The long term stress and anxiety of the pandemic has taken its toll on society in countless ways, from the physical to the psychological, and especially during the various periods of quarantine and lockdown around the world, most of us have at one time or another struggled with how to cope with it all. And while the uplifting stories of those who used their time to get fit, write a book, bake bread, or master some other hobby can provide a sense of optimistic control in a time of wrenching loss and despair, many of us who were trapped inside simply sat on the couch, opened a bottle of wine, queued up the streaming services, and tried to take the edge off the simmering anxiety.
From the impressively large and diverse array of empty wine and liquor bottles found in her new still lifes, Jessica Eaton seems to have patronized her local liquor store pretty regularly during the pandemic. But indirectly, those bouts of pandemic drinking seem to have offered Eaton an unlikely artistic pathway out of the darkness. Eaton lives and works in Montreal, Canada, where the lockdowns were particularly severe and long lasting, and so for months, she was prevented from getting the help of her studio assistants, and for a decently long time, was unable to work in her studio at all. This forced Eaton into a new mode of artistic improvisation, where she had to work alone, and the available wine bottles that were piling up seem to have provided a handy array of potential subject matter.
Among contemporary photographers, Eaton undeniably ranks among the most optically precise. In gallery shows going back a decade – 2019 (reviewed here), 2017 (reviewed here), 2015 (reviewed here), and 2011 (here), for those that want to travel back into the past as background – she has meticulously explored the experimental possibilities of additive color, using various sophisticated in-camera techniques to separate and reassemble light in a controlled manner. Her resulting images often reflect an impossible visual reality, where what we see in the final print was never actually visible to the naked eye in her studio, but has been constructed via the exact layering of multiple color-filtered or color-isolated exposures.
While the details of what Eaton is doing (and how she is doing it) in any one project aren’t always clear or easy to follow, in these new bottle still lifes, we do know a few things. The general studio setup places the bottles directly on a mirror, with a white backdrop behind, and the bottles themselves have been spray-painted grey, allowing them to have uniform surface characteristics, without glare, but with a little translucency. From there, Eaton used various laser pointers, fiber optics, and other light generating devices to cast colored light across the bottles from different directions and angles and through different diffusers and interruptors, which she managed herself while still finding a way to make sure the shutter was being clicked at just the right moment of alignment. My imagination has her acrobatically twisting and turning around in the studio for hours on end, in search of just the right wash of light across the bottles.
The larger works on view are gatherings of bottles, with Eaton working through the available compositional permutations provided by putting a handful of bottles together on a table. There are groupings of wine bottles only, all with tapered silhouettes, but with slightly different proportions or alternate lips and mouths. There are selections of liquor bottles all with rounded shoulders, and another group of similar bottles with even stumpier forms. And there are bunches of bottles with elongated necks, and more specialized and distinctive silhouettes. Stripped of their markings and labels, these forms still have quite a bit of small variation, which Eaton has then used to create balance and energy in her arrangements. Given differing heights, she has systematically tried out most of the options – all one height, gathering to a central crest, falling to a central dip, and various undulations and up and down movements, all within the constraints of half a dozen or so bottles arrayed in a loose lineup.
The light Eaton has created on these bottles is literally like nothing we have ever seen before. If there are patterns in the way to describe it, we might start with ideas like gradients and progressions, where one color softly diffuses into another across the contours of the bottles, along the backdrop, and in the inverted reflection of the mirror. I’m certain there are technical explanations and names for the gradient and ombré effects she has employed, probably filled with mathematical equations and words like axial or conical. From a layman’s perspective, she’s offered a range of thought-provoking light experiments, from three color gradients, isolating different bottles so only parts of a group are colored in a similar manner, angled light projections that come from above or below to twist the gradients off center, and other even more inexplicable effects. The one thing I kept thinking about was that in additive color, the more color that is added, the lighter the resulting colors become (eventually trending to white), so the fact that most of these compositions are light and airy says that Eaton was really thickening the colors to build up her results.
As if to remind us that it’s not the bottles that are important here but the light, in a second series of pictures, Eaton has thinned down her groups to just a single solitary wine bottle, which she has then iteratively bathed in all kinds of light combinations. Seen in a tight grid of small prints, it’s a resonant example of how an artist tinkers and experiments, improvising within a strict set of constraints to generate a range of outcomes. And while we might assume the combination of the pandemic and the alcohol might have led Eaton into more depressed moods, as seen in this grid, her light studies are consistently sunny and optimistic, with a palette that recalls Easter egg pastels, cotton candy, and tropical piña colada sunsets.
The sleek stylized gradients in these photographs are so perfect that they feel almost unreal, and that’s of course a testament to Eaton’s craftsmanship and precise control. The one visual clue to just how complicated her process is is the tiny shadow cast by the plug of the bottle in a few of the single bottle photographs – mostly it’s straight and clear, but in some cases it’s slightly off center, as if the light was being aimed from the sides or even a little behind and casting a small colored shadow sideways and forward. Why that light angle might have been necessary to create the gradients we see is beyond my technical level of expertise, but it’s clear that much more is going on here than meets the eye.
While it might be tempting to see a tipsy completionist instinct in these pictures similar to Moyra Davey’s images of empty whiskey bottles, Eaton’s photographs don’t feel like they are about swagger or even fatalistic drown-in-a-bottle resignation. To my eye, they seem quietly uplifting – sure, Eaton knocked back more than a few drinks during the pandemic, but she then relentlessly forced herself to turn the hangovers into art, in a way that only she knows how. It’s this understated lemons into lemonade pandemic-era resiliency that I find most appealing here, particularly as a contrast to other pandemic photographic projects filled with empty streets, boarded up businesses, and separated families. The bottles duly represent the emotional roller coaster of the past few years, but in the end, it’s the exacting management of the color and light that matters in an Eaton photograph, and this cheery light is as rigorous and complex as ever.