Zoe Leonard, Camden Arts Centre


The world usually rushes at us so quickly – its perfume, noise and changing weather, the skewing angles of our emotions and thoughts – that we find it hard to see.

The distancing effects of photography and film, and the way that those media change the way we see the world, are the chief interests of the American artist Zoe Leonard, witnessed in a concise, sensitively judged exhibition at Camden Arts Centre. Despite the fact that Leonard has made several important works, particularly her Analogue project (1998-2007), photographs charting the disappearance of handmade signage from city streets, drawing attention to our disappearance into digital, it’s difficult to believe that this is her first solo exhibition in London.

Leonard’s approach to this show is highly responsive to Camden’s situation and architecture. She has transformed Camden’s gallery 3 (usually notable for its large windows that look onto the street outside) into a camera obscura, a simple, yet always shockingly mind-altering optical device created by making a small hole in the wall of a dark room, which creates a full-colour projection of the world upside down onto the opposite wall.  This one-degree of removal from reality – the projection rather than the usual window, as well as the flipping of perspective, allows us to see the street outside as a picture. Why does that road look the way it does? Why is a billboard the biggest thing in the picture, and what are all those people doing out there? The effect is like walking into a room for the first time, noticing its cracks and imperfections, which become slowly invisible with familiarity.

Another of the rooms is filled with black and white unframed images in which Leonard has shot straight into the sun, creating grey dusky frames, like soft voids in the walls, peppered with flare spots and streaks, which all feature a glaring white circle in the centre, the one constant around altering locations and weather conditions. Survey (2009) is a table featuring stacks of 6266 postcards of the Niagara Falls, each one plotted as though on a map, so that the postcards are placed in the relative position to that of the photographer who took the photograph. This treatment of a clichéd subject powerfully reminds us that perspective outstrips nearly all else when it comes to seeing and understanding the world, and that others’ perspectives and images have a radical influence on our own. 

31 March – 24 June