v5.5 / Bill Bateman’s Museum Shadows

Bill Bateman’s “Museum Shadows” began with a coincidence. He had taken his camera with him to a dimly lit exhibition space in Torino and noticed the shapes left by the shadows on the reflective floor. He began to take pictures not of the paintings but of what was happening in front of them, on the floor. Everyone who has been to a museum knows that sometimes the visitors are as interesting as the displays, if not more. Exhibits offer an opportunity not only to see artwork or other objects of interest but also to classify, inconspicuously, since no one expects you would, those who go there to see them, to separate the genuine connoisseurs and enthusiasts from the cultural tourists and dutiful perusers of guidebooks, the genuinely curious visitors from the casual ones and those who were coerced into coming.

The paintings on the walls of a museum or the things in its display cases usually stay right where they are, for weeks maybe or months or even years and decades. But what constantly changes is you—to vary an observation made by J. D. Salinger’s Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye. Holden was thinking of the American Museum of Natural History, but pick any museum you like. Pick any day. You’d be a different visitor every time. ”Maybe you’d have an overcoat this time,” he muses, “Or you’d passed by one of those puddles in the street with gasoline rainbows in them. I mean you’d be different.”

It is a similar play of differences Bateman is interested in, but with an important qualification: his photographs don’t show the visitors themselves but their ghostly, inverted, headless doubles, the shapes their shadows make on the floor, a dark ballet in which one morphs into two, two becomes three, and three four, the outlines fluid as if drifting on water as a pair of truncated legs acquires a body and finds itself facing another pair of legs and another body, both dissolving in puddles of light: heaven is, to vary Henry David Thoreau, both under our heads and under our feet.

Bateman’s photographs nimbly transform a horizontal space (as captured by the camera pointed down) into a vertical fact (especially when we imagine these photographs hung on walls, too), creatively complicating the ways in which we tend to think of museums. His series turns a place where one goes to view something into a place where one is being viewed. Yet Bateman immediately disrupts the kind of convenient doubling that might result from this reversal: his museum shadows are so indistinct that we cannot even identify them as engaged in any particular activity. Even if we imagine them not being the wrong side up, they look like people only the way the carved pieces in a chess game look like people.

Beginning photographers are often told that mastering shadows is crucial to proper technique: shadows add balance, contrast, and depth to the composition. Sometimes they shape the composition itself. In Margrethe Mather’s work, for example, shadows are a major part of the narrative, altering the appearance of the actress Florence Deshon, whose face remains partly shrouded in darkness, an overshadowing that, in Mather’s hands, becomes a foreshadowing (Deshon’s life ended less than a year later when she left the gas on in her New York apartment).

Shadows are supplementary to who we are, darker copies of ourselves. Yet when they go missing, as they do in fairy tales, our wholeness as a person, our life, is at stake. This is the story of Peter Schlemihl, told by the German writer and scientist Adelbert von Chamisso (1781-1838): For a bottomless sack of gold, Peter relinquishes his shadow to the devil, only to learn what he should have known before: that wealth does not bring happiness (he becomes a scientist instead). Without that “black Nothing behind you,” you are, paradoxically nothing: That is the lesson behind Richard Strauss’s most complex opera, Die Frau ohne Schatten (Woman without a Shadow, 1919), which revolves around an empress who, because she is half-human, casts no shadow. Setting out to acquire one, she learns that, to become fully human, one needs to learn to be humane first; your shadow will then be given to you.

The beauty of Bateman’s shadow photographs is that they dispense with such dualisms: these shadows are no substitutes; their darkness is not a reminder of the light. They are, in the end, not even ghostly doubles, as I said above. Bateman’s museum shadows have detached themselves from their referents in reality (men, women, bored schoolchildren on a class trip): here, the viewer isn’t “left wondering about the person or thing casting the shadow.” Bateman’s museum shadows have their own existence; already the simple fact that they are upside down frustrates our attempts, as Robert Lowell once said, “to give / each figure in the photograph a living name.

As it happens, Bateman is familiar with the museum world in more ways than one. He is a painter, too, with a studio in picturesque Nashville, Indiana, where he moved after decades spent working in Manhattan. His large, abstract canvases often present interlocking shapes, rendered in bold color. In his other photographic work, he reimagines images of plants or found objects, transforming everyday surfaces into resplendent kaleidoscopic patterns. Despite the obvious absence of color in the “Museum Shadows” series, there is a similar interest at work here: the installments that don’t feature people focus on shapes, the shadows thrown on the floor by windows or display boards, intersecting with each other or the grid created by the floor tiles.

Bateman’s work here reminds me of Wallace Stevens’ 1916 poem “Six Significant Landscapes,” in which square-hatted rationalist philosophers, standing in square rooms, staring at the floor and staring at the ceiling, find geometric shapes that correspond to their personalities (“right-angled triangles”—the very sound of the phrase underscores the dryness of their pursuit). Stevens, inveterate sensualist in a three-piece suit, finds himself wishing that his philosophers had gone for something more exciting: “rhomboids / cones, waving lines, ellipses.” In Stevens’ fantasy, they would then no longer wear square hats but sombreros. Bateman, it seems, has already earned his sombrero—note the rhomboids, trapezoids, ellipses, and waving lines in this series. Stevens believed (as he told Hi Simons in 1940) that it was important to know both the man and the shadow, the thing and its double. Bateman would beg to differ: Getting to know the shadows is quite enough.

Text © Christoph Irmscher / Photographs © Bill Bateman