Copperheads comprises one hundred small colour photographs arranged in a large ten by ten grid. Each photograph was taken with a macro, close-up lens, and shows the profile of President Abraham Lincoln on the face of an American one cent coin. The grid thus presents a dollar’s worth of copper coins in an orderly arrangement. While some of the coins Davey photographed were in good condition, in most cases the copper was worn away and partially oxidised. As a result, Lincoln’s face appears ruined and rotting. Davey took the photographs in 1990 and first arranged them in this grid format for her solo exhibition at the Harvard University Art Museum in 2008. The curator of this exhibition, Helen Molesworth, described the historical circumstances in which the work was made:
In the late 1980s and early 1990s – that is, after the crash of the stock market and the fall of the Berlin wall – Moyra Davey was using a macro lens on her camera to take pictures of money … To focus on the lowest denominator of value at a time when the market collapsed had a kind of sly humour to it, while the visage of freedom, as symbolised by Lincoln, could have been held in uneasy relation to the narratives of supposed freedom that saturated the media’s coverage of the fall of communism. In more concrete ways the photographs attest to the circulation and use of the coin, as each one depicts a nicked, scarred, gouged, tarnished and rusted surface. Often the coin’s face is so mutilated that Lincoln’s profile is difficult, if not impossible, to discern. The Copperheads look like poisonous landscapes – aerial views of strip mines, the surface of the moon.
(Molesworth 2008, pp.11–2)
Molesworth also discussed the viewer’s response to the images: at first, there is no recognition that these are photographs of coins, and then there is amazement at ‘the debased, banal, and sometimes vaguely fecal characteristics of the objects depicted. The Freudian evocation of filthy lucre plays front and centre in these works, and a discomfort arises when such psychic associations are held in relation to the public, civic and even ethical dimensions of what Lincoln means to the history of the United States.’ (Ibid.)
While the work has this subversive quality, Copperheads also results from Davey’s concern with looking closely at the kind of everyday objects that are all around, but frequently overlooked. In this respect, there is a delicate, sensitive aspect to the work, which curator Matthew Witkovsky has described: ‘Davey’s photographs uphold the value of desultory things, casually posed yet dignified objects worn down by touch.’ (Witkovsky 2010.) This attention to everyday items is characteristic of Davey’s work; she has also made photographs of newsstands around New York, and of the bookshelves and record shelves in her Brooklyn apartment.
The Copperheads have also been discussed in relation to the history of photography and to the physical characteristics of the medium. The images, with their repeated profiles, recall some of the earliest portrait photographs as well as early uses of portrait photography in typological studies. Art historian George Baker has written about the way in which Davey treats the coins as analogous to photographs, suggesting ways in which they are similar:
Basically worthless, the pennies are ‘like’ photographs in many different ways. They are objects of circulation and objects of use; they are objects kept close to the body, in wallets and pockets, and fingered by hands; they are tokens stamped with their time and date … They are obsolete, throwaway vestiges, but also keepsakes, collector’s items, useless avatars of blind luck or cunning thrift simultaneously.
(Baker, ‘The Absent Photograph’, in Szymczyk 2010, pp.67–8)
Baker reads the series as a whole as ‘a memorial to analog photography’s contemporary eradication’ (Ibid.). However, since each single image shows an ‘irreducibly unique’ subject in such a way that it appears to be a form that is emerging rather than one that has been worn away, the series can also be seen as a work about the rebirth of a certain kind of photography: ‘The Copperheads are photographs of destruction and resurrection, loss and potential rebirth, at once.’ (Ibid.)
Helen Molesworth (ed.), Long Life Cool White: Photographs & Essays by Moyra Davey, exhibition catalogue, Harvard University Art Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts 2008.
Adam Szymczyk (ed.), Moyra Davey: Speaker/Receiver, exhibition catalogue, Kunsthalle Basel 2010.
Matthew Witkovsky, ‘Another History’, Artforum, March 2010, pp.212–21.