Karsten Lund for Phantoms in the Dirt in The Museum for Contemporary Photography Chicago

The sepia tone and visual texture of Assaf Evron’s Untitled (French Colonies, Maroc) convey a certain sense of age and a distant origin for the image. In fact, Evron found this photograph reproduced in a book from the1930s about the French colonies. While the title of the work indicates that the place depicted is Morocco, the scene is a classic landscape, almost generic in many respects: mountains recede into the distance, the furthest peaks vanishing into the haze as if illustrating a basic lesson on the pictorial representation of three dimensional space. The distinguishing feature of the image is a
spectacular swarm of insects, spreading as far as the eye can see. If this isn’t a plague, necessarily, it is at any rate a momentous thing to see.
Evron’s interest in the drama of this image is balanced by his light handling of it—which involves only very limited intervention aside from the shift in scale and the addition of a handmade oak frame—and further undermined by the manner in which it is reproduced. The scanned photograph is enlarged until it just barely maintains its perceptual stability. If one stands at certain distance (say, at the far end of the gallery where the work is installed at the Museum of Contemporary Photography), the locusts are illegible, appearing mostly as specks or indistinguishable marks. The insects within the scene compress into what looks like a discrete layer on the surface of the image, hovering not only in front of image in question is not only a photographic trace of a haunting natural event caught on film almost a century ago; it is also a strange vestige of the visual record set forth by the colonists themselves. Evron has extracted this photograph and set it loose on
its own to become a more indeterminate, mysterious signifier, though one shadowed, perhaps imperceptibly, by its origins. the terrain but in front of the photograph itself. If one approaches and leans in close to the work, the image breaks down all over again, dissolving into the dot pattern of the enlarged print, as if the world had devolved into yet another expanse of inscrutable particles. In between, if one pauses in the right place, the photograph’s elemental theater—the bursting forth of the nonhuman world—comes clearly into view. The reassuring sense of looking out on the world as if the photograph were a window dissolves, replaced by pictorial confusions and the perceptual collapse of surface and depth. Without stable recourse to the visual content itself, one is left to wrestle with this work in multiple ways at once: as a document, an imperfect object, and not least of all as a suggestive leftover from a now-absent source.
Evron’s father was from Morocco, lending this work a personal note for him, but his interest in the image is also in its basic existence as a disruption within a particular visual discourse. In Evron’s telling, this photograph was an anomaly in the book in which it appeared, depicting a sudden disorderly event in contrast to the many more banal images of the slow grind of French control in Moroccan territory. An image like this, with its almost readymade symbolism—the swarm of locusts like a Biblical plague or the specter of a mass uprising—does seem like a striking thing to find within a quasi-official colonial history. At the very least, the image in question is not only a photographic trace of a haunting natural event caught on film almost a century ago; it is also a strange vestige of the visual record set forth by the colonists themselves. Evron has extracted this photograph and set it loose on its own to become a more indeterminate, mysterious signifier, though one shadowed, perhaps imperceptibly, by its origins.