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Inside 'Long Life Cool White'

Photographer Moyra Davey's first solo show debuts at the Fogg

“I love to read, but the pleasure has always been mitigated by the uneasy sense that I should be doing something else, something more unambiguously productive,” photographer Moyra Davey writes in the introduction to the literary anthology “Mother Reader.” Davey, whose retrospective photographic exhibit “Long Life Cool White” is currently on display at the Fogg Art Museum, sought to remedy her unease by combining productivity and pleasure.

Davey’s beloved books are everywhere in her photographs. They appear first in four oversized photographs of books with their spines facing away from the camera. The books–of which we see only stacks of yellowing pages draped in shadows and dust–lack authors, titles, and other distinguishing features. The books’ character is conveyed by their numbers; they are the possessions of a bibliophile who keeps even the books she hasn’t read in decades.

Books return in a series of images that trace the evolution of a room that appears to be Davey’s study. The 1996 photograph “Otis” shows the room crowded with shelves of books, low-hanging fluorescent lights, and assorted stereo equipment. The print’s title is ostensibly a reference to an Otis Redding CD that is propped upright atop a stack of vinyl records. Judging from the books on photography (“Legacy of Light”) and art theory, this is Davey’s center of operations.

Fast forward three years to “Yma,” and we see the same room with most of the same books, although the Otis Redding CD is nowhere to be found. An unfolded playpen and a number of brightly-colored toys are strewn across the floor. This is the room of a working mother, the kind of mother who took her pregnancy at age 38 as an opportunity to “lose myself to books with impunity,” as Davey wrote in “Mother Reader.”

The last print in this series, titled “Pledge” after a bottle of the wood floor cleaner, exposes the room’s transformation. The shelves have been purged of literary material and now house up-to-date sound equipment, poker chips, and plastic train sets. The personality of this now-sparsely furnished room has changed entirely: the print is more lightly exposed, as one would imagine the room to be after the thousands of pages that insulate it from the outside world are removed. No longer a retreat for intellectual hibernation, the room has become the picture of responsibility.

The room series is indicative of Davey’s larger oeuvre, which primarily includes photographs of the everyday, the unremarkable. These otherwise mundane objects are imbued with a certain psychological importance in Davey’s photographs, a suggestion that the things in our homes and offices correspond to the thoughts in our minds. Sometimes Davey photographs objects in their natural habitats of kitchens, living rooms, and bedrooms; other times she arranges them in a more deliberate fashion. The contrast creates tension between the natural and the constructed: books casually line the shelves of Davey’s study in some photographs, while others feature books by Sartre and Rilke next to rolls of film or Chekhov and Cheever on a flowered quilt. This latter category of photographs seems trite: the objects are robbed of their aesthetic autonomy as Davey manipulates them for some “unambiguously productive” purpose.

People are rarely the subject of Davey’s pieces, with the occasional exception of hands holding a steak bone or feet on a wooden floor. Far more compelling, however, are the photographs that call attention to the quotidian objects that usually go unnoticed. In one pair of prints, a refrigerator decorated with papers and magnets, surrounded by a microwave and other appliance wires, stands next a print of cheap ceiling lights. “Fridge” shows us something we see every day, and “Light” something we would see every day, if we only looked up.

The exhibition’s titular photograph shares a similar appeal. In “Long Life Cool White” the subjects are two oblong fluorescent bulbs hanging from a room’s ceiling on metal chains. Only the lights and the strings that turn them on are in focus; the workroom in the background is secondary to the bulbs and the emphatic promise emblazoned across their sides: “GUARANTEED: Long Life, Cool White.”

Indeed, there is something very cool about Davey’s photographs. Most are slightly grainy and few are bright or colorful. The prints’ muted palettes and subdued use of light make them a refreshing change from the generally overstated photographs of today’s books and newspapers.

“Copperheads,” a series of 100 photographs in a 10 by 10 grid, is perhaps the most striking work in the exhibition. The exhibit’s curatorial notes suggest that these images are “like poisonous landscapes, aerial views of step mines, or shots of the surface of the moon.” From a distance, they do look like photographs of scrap metal or close-ups of aging ruins. In fact, each of the 100 photographs is a shot of a penny in various states of oxidation.

In some of the prints, the penny is so rusted that it barely seems solid; in all of them, however, Lincoln’s profile can be discerned if one looks closely enough. The “Copperheads,” like all of Davey’s work, invite introspection by implying that we would find more in our surroundings if we would just take a second look.

—Staff writer Anjali Motgi can be reached at amotgi@fas.harvard.edu.
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