Earache is a photographic exhibition about discomfort, balance, and language. Works on view—and possible connections between them—animate a breakdown between the complex body systems responsible for maintaining stability. Earache will feature works by Berenice Abbott, Robert Adams, Diane Arbus, Eugène Atget, Richard Avedon, Sam Contis, Imogen Cunningham, Jay DeFeo, William Eggleston, Robert Frank, Lee Friedlander, Nan Goldin, Peter Hujar, Helen Levitt, Ralph Eugene Meatyard, Richard Misrach, Tina Modotti, A.J. Russell, Tisa Walden, Weegee, and William Wegman.
Earache, an exhibition of photographs largely but not exclusively drawn from Fraenkel Gallery inventory, began with an invitation to look around. A Peter Hujar portrait of the late John Ashbery was an early anchor, and it was through the poet that I found “earache,” a two-syllable lens through which countless images were surveyed over these last months. While many of Ashbery’s concerns map onto those of photography—exposure and opacity, surface and depth, nostalgia and immediacy—it is the poet’s associative rather than thematic approach that most resonates with regards to constructing this exhibition.
A photographer friend suggested the title be dropped once it lost its utility, but the truth is, it never did. Instead, it became a model symptom of a larger, harder-to-name condition. The poem from which it’s taken, however, did give way to a passage from Tara Jepsen’s remarkable 2017 novel, Like a Dog. In addition to skateboarding, the book has a lot to do with risk, loss, trust, and stability. We printed and posted the extended quotation on the wall, like an image.
The human balance system provided helpful metaphoric scaffolding, especially the discovery that a small tube in the middle ear maintains equilibrium by matching interior and exterior air pressure. What is the pressure of these pictures under glass, the pressure of the room, the pressure in our bodies, the pressure to sell? Arriving at a single diagnosis for balance dysfunction is cumbersome due to the interconnection of our senses; the same infection that causes an earache, for example, might also bring about persistent vertigo, blurred vision, or cognitive fatigue. In other words, the tools that determine our position in space are capable of sending us across the physical and emotional deck. This exhibition is about that deck, and the notion that perception is an active process of constructing reality.
The tenor of the times affected the checklist, in many cases represented literally as the writing on the wall. The torrential bad-news cycle and its attendant anxieties inspired the more discomfiting and surreal elements and the exhibition begins and returns to a number of narrators, all of them unreliable. Take Atget’s stone faun. Once thought to inspire fear in travelers far from home, fauns were also capable of guiding those in need. Which is it? Pictures are by definition without narrative, and with no narrative comes no expectations. That said, I was surprised that the tone grew more sentimental and melancholic over time— animals and flowers accumulated, as pillows or markers.
I hope Earache carries like a sentence, with varied punctuation, spacing, abstraction, and intent, and that the intuition and free association at the helm of this process is visible.