Public Art and Postminimalism

by Peter Plagens

Charles Swedlund

The Wall Street Journal


Forty-plus years ago, before everyone saw full color as photography’s natural state, and long before digitalization rendered the medium almost infinitely malleable, serious photographers were struggling to get out of what they perceived to be the cul-de-sac of the flat, rectangular black-and-white analog print. In my neck of the woods—Southern California—such artists as Robert Heinecken and Robert Cumming were leading the battle against confinement to Flatland.

In the Midwest, Charles Swedlund (b. 1935), a professor at Southern Illinois University, was also struggling to find a way out of photography’s limitations. But he suffered from an attitude toward his subject matter that seemed innocently inventive back then, and which now we see as obliviously sexist: In the interest of visual wit, he treats the nude female body as if it were no more than a bottle in a Cubist still-life.

Undercurrents of chauvinism aside, Mr. Swedlund partly succeeds in good-naturedly freeing photography from a shackle or two. The animated flip-book “My Wife Is Pregnant!” (1971) yields a 360-degree circumnavigation of the artist’s expectant spouse, and the “Photographic Gumball Machine” (1973), which can be operated to dispense a different part of a photograph of a human body (female, of course). If you allow Mr. Swedlund some slack for being an artist working in the “‘Me’ Decade,” and don’t wince too often, there’s some real cleverness to be appreciated here.