tropes for relocation, and the sense of dislocation that accompanies it, rather than mere stylistic conceits. For example, Triple Sea might on first glance look like a blurry panorama but it is in fact a succession of images shot from inside a boat. The full frontal perspective of each frame indicates that the photographer herself has moved in the time/space between frames - as opposed to a panorama in which, traditionally, the photographer remains in one place and pivots.
All of the images in The Perfect Past were taken while Angelucci was in transit. Many were taken on her travels across Canada, and some specifically suggest that the photographer was physically moving when she tripped the shutter. In particular, three images, Train Window (Window Sill) , Train Window (Tree) and Train Window (Cloud) , make no secret of their source. Instead of the picture-perfect postcard view of the destination, what we get is the everyday experience of waiting to arrive, of sitting and looking out as the world passes by.
Although she evinces the idea of memory in her title, these images are not attempts to cling to some long-lost moment in time through the fetishization of a personally significant place. Angelucci has first-hand knowledge of the futility of such a task. Some years ago, she moved back to her hometown and discovered that nothing was as she remembered it, nor did it even resemble what she saw in her family's Super-8 home movies. This profoundly alienating experience is one many of us have shared: searching for our ghosts only to find them gone; or, if our ghosts are present, discovering that we do not recognize them.
The degree to which Angelucci has let go and relinquished control in this work is startling; some might even find it melancholic – a gesture of resignation to a vast unknown. (Again I am reminded of the immigrant's plight in coming to the New World and having to start over in a place where nothing is familiar, not even the language.) However, Angelucci offers other visual markers to cue us to a more playful aspect of the project at hand. Several of the images show multiple exposures whose edges blur into one another, with numbers from the back of the film often intervening in the image. The numbers faintly suggest an impulse to organize infinity - to distinguish between an endless array of images/moments that, in reality, bleed into one another uncontrollably. I can't help but think of this as the wondrous folly of photography - a medium whose imperfections suit Sara Angelucci perfectly.