Thursday, February 15, 2007


By John E. Mitchell, North Adams Transcript

NORTH ADAMS — The exhibit "Unhinged," currently on display at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemp-orary Art, features artist Peter Garfield's photographic images of houses being swept through the sky. Blurry, at times lacking in basic composition and focus, Garfield's work appears to be a collection of impromptu snapshots in the tradition of UFO photography more than any kind of gallery art. Garfield says that is entirely the point.

"I've always been alternately fascinated and amused by UFO photos," said Garfield, "because you want to believe it, but then you also question it — that's very much what I was trying to do, they are like UFO photos. I was playing on that."

Part of Garfield's method is to embrace the most important component behind the UFO phenomenon — the fakery of it. The photos are not real photos of houses flying in the sky, but there is a back story to the images that extends perception of fiction as reality, the idea that Garfield's photos reflect a larger effort to take houses and drop them for the purpose of art.

"I found that people were always asking me how I did it," said Garfield. "This was just before Photoshop, so people were very intrigued and bothered by them - disturbed, amused, all these different things. They always wanted to know how I did them and I guess I was taken a little off guard because I didn't realize that would be such a big issue."

Garfield's method of utilizing the iconography he had created to expand into an entire mythology was similar, also, to the way information about UFOs is passed around popular culture — he made a book that put the images into their fictional content in the form of his artist catalog for a show.

"I figured that most artists' catalogs are kind of boring, they have the boring art-speak essay, very few people actually read them," said Garfield. "I thought about how I do it so it's not just a throwaway object, I wanted it to be an artwork in itself. So I started thinking that I'm going to answer all these questions about how I do it, but I'm going to answer them in a different way. I explain how I do these houses, but it's going to be totally fiction."

Garfield fabricated a process by which he and a crew of helpers took real houses and utilized helicopters and cranes to drop them and photograph them. Gar-field even used Photoshop to fashion some fake documentary images of the big machines dropping the houses for him, totally false "behind the scenes" photos — and he created text that pushed this official story through interviews and artist statements.

"At no place in the catalog does it let on that all this is a fiction," said Garfield. "It's a totally straightforward artist's catalog that is actually an art piece in itself."

Garfield's actual process is the exact opposite of the "official" one. He puts to-gether tiny scale houses — about 4 cubic inches — and, over a period of time, transforms them into the destroyed state they require for the resulting photograph.

"When I go somewhere, I find a stick, use some nylon thread, hang it from the end of the stick, and, with my other hand, I'm holding the camera," said Garfield. "I just hold it out in front of a landscape - but I take a lot of pictures because I need to get one where there's enough blur so that it looks like it's moving and also so it's not too clear. If it's really clear, you can see it's a miniature right in front of the camera. So it's this trick, an illusion of depth, then the angle, where you're looking up to it. You see the bottom of the house and it makes it look like it's far away and up in the sky. Through trial and error, I learned how to create this illusion - and create this fantasy."

The documentary photos featured in the catalog were created with similar fakery. The crane shots were fashioned in the exact same "nylon thread and stick" method, while the helicopter images were other photographs where the houses were digitally inserted.

The end result of the flying house photos began in the early 1990's when Gar-field was more entrenched in, first, abstract painting and, then, representational ones. He did some flying house paintings, but those didn't satisfy, nor did photo/painting hybrids in which he would situate models in fronts of backdrops of his own creaion.

"It took literally almost two years of me playing around with this stuff to get to a point where I realized that I wanted it to look like a snapshot," said Garfield. "It's got to be kind of grainy, a little blurry, maybe shot at an odd angle as if somebody just saw this and they happened to have a cheap throwaway camera and they just pulled it up and took a shot. It's not very well composed, it's not a real high-quality photo, because if you plan it out, then it looks like a professional photograph."

Through those two years, Garfield had little clue where he was headed with this idea; it wasn't as if he had a moment of epiphany where he came up with the whole idea. First, the photographs themselves were completed and, later on, the fiction of the artist catalog. He knew what he wanted to do, but he didn't quite know why. At times, he was sure he was just going mad.

"When I was doing the phony catalog, there were some shots where I actually build a piece of house," said Garfield. "It's one thing to build a tiny, little model, but I was building this piece of a house and I was going to drag it out to the corner of this park right by my studio and the cops came by and they're questioning me, there were all these things that made me wonder 'Am I totally insane? Why am I doing this?'"

Once all the pieces came together, Garfield understood and now feels a lot more comfortable with his own process — and since the original photos were done, the world has become more comfortable, as well. The ascendance of Photoshop as the digital imaging standard has meant that a lot more very strange images have become something that ordinary people encounter on a regular basis. This has upped the ante for what Garfield tries to accomplish in his work, second guessing the perceptions of viewers who will just recognize photos of flying houses as fake. On the other hand, the catalog still does its work and Garfield says there are plenty of people who encounter his work who are convinced that he hauls houses onto cranes and drops them.

Garfield now uses Photoshop more readily in his work and that has created another challenge — maintaining the illusion of authenticity. Even as he prepared old negatives for the current show at Mass MoCA, he found he had to fight the urge to go too far with digital delights like color correction.

"That's the thing about Photo-shop, you look at a lot of the images and they're too perfectt," said Garfield. "I thought that I wanted to resist this impulse because I want to maintain a certain kind of rawness to the images. Too much of the imagery we see now is so polished that it loses the kind of edge of bad lighting or weird color that you get from a Polaroid or you get from cheap film. So I stopped the process. It could have been a more beautiful image, but I think it would have diminished the authenticity of the moment."

In his more recent work, Garfield has actually gotten to the point where he not only fakes a fake, but allows the clues that the work is fake to be revealed in the photograph. With so many layers of fakery, it becomes hard to discern the authenticity of any given aspect of the image.

Garfield has also been working in video that goes back and forth between sets that he builds and reality, creating an entirely subjective experience of the so-called reality being captured in the images. It's just another leg on the journey for Garfield.

"A student recently asked me when I had the idea to do all this, and I think he had the impression that I just had an idea and I did all of it," said Garfield. "I wanted to make it clear that it was such a long process, it was lots of little ideas that I experiment with, a lot of them fail, some of them go on and morph into other ideas."

Peter Garfield can be found online at His video work can be viewed at