Several entirely similar photographs of the sun perfunctorily pinned to the wall and lit only by what little London light has descended through the six apertures in the ceiling: this is what you will see on entering the first gallery of American artist Zoe Leonard’s exhibition, Observation Point, currently at the Camden Arts Centre. You will rightly feel underwhelmed. Each black and white image consists of a slightly whiter point in a wash of expanding grey; other than nuances of position and contrast, the only distinguishing feature is the date on which each picture was taken.
Underwhelmed, however, does not here equate to disappointed. As you cast about for something to knot your interest to, you will inevitably reassess the show's title, and it is then that the occlusion of this poorly-lit room is lifted. Leonard’s desire is not really for you to look, but to catch yourself in the act of looking. What could be a more appropriate trigger for this than staring intently at a picture that would blind you, as it does the camera, should you attempt to observe its subject first hand? The failure to capture this subject, in the most overt of photographic puns, makes an image of light itself.
These meta-narratives of medium and perception follow you through to the second space, at first appearance only slightly more amply filled. A table (the artist’s own) is stacked with piles of postcards, illustrating tourist scenes of the tumescent, pouring waters of Niagara Falls. Moving from one pile to the next, it becomes clear that there is an organising principle at play: that of perspective. The photographs or paintings that face the cards show the Falls from different angles, mapping them in succession across the table's surface. Their relative positions create a larger image so that, in glancing between them, all pictorial sense bleeds into the intervening space. As you can only see the topmost card, it is impossible to tell if the cards below are identical, but as tokens of the sightseers' moment of interest, of uncountable eyes trying to find the same things, the displacement of such cumulative attempts at apprehension mean that information is unimportant.
On the adjacent wall, two more cards are pinned, their content indiscernible while standing at the table. On approach they reveal identical scenes: a roughly-made stone hut in a desert setting with a sign that reads "Viewing Point" across the lintel. It is another visual joke, made at your expense, but delivered so securely that you are inclined to side with the artist.
The final gallery really acts as a core for the exhibition, and if the previous two rooms leveraged their effect only after a period of investigation, here you are instantly engrossed. Leonard has created a non-traditional camera obscura by blocking out all external light apart from that which can enter through her high-positioned lens. The result, on my visit at least – this is a piece tied to the vagaries of time and weather – was a faint yet expansive upturned projection of Finchley Road, its opposite buildings and, above, the slow drama of construction workers and cranes. As you grow accustomed to the gloom, the images falls into focus, and colours reveal themselves amidst shadow.
The camera obscura is a device that pre-dates modern photographic techniques. It is an ancient, quasi-mystical thing that holds even more fascination at a time when the culture industries strive to convince us of the reality of their reproductions by touting advancements in frame rate, pixel concentration and additional dimensions. Leonard’s example is non-traditional in so much that she casts the image not across a flat, ready screen, but lets it intermingle with the room's architectural form, the vaulted ceiling, its bracing, and the undulation of the wall’s buried pillars. In refusing to frame this scene, and allowing the audience to intermingle with it, to step inside it even as we have just stepped from it to enter the gallery, Leonard brings us much closer to an idea of ‘truth in image’ than technologically advanced optics and post-production have yet achieved.
It is from this point of observation, in the dark tranquility of the show's final work, that we realise that each preceding space has similarly held a mechanism for viewing, one that reveals to us our easy pre-judgments as to nature of perception. With this knowledge, you will be likely to revisit those first rooms and, crucially, to look again.
Observation Point takes its time, and because of this, those with little patience for playing the sort of artistic games that lead you towards discovery, rather than thrusting it forward, will likely find it unappealing. But with perseverance, this quiet show asks its audience to address themselves differently, and that is no small measure of success.