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Optical allusion Private view

How incredulity and irritation turned to fascination when an artist encountered Christopher Williams’s image of a cutaway section of a camera lens

When I saw this work by the American artist Christopher Williams for the first time, I was perplexed: what on earth is it? A photograph of a camera lens – why is this in a museum collection? I always start to pay more attention when art tends to irritate me at first sight. On second glance, Williams’s image seems more sophisticated, probably because it looks like an advertisement taken from an old issue of National Geographic magazine: the essential lens for the avid amateur trying to achieve the high-standard reportage photography on offer inside the publication. It could be found footage – it almost feels like a ready-made. Is this appropriation? Is it old, or was it made today?

The invention of photography coincided with the first announcement of the ‘death of painting’. The perception was that painters mostly continued their work indoors, while photographers went out into the world to capture examples of ‘real life’. And those who remained in the studio were concerned with commercial trade: the glamorous guys shooting models for the covers of magazines, or technical obsessives who could make products look hyper-real, turning them into must-have objects of desire. They showed how perfect the world had become, or at least that we could buy a little piece of that perfection.

Nowadays, we know differently, so this must be a photo from a near past. It appears to be an old-fashioned item from the time of film photography, not the instant digital stuff. Did the artist take the picture himself? It could well have been made by a specialist in object-photography following instructions from Williams. Is it perhaps a re-enactment of the art of classic craftsmanship in pre-Photoshop photography – using the same equipment from the time when the lens was manufactured to test authenticity – in combination with a longing and understanding that life will never be as simple as how complex it was back then?

As a painter, I am attracted to this work because it shows a different aspect from the speed and immediacy usually associated with the medium of photography. It is meticulously and strategically constructed; it’s photography at its slowest, and I am not sure what I am really looking at. The surgically opened lens looks to me like an alien object from a time when the first satellites were catapulted into space by rockets –sci-fi from the past. What is longevity? Or when is something obsolete? Are there hidden mirrors deflecting subliminal messages in these lenses, or is it just a nostalgic relic from the artist’s former self as a surf dude from California?

This portrait of a clinical piece of equipment seems a perfect example of co-dependence and impotence. What we see is a lens, which only once it is connected to the body will become a fully functioning camera. On its own it is a useless prop, but screwed and clicked on the body, it becomes the all-seeing non-judgmental eye. This work is all about looking.

The work may appear cold and detached, but because it feels as if the ego of the artist is not present, it enables me to rummage around and find references and clues in the antiseptic, orderly mess. Like all good works of art, I can visit this piece again to let it grab my attention and make me think that I may understand it more than I did before.