By Susan L. Stoops
Independent Curator of Contemporary Art
For over five decades, Boston native David Akiba created black-and-white and color photographs that make manifest the mutable contours of our world. Whether directing his gaze toward figures and faces, trees and grasses, urban environs, outer space, or studio abstractions, Akiba embraced the creative capacities of the camera to give passing shape to momentary phenomena and relations. Prominent among his achievements is his innovative work with photocopy machines beginning in the 1970s. Akiba’s early practice anticipated the degradation, displacement, and re-circulation of digital images on the web today and raised still-relevant questions regarding aesthetics and appropriation. Akiba’s rich repertoire of images reveals a career-long engagement with the ever-shifting boundaries between what is found and what is invented, between clarity and ambiguity, between intent and chance.
Anonymous Figures and Faces
Akiba found his first serious subjects as he wandered the streets of Boston, a familiar arena in which to explore the individual poignancy of people moving through a backdrop of urban space. One of the earliest harbingers of Akiba’s sensitivities to his surroundings is the Mannequins series (1969-1974), haunting black-and-white images of human surrogates populating a South Boston mannequin factory he happened upon, all photographed to dramatic effects in the positions and lighting in which they were found. The environs of Boston also provided Akiba with a visual vocabulary attuned to social conditions of anonymity, isolation, and intimacy to which he returned regularly throughout his career, exploring a diversity of formal intentions, human relations, and emotive content.
Occasionally, Akiba brought his early street photography experience to documentary projects, observing discrete social environments in and around Boston – a commuter rail line, a ballet company, a coffee shop. In 1985, he was commissioned to photograph the MBTA’s elevated Orange Line before its scheduled demolition. For nine months in 2013-14, he photographed Boston Ballet performances and dress rehearsals from the wings and back stage, resulting in the publication From the Wings: Photographs from the Boston Ballet’s Fiftieth Season. In Sunday Morning, Akiba and his camera captured an unchoreographed human parade occurring at a coffee shop on four Sundays in the autumn of 2013.
The 1970s was a decade of profound experimentation for Akiba, as seen in his early engagements with appropriation and re-photography. Akiba was working independently but during the same years that other photo-based artists (Sarah Charlesworth, Richard Prince, among others) were re-photographing existing images culled from the media. In the series From Television (1972-73), Akiba explored the aesthetic and emotional possibilities of distorted coloration and disrupted narratives by photographing the T.V. screen during soap operas, sports, and game shows. Akiba gravitated to human subjects with visibly raw emotions or exposed vulnerabilities, re-photographing details of figures and faces from ads in pulp magazines (Make Believe, 1973 and Wanting Love, 1975) and medical texts (Types of Men, 1977-78), which resulted in powerful images of selves masked and unmasked.
Equally important for Akiba was his practice of re-photographing enlarged details from his own street photographs: momentary expressions of extremely cropped faces (Faces, 1975) or isolated figures in urban corridors, on rooftops and streets (Blown Up, 1975). The resulting loss of clarity created alternative kinds of visual information found in grainy passages, deep blacks, and spatial ambiguities – a different measure of the world. Akiba’s new-found process of deconstructing and re-translating images would become critical to his photographic practice and influence his decades-long inquiries into the aesthetic dynamics between extremes of formal detail and emotional content.
Central to his photographic evolution yet critically underappreciated is Akiba’s pioneering work with photocopy machines from 1977-1982. Though he came upon the process by chance when he encountered a dysfunctional copier in the Fogg Art Museum at Harvard in 1977, he immediately saw the aesthetic potential of distortions and reductions that occurred in the processes of scanning and recopying; he learned these could be pushed to extremes with further manipulations of exposure, magnification, movement, and eventually color. Akiba’s process, unlike that of most artists who experimented with the photocopier, did not end with the photocopy. Rather, he incorporated the technology into an increasingly complex photographic practice: photocopying a photograph, re-copying the copy multiple times, then photographing and printing a final silver gelatin print or C-print (which sometimes resulted in unique hybrids of black-and-white and color processes).
Several important series were realized in a relatively short span of time: Black and White (1977), The Vertical Altar (1978-79), Knot This Broken Thread (1979-80), and The Uninvited Guest (1979) among them. The images – some of which incorporated Akiba’s street photographs and recycled magazine imagery while others were conceived and photographed specifically for the photocopier – all explore a range of human behaviors and architectural settings and experiment with degrees of distortion and legibility. In daring contrast to photographic technical standards of image clarity and refinement, Akiba exploited the lack of resolution and image deterioration for their emotional and psychological effects. Working with single prints (either 10 x 10 inches or 15 x 15 inches) as well as diptychs and triptychs, Akiba consistently conceptualized images to describe conditions of intimacy, isolation, and instability.
