Mickey Smith’s photographs of bound periodicals, combine the technical finish and compositional elegance of portrait photography with the contingency of the snapshot. They are still lifes of objects captured in the wild. The photographs are striking and ingenious, and they’re also surprisingly compelling in other ways. These are pictures that seem to have something to tell us.
At first, her images read as visual puns, comical ready-mades, moments of Zen—a frayed binding marked TIME, a scarred cover stamped LIFE. Sometimes, the pictures are nearly aphoristic: they seem to speak for themselves. MONEY begets MONEY. The first ENDEAVOR is a failed ENDEAVOUR. TOMORROW forever disappears into TODAY.
NATURE is a colorful, irregular profusion, unlike those rows of grim medical-school soldiers: SPINE, BLOOD, PROBE, CANCER, GUT. In a low-angle shot, begrimed volumes of THE METAL WORKER rise up like skyscrapers. Of DETAIL, we see . . . a detail. INTELLIGENCE comes in different forms, and among the COGNITIONs, a single on-button is lit. This one’s awake! Then there are the extinct species, fossils the artist has pulled from the tar pit of the past: THE LEISURE HOUR, WHO’S WHO IN COLORED AMERICA, WORK WITH BOYS.
Still, the last impression is not one of playfulness. This is partly because of aesthetic choices the artist has made about color and scale (neither readily appreciated in reproduction). But it’s also because the works resonate with the history of photography. They do something that only photographs can do, and, in doing it, they have something to say about the subject named in the title. They are pictures about the study of words.
The wit in Smith’s photographs is classic photographic wit. These pictures are records of intersections—whether from chance or design no one can say—between matter and meaning, and this is one of the feats that photography performs. Verbal wit plays with meanings hidden in words and phrases; photographs play with significances hidden in the visual field. In the flux and welter of the world’s stuff, the camera finds temporary pockets of coherence, accidental patterns, fugitive symmetries. A man leaping over a puddle reproduces his own silhouette, perfectly, upside down. Nobody planned it. Before photography was invented, and before there was film fast enough to snatch the image out of the ether, probably nobody would even have seen it.
Not all photographs are serendipitous in this way, but serendipity is the life of photography. Photography’s claim on the fortuitous and the unstaged as art is its claim to distinction as a creative medium. We talk about novels and paintings as “representations”—as copies, or transformations, of real things. Most of the time, this is a fiction. There is no Emma Bovary; there are only the words Flaubert put on a page. But there really was a man jumping over a puddle in the Gare Saint Lazare in 1932. And the books in Smith’s photographs really were on a shelf in a library somewhere. This is something we understand, instinctively, when we look at any photograph—that what we are seeing in it once was. Alive or dead? we ask about the man in the photograph. We don’t ask that about Picasso’s nudes.
One important thing about the images is their found-ness. The photographs are taken from life; they’re not made from props in a studio. The artist was on library safari.
Excerpt from Visits to the Pyramids by Louis Menand
BORN: 1972, Duluth, MN, USA
EDUCATION: Diploma in Jewellery Design, Hungry Creek Art & Craft School (2019); Bachelor of Arts in Photography, Minnesota State University Moorhead (1994)
AWARDS: Creative New Zealand Grantee (2016, 2017), Public Art Year in Review Project Winner (2010), LMCC Manhattan Community Arts Fund Grantee (2009), Permanent Commission Recipient, University of Florida (2009), CEC Artslink Grantee (2008), Photolucida Top 150 Critical Mass Photographer (2006, 2007), Forecast Public Artworks Public Art Affairs Grantee (2007), McKnight Foundation Artist Fellowship for Photography (2006)
COLLECTIONS: Museum of Modern Art MoMA Library, Center for Photography at Woodstock, Dorsey & Whitney, Fidelity Corporate Art Collection, Fredrickson & Byron, Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Miami-Dade Public Library, Minnesota Historical Society, Northland Collection, North Dakota Museum of Art, Sheldon Museum of Art, University of Florida Gainesville, Weisman Art Museum
SOLO EXHIBITIONS: Say When, Sanderson Contemporary, Auckland (2020); Mickey Smith, Jasmax, Auckland (2017); Cultivate it as you will… Te Tuhi, Auckland (2015); Harboured, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Wellington (2015); Denudation, Invisible-Exports, New York, NY (2012); Tell You What, Land of Tomorrow, Louisville, KY (2011); Believe You Me, Invisible-Exports, New York, NY (2010); Collocations, Georgia College State University, Milledgeville, GA (2010); You People, Invisible-Exports, New York, NY (2008); Volume, Alvar Alto Library, Voyburg, Russia (2008); Contemporary Art in Traditional Museums, PRO ARTE Institute, St. Petersburg, Russia (2008); New Collocations, Center for Photography at Woodstock (2008); Forever Govern Ignorance, Carleton College Gould Library, Northfield, MN (2007); Mickey Smith: New Works, Kathy Dowell Art, Kansas City, MO (2007); BIO, Minnesota Center for Photography, Minneapolis, MN (2006); Volume, Open Book, Minneapolis, MN (2005); In the Stacks, Minnesota History Center, Saint Paul, MN (2005)
SELECTED BIBLIOGRAPHY: ‘Life is not always straightforward’ Polly Crockett, Arts Management Network,Nov 2019; ’Mickey Smith and the Carnegie Libraries’ Lynn Freeman, RNZ Standing Room Only, Sep 2018; ‘Photographer pays tribute to Andrew Carnegie.’ Wendyl Nissen, RadioLIVE, Sep 2018; ‘As You Will... Carnegie Libraries in the South Pacific’ Mickey Smith with essays by Charles Walker + Gabriela Salgado, published by Te Tuhi, 2018; ‘Harboured by the Harbour: An inn for tired travellers’ Jodi Meadows, Enjoy Public Art Gallery, Feb 2015; ‘Flash Forward Tenth’ hardcover by Magenta Foundation, 2014; ‘Architecture Glass Art’ Franz Mayer of Munich, 2013; ’50 Gifts 50 Years’ Sheldon Museum of Art, 2013; ‘Denudation’ Mickey Smith with essay by W.M. Hunt, published by Hassla, 2012; ‘Issue No.21,’ Unless You Will, 2012; ‘BLOOD’ hardcover by Trunk Books, 2012; ‘The Book that Changed My…’ GQ, Jun 2011; Postcard issue 2.12 with John Lamb, Abe’s Penny, Feb 2011; ‘Mickey Smith’ The Last Magazine, Oct 2010. Theme Magazine [Issue #23] edited by Marc and Sara Schiller, Jul 2010; Artist Project, Tod Lippy, ESOPUS [Issue #13] Oct 2009.
RESIDENCIES: PV Studio, Puerto Vallarta, Mexico (2010); Contemporary Art in Traditional Museums, St. Petersburg, Russia (2008); Society for Contemporary Photography, MO, USA (2007); Oberholtzer Foundation, MN, USA (1994 - 2004, 2007)
ART FAIRS + BENEFITS: Aperture Foundation, Art Chicago, Art Platform Los Angeles, Artspace Projects, Auckland Art Fair, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Center for Photography at Woodstock, Dallas Art Fair, Frankfurt Book Fair, Magenta Foundation for the Arts, Minnesota Center for Photography, NADA Art Fairs in Miami, New York + Cologne, The New York Art Book Fair, North Dakota Museum of Art, PULSE Miami, SCOPE Miami, Silver Eye Center for Photography, VOLTA NewYork, Watermill Center