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John Neff: Left to his own devices
PHOTOGRAPHY Special to the online edition of Windy City Times
by Melissa Wasserman

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Small, black-and-white, representational photographs make up Chicago-based artist John Neff's first solo museum exhibit at The Renaissance Society March 3 through April 14. The artist takes an approach in which he twists straight photography into something not so straight.

Neff's previous exhibitions have featured multi-layered installations made up of photographs, sculptures and text with some color. This series, his largest solo exhibition, is the first time his photography will stand by itself. However, the pure photography project is far from the simple point-and-shoot. Not only having produced the pictures, he also constructed the camera. The mechanism involves a tripod that anchors an antique box camera, which is then attached to a scanner that is driven by a laptop, which is tethered with a USB cord.

"I love photography and doing this work has made me love it even more and I have a different relationship with it now," said Neff. "Working within a framework that forces you to think about what you're looking at—and how you're looking at it—in a different way is exciting."

Learning about the constructed camera several years ago and playing with it off and on, he started constructing the scanner camera out of antique medium format bellows, lenses, camera bodies and low-end consumer-grade scanners. Neff said after some time he began using the device for shooting as opposed to just treating it like a novelty distinguishing him from others who may just assemble them as a hobby.

"In a way that challenge made it easier for me to make the transition to doing work that was entirely photographic," said Neff. "There was something about the peculiarities that made it a more intimate experience or maybe made it seem less technically daunting since everything was broken to begin with."

Neff explained the challenges that the device presents include the long exposure time and the unusual pattern of exposure, resembling the way a scanner would scan a document from left to right. When using a linear sensor that travels over time from left to right, something could be happening in one part of the picture and could be over by the time the sensor captures that part of the frame. When the artist is actually taking the pictures, he is not just thinking about what's in front of him, but what's going to happen over the duration of the exposure. The process also results in images resemble the look and feel of earlier moments in the medium's history.

"You're thinking about how you're putting together the picture and how you're taking it, it's shifted a little bit," he said of taking photos with his hand-made camera. "In that sense I think it probably allowed me to have a different thought about how I was taking pictures, which probably resulted in different pictures. That's a way of explaining why I thought it was a worthwhile challenge to use that device as opposed to an actual camera."

In a previous statement, Hamza Walker, associate curator and director of education at The Renaissance Society, and curator of Neff's exhibition, said he has enjoyed Neff's work for years and was particularly drawn to this body of work because of its 'formal/technical innovation.' "The process of using a hand-built camera which combines a traditional lens with a digital flatbed scanner erases any digital/analog divide," he said. "The shutter's click gives way to the scanner's drone, betraying a more protracted mediation of 'the decisive moment.' These photographs, with their fine tonal gradation and scan lines, come across as a delayed transmission—a remote past in which we just so happen to be living."

Over the course of 18 months in 2011-2012, Neff used his scanner camera to photograph his immediate environment and life experiences in Chicago. Describing every photo opportunity as having a degree of intimacy, he photographed anything that struck him as appealing. Subjects represented in his photographs range from candid to posed and portray mixed tones. While some depict everyday objects one may not stop to observe such as a chair or the bathroom garbage, others evoke more eroticism with subjects such as a naked body.

"These things interest me," Neff said. "I make pictures of people, places and things I find attractive, beautiful and also, situations that are interesting simply because I encounter them everyday. I'm a gay man, and my work comes from my life, so my sexuality is an important part of my work."

For more information on The Renaissance Society, call 773-702-8670 or visit . Admission is free for John Neff's exhibition at The Renaissance Society. An opening reception will be held Sunday, March 3, 4-7 p.m., with a talk with the artist 5-6 p.m. in Kent Hall Room 107.

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