Akiba’s expertise as a printer was crucial to his increasingly radical experiments with the photocopier. His interest in atypical kinds of visual information that the camera and copier could achieve together – ambiguities, imperfections, and abstractions – became heightened in the early 1980s when he embarked on several series which incorporated color photocopies of his black-and-white photographs (some with cutout figures collaged photographically) that were then photographed in color film: Faces (1980-82), On the Street (1981-82), and Shadows (1981-82). Akiba’s ongoing interest in momentary phenomena and relations appeared but here took shape through explosive color, passages of abstraction, abrupt spatial interruptions, and an emotional tenor reminiscent of the Edvard Munch woodcuts and German Expressionist prints he admired.
Akiba’s experiments with the photocopier culminated in 1982 with two projects that pushed his work further toward the realm of abstraction. In the large Xerox Assemblages (1982), figurative images (composed of multiple photographic units arranged in a grid) were severely altered and dematerialized through the processes of dividing, enlarging, and repeatedly photocopying an “original” image. In his final photocopy series, Light Scans (1982), any articulation of legible form (here it was not figurative but folded and cut paper copied on a color photocopier) has been obliterated by luminous fields of pure color. It would be nearly two decades until Akiba revisited the possibilities of color abstraction first explored in this series.
In the early 1980s, Akiba made a decisive and abrupt change in scene and process. He left the human figure, the city streets, and the realm of the photocopier and with his camera turned to the natural world. For over two decades he would explore woodland sanctuaries throughout the Boston area (Muddy River in Brookline and Ward’s Pond, Olmsted Park and the Arnold Arboretum in Jamaica Plain), observing seasonal cycles of bloom and decay and responding to the constantly shifting profile of the landscape. Akiba’s deep engagement with the Emerald Necklace (the chain of urban parks designed by Frederick Law Olmsted) heralded a new chapter of his career-long experimentation with photographic extremes of density and detail, ambiguity and clarity, control and chance.
The resulting acclaimed color and black-and-white landscapes Akiba created between 1983-2005 (including the series The Emerald Necklace and Shattered Light/Scattered Light, and images published in Every Shadow Has a Name) are composed in an extraordinary range of open and closed vistas – from distant tree-covered rises to skyward views through branches, and close-ups of isolated flora and grass blades at ground level. Akiba’s images of natural environments masterfully confound distinctions between matter and immateriality and challenge conventional spatial perceptions.
Akiba’s fascination with natural phenomena and his earlier experiments with re-photography led him from urban environs to cosmic landscapes found in the images of Saturn and its moons and rings, photographed and transmitted to Earth by the spacecraft Cassini. Akiba’s provocative translations in the series Fly-by/not this, not that/Received on Earth (2011-14) began as screen shots selected from thousands of images of raw data available on NASA’s Cassini website, which were printed on his home printer/copier and then re-photographed with a film camera for presentation as single prints or combined in grids. Removed from their original documentary and descriptive purposes, Akiba’s appropriations poetically emphasize conditions of emptiness and randomness through a hybrid language of landscape and abstraction.
In the distortions and magnified details of many of his photocopy and landscape photographs, one can see how Akiba intentionally sought the effects of chance and frequently pushed his imagery toward the edge of legibility and into the realm of abstraction. Perhaps these inclinations led Akiba, after two decades, to return to a studio practice he first explored in Bubbles (1977), composing abstractions by exploring the chance effects of various materials – soap, ink, syrup, colored gels, reflective papers – as they responded to ephemeral conditions of gravity and light. From the patterns that appeared, Akiba would select a fragment of a composition for translation with his camera. In the calligraphic Flux and Flow (2012-14), Akiba invented complex microcosms where ambiguities of scale and the dematerialization of form combine to extraordinary visual effects.
It was in this context that Akiba revisited the possibilities of color abstraction he initially explored in 1982 with the camera and photocopier: in the translucent worlds of Light Struck/Light Waves (2000-2005) and Light Swept (2003-2005), and more recently in Chroma (2015-17). The explosive shifts of color and light in the Chroma prints offer viewers extraordinary experiences of dazzling luminosity and visual density that border on sensory overload. Like the other momentary phenomena given passing shape by Akiba over his career – figures moving through the city, grass blades pierced by sunlight, planetary moons in orbit, ink flows arrested – the Chroma abstractions are orchestrated experiments that engage both artistic intent and chance. They are extraordinary reminders of a core aspect of Akiba’s photographic practice: conceptualizing images from what is found by the artist and what is created by the camera.
Text © Susan L. Stoops