Mike Mandel’s and Larry Sultan’s Evidence is a collection of found and recontextualized images taken from public and private American institutions, corporations, and agencies. In 1977, after sorting through the local picture archives at a California NASA office, the young artists, just out of their graduate studies, received a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts to continue the work in other such spaces. After sorting through a hundred archives that chronicled America’s frontier into the technologically advanced future, they carefully selected a dynamic batch of images to be sequenced loosely into a book and exhibition.

 

 

© Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

 
 
The book is considered a seminal foundation for a new conceptual practice based in photographic mediums that attempt to decentralize the once-triumphed pinnacles in photography-as-art: narrative and authorship. In contemporary photographic discourses, owning the image one creates (or more accurately, uses) no longer suggests an ethical or artistic quandary, rather an interesting intersection of art and politics. For example, Mark Wyse’s recent work, Disavowal, shows framed reproduction of works by artists direct from his own books and exhibition catalogs. Wyse sidesteps curatorial duties’ generally bureaucratic procedures and produces the exhibition needed to get his narrative-based concerns across.
 
 

© Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

 
 
Throughout Evidence ambiguity works on many levels. The most obvious is noted in the title. The photographs in their original intent were used to evident happenings, and the visual syntax suggests these happenings were experimental and more than likely incomplete inquiries made during research. When placed into Evidence, the photographs, now out of context, demonstrate virtually nothing empirical outside of their newly assigned artistic wanderlust.
Perhaps the more interesting ambiguous tendency eschewed by the sequencing is whether or not to denote the artist’s intentions as political or not. By default, the work is decidedly not political; they merely structured the images based on loose visual symmetry and the effective self-contained interestingness of each image. After all, technology and the secretive government agency were at that point standard in the American political landscape. They were also working in the Silicon Valley! The bizarre cropping and crime scene-likened use of flash in the images suggest an enigmatic sensibility more so than a political one.
 
 

© Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

 
 
And yet, almost strictly due to the sequencing, the pictures take on a cryptically ethereal feel. If you spend a few seconds with each image outside of the immediate context, you can realistically see the scenes as normal activity, industrial or otherwise. Again, the cropping, use of flash, and the foreign objects hint at a deeper psychology that decentralizes each element in the photograph into the equivocal whole.
 
 

© Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

 
 
Regarding a more contemporary reading, where paranoia politics are openly discussed, and the distinction between public and private spheres is dissolving, can we look at this body of work in the same way? The access alone Mandel and Sultan received to make this work is confounding to the modern Westerner. You mean they just went in and started searching through archives of apparently classified documents? I wonder if we can rely solely on the fact that this book was produced in 1977 to remove modern political connotations. And to do this, in some way, undermines the respected notion of an artwork’s “timelessness,” where the ideas are relevant enough to allow us to overlook the dated imagery and iconography. In fact, the vernacular informs this work today in a way that it did not in 1977.
 
 

©Mike Mandel and Larry Sultan

 
 

And so Evidence serves two distinct functions as an aging body of work. The first is the conceptual grace in which Mandel and Sultan seemingly produced this work. The practice profoundly influenced every subsequent generation of image-based artists. The process here triumphs, and the ideas are timeless. Secondly, considering the completed, exhibited work set out to be about image-generated narrative, we understand that narrative to be strikingly different, due to various sociological factors. The presented work and the audience’s interpretation of the deadpan simplicity was clearly an important aspect in its conception, and remains to affect the deeper psychological implications of art-viewing today.

 

Daniel Shea