When I visited Jessica Eaton’s Montreal studio, the remnants of an earlier shoot are visible. Stacked gray boxes are set in a strictly enforced no-touch photoshoot zone, as one little, curious poke could send weeks of progress awry. Her expansive space has the clinical calm of a freshly scrubbed operating room, and she has the irreverent chill of a versed surgeon. Eaton, who was awarded a 2019 Guggenheim Fellowship, is presenting Iterations (III) at Higher Pictures in New York City as the cumulative body of work from a more than three-year exploration of an intensive analogue process. Repeating exposures of 4 × 5 inch film, Eaton moves grayscale painted boxes in and out of the camera frame, and using combinations of RGB filters creates color in-camera. The resulting images are pulsating and hypnotic—evoking the big questions of perception and the origins of light.
This mathematical formula is derived from studious notetaking, a pencil and ruler being as essential to her work as the camera. I ask Eaton if she can track her process through these notebooks. Lighting a Belmont—the premiere Canadian cigarette, many would agree—she nods emphatically. “They are pre-noted, and then I follow the notes to make the photograph,” she explains, thumbing through the book.
Progress is made through continually building on former attempts. New possibilities arise where Eaton once saw impossibilities. “When I look through all my rough scans that are chronological, it’s mind-blowing to see the ways in which it has shifted. I’ve learned things that are so fundamental and basic, and seem so obvious when I do learn them, but it took years and hundreds of tries. Once it presents itself it’s like, How did I not know that?”
Part of the fascination in the creation and the visual consumption of these cube works is the seemingly limitless iterations of both the problem and the solution. (Sol LeWitt would agree.) We see the absence of genesis and the endlessness of light and color—the infinite. “This is a project that I’ll probably always return to,” Eaton says. “These took away the formal, compositional, experimental aspect and keep the same perspective every time so that I am able to focus entirely on creating color.” But in her next project, Eaton aims to follow agency, not iteration. “I’m picturing being able to have multiple things going, and go back and forth, as opposed to this hyper-disciplined practice. I’ve shot the same thing for three and a half years. So, I’m done.” (laughter)
Jessica Eaton: Iterations (III) is on view at Higher Pictures in New York until November 30.