The photographer Adam Fuss is creating a highly personal art of whispers during this era of brazen confessional art. In the opening room of his current show at Cheim & Read, which is called “My Ghost,” viewers come upon large abstract images of twisting smoke and fluttering birds. The images are a study in evanescence, rich in melting grays. There is also a stark black-and-white profile – a daguerreotype – of a grieving woman. In the next room are three extraordinary images of a child’s christening dress, one a mirrorlike daguerreotype and the two others “photograms” created without a camera by placing the actual dress upon treated paper. Other pictures in this room depict a ghostly smudge of head and shoulder on a shiny surface – as if a man had breathed himself onto a mirror – and the childish outline of a rabbit.
What story is being told here? Has a child died or grown up or gone away? No hard facts are presented, which only strengthens the implication of longing, death, and grief. Far from being a mannered postmodern affectation, Fuss’s use of early photographic techniques captures this sense of loss in ways that later technology could not. (Many viewers will be reminded of those strangely alive nineteenth-century photographs of dead children.) His images depend upon an innocent, magical quality. They seem to search out the actual touch of the world – the thing itself, not just its image. That christening dress, while spectral-looking and empty, is also startlingly present: A ghost may be made of vague vapors, but it is always experienced viscerally. The same is true of painful memories – the strongest seize the body no less than the mind, even as they fade away.