With a Grain of Salt

Photographers Kahn and Selesnick construct fantastic utopian realities located deep in the salt deserts

“’My name is Ozymandias, king of kings: / Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ / Nothing beside remains. Round the decay / Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare / The lone and level sands stretch far away.” –Percy Bysshe Shelley, “Ozymandias”

We expect photography to depict slices of the real world; except for movies, fictional photography is rare. Nicholas Kahn and Richard Selesnick, both 37 and graduates of Washington University’s B.F.A. program, break this mold by constructed “forged worlds,” complete with enchanting images, engaging narrative, and, as in some of their past exhibitions, props and toys to “prove” their fictions. Their idea is an elegant, imaginative and mature form of deception which captures all the realistic qualities of a dream.

In “City of Salt,” their delightful new exhibition at the Pepper Gallery in Boston, viewers are transported to a mystical part of the salt deserts of the middle east; the “city of salt” was constructed by a king who desired a secluded haven. In the center of the gallery’s floor rests buildings constructed of white clay and covered in salt; their stupa-like shapes suggest mosques and holy buildings that reach towards the sky. In the center is the crown jewel of the structures, a four-stepped platform with a cone-shaped peak rising from the top.

The walls are lined with panoramic prints of Kahn and Selesnick’s reveries, most measuring 8 inches by 30 inches. A large-camera photograph takes the original images, which are digitally manipulated and combined for ink-jet printing on archival paper, and then presented in new frames that have the aura of an earlier time, as we might expect from an ethnographic museum. Each photograph is accompanied by narrative wall text, tales which seem vaguely reminiscent of Arabian Nights and overflow with symbolism and detailed imagery.

The photographic fictions themselves focus on human stunts. In the photograph which accompanies the story “The Lake of Dreams,” a suspended head peers out of a small pond blowing on a long pipe which gently curves upward; it is suspended without the use of his hands, instead propped up at its wider end by a pole that extends from the water. Around the faded, sepia-like tones of the photograph rise okra-colored stalks of grass from the marsh; the glow of the sun can be faintly seen from the horizon in the distance. The image maintains a surreal and ethereal levity, and the inaudible music of the pipe calls out to us as might the Islamic call to prayer.

The suspended head image reappears in “Untitled (Lilypads),” where a turban-crowned man emerges out of a motionless lake of lily pads, his mouth enclosing a lily flower. The lily pads show the rust-brown of decay which lends the print an authentic, natural and autumnal feel.

A suspended naked man floats in the center of “Untitled (Blake Man)” with the falling dusk in the background; a faint orange glow on the sand and grass in the distance and reflected on the lake below serves as a reminder of the fading sun. A feather is wrapped with a cloth around his head and a miniature wing emerges from the small of his back—yet it seems all too insignificant an apparatus to allow such defiance of gravity, and the picture reminds us of Icarus’ tragic tale. His hand reaches out behind him in a way that seems to recall Michelangelo’s painting on the Sistine Chapel of God giving life to man. The figure’s head turns away towards the fallen son in an expression of equal parts bliss and pain.

Although many of the figures throughout the exhibition are not naked—they wear explorers’ garments, World War I leather pilots’ helmets and goggles—another print shows an unclothed man, only his waist wrapped in a small cloth, lying lifelessly on a sparsely vegetated dune. He is surrounded by five wolves, but their relation to him seems maternal and loving rather than violent. The wolves and the intense white of the sand and sky suggest a snow-covered, winter quality. The barrenness of the nature and the bareness of the central figure establish an intensely somber and introspective solitude.

“And in the eternity of this one moment, the only moment that has ever existed, we shall never know the fate of the storyteller, the outcome of the story, or the difference between the two,” reads the wall narrative.

The centerpiece of the show is the 8 inch by 42.75 inch print “Untitled (City of Salt),” the two dimensional answer to the central installation on the floor. Various upward pointing buildings with varying degrees of height and intricacy rise seemingly out of nowhere; but in the far distance we see other “miniature cities”—worlds unto themselves that we can never access—and in the foreground, almost unnoticeable at first glance, are two figures, one at left playing a small pipe and the other at far right lying down, his head and face wrapped. The cloudy blue sky and deep blue mountains in the distance enhance the spiritual vastness of this imagined dream world.

This symbolism-rich world echoes of numerous historical and literary allusions, and itself is almost reminiscent of the South American magic realism style of prose. We revel in these whimsical fantasies, and it is almost disappointing that the City of Salt and its characters are merely the figments of Kahn and Selesnick’s minds. Yet the pictures are true enough that their melody might seduce us into believing such a prank—and never again know what is fact and what is fiction, what is logic and what is lunacy.

visual arts

City of Salt


Pepper Gallery Boston, 38 Newbury St.

Through April 30