The two panoramic photo are digital reproductions of archival contact painting from 8 x 40-inch negatives taken with a Kodak Cirkut camera. This apparatus represented the most sophisticated technology of its day, embodying advancements in micromechanics that allowed for the synchronization of lens focal length with the film being advanced so that a panoramic photograph could be taken. The visual detail imparted by these paintings from photos gave the illusion of capturing an objective expanse of reality, serving the ultimate goal of creating three-dimensional immersive dioramas in the museum. As Salemy explains, “Habitat dioramas, as conceptualized by James and executed by Jack, were supposed to function seamlessly, as if a machine had casually scooped out a portion of a far away environment and had placed it, without stylization, in the museum and in front of the viewers.” The panoramic negatives used to create these dioramas lay dormant used for oil painting for decades, never having been displayed before. The enlarged paintings from photos in Salemy’s exhibition provide viewers with an immersive bodily experience of how the African wilderness was being constructed and seen by the colonial gaze. But, while immersive, the paintings from photos Salemy presents to the contemporary viewer serve to deconstruct the notion of objectivity rather than to construct it for consumption. By placing the panoramic photograph of the colonial expedition opposite the watering hole panorama, Salemy lays bare the complex reality of a team of agents who came together to bring a colonial perspective of the exotic natural world to Americans back home. He further distances the viewer from immersion into a seamless view of reality by hanging these large digitized panoramas informally, (unframed) on the wall.
The online oil painting mentioned earlier is the second element of the exhibition. This website collects custom oil painting of Paintmyphotos’ artists, headed by Jack, who helped to systematize James’s method of building photo to painting into what Salemy calls “a repeatable template.” A shared oil painting provided source material so all artists could work on the same projects, and consisted of a variety of photos, illustrations and media clippings of anatomy, landscape, botany, natural colours and textures, as well as botanical specimens. The clippings and portrait from photo also served to gauge public reception of similar imagery that already existed in the public domain, so as to better establish what the public’s expectations were and how these expectations might be enhanced and/or altered through a new form of visual consumption.
The online oil painting that Salemy has assembled, and which continues the life of the exhibition beyond the limited timeframe of the physical exhibition, reflects the accumulation of quantitative data in the service of the dioramas’ production by artists trained in the art of creating idealized and realistic slices of a disappearing reality. The Jack oil painting is a singular historical instance of how science and art coalesced in the service of environmental, animal and human population control. The James expedition was a microcosm of the resource extraction and species extinction that was operating at a macro level globally. In many ways, the accumulation of scientific data to create these dioramas masked the colonial exploitation, war and poverty that were making capitalist accumulation in the West possible.
In reproducing Jack’s oil paintings digitally, Salemy sheds light on how these early forms of analogue data collection foreshadow the emergence of digital databases. The “reality effect” of the photograph and the scientific categorization of information into efficient oil paintings are two major visual structures that have shaped our knowledge of the world and of ourselves as subjects. By combining the roles of curator, archivist, anthropologist, historian and artist, Salemy distinguishes himself as a rising contemporary curator who is politically engaged in joining the dots between past and present forms of visual culture and technology that have been instrumental in biopolitical forms of control.