The first thing you see when you enter Cameron Allen’s house are two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves filled – practically overflowing – with cameras.
There are easily over a hundred, bought in lots off of ebay or passed down from family members cleaning out their attics. Some of them are broken, some rendered inert by out-of-production film – but he assures me that he’s used every single one that shoots.
Allen’s photographic work is currently being featured in Lee O’Neil Gallery’s The Print show. The images were created when Allen was still in high school, just a kid on a bike zooming past the marshes near his home with an unfocused 35mm in hand. They’re glossy and gaussian with the blur of nostalgia, sparkling and feverish through a pink summer haze.
“I like when things aren’t completely certain,” he says.
The images represent Allen’s early foray into darkroom experimentation. By manipulating c41 (“artificial black and white,” he explains) film with chemicals, he was able to shake out the colors inside – pulling blues, oranges, and yellows out of the gray skies.
Though he spends less time in the darkroom now, he’s not finished pushing his images to – and beyond – the point of fracture. Allen remains behind the camera, except now it’s inside of an iPhone and what was once summer haze is the fog of compression artifacts.
“All the time I wish I could see things as a normal person and just enjoy things for what they are. I read this thing where Patti Smith was saying, ‘As an artist, you’re constantly looking for new ways to see things,” Allen tells me while we hang out in his bedroom. A huge photo of Andre Leon Talley hugging Marc Jacobs hangs behind him as he flips through a thick book about curating installation art.
The room, much like Allen’s separate studio space, is papered in photos, old ephemera, and paintings. It looks like the contents of an art student’s iPhone camera roll – screenshots and Google searches and favorited Instagram photos — exploded onto the walls. Books and records are strewn across the bed and floor.
Allen, I realize, loves the things he collects, but even more than that – he loves to collect.
Up until recently, his fascination with images has been channeled into an Instagram-based project with his best friend, Paige, called “Pretend Couple”. After they moved to separate cities, they found themselves rarely calling each other, slipping into a cycle of Instagram tags and texted photos to keep in touch.
We’ve all been there – “How’s it going?”; thumbs up emoji; funny dog gif; laughing emoji; silence. Does anyone under the age of 35 even call any more?
“We were texting and tagging each other in Instagram posts constantly. As we went on, we started creating these pieces of art through our text messages,” Allen explains. “The art was based in screenshots of our text messages to each other – just sending portraits of ourselves and mimicking each other’s portraits, going into the ‘details’ section of our text messages, and so on. So there’s this collage sort of thing between us.”
The @pretendcouple account speaks to our cross-generational habit of content hoarding.
The collaged screenshots – pictures of pictures of pictures layered on top of one another — show the very real volume of images, words, stuff we share with one another. It’s all colorful, relatable in its modern lo-fi sensibilities, and yet coldly impersonal. Even images which should feel intimate (a photo of a shirtless man hugging himself in the dark, screenshots of private conversations) are two, three, four times removed from reality; the visible compression artifacts, blur and washed out fade of the iPhone flash keep us at arm’s length.
“You start to lose quality once you screenshot something over and over again. I think that’s kind of a reflection of what I think about our communication today, though. A lot of it is lost,” Allen says.
Someone is texting me as I record our conversation. When I play the .mp4 file back later that day, his words waver from the buzz of my message notification.
These days, Allen is taking a break from @pretendcouple, he says, to focus on painting (though his photo work has appeared in two different shows in the last two months). His frustration and fascination with modern communication centers mainly on emojis, specifically the smiley face. The same drippy gray smiley that wilts sardonically on top of @pretendcouple’s final post is now inverted and massive on a sheet of canvas in Allen’s bedroom.
“[Emojis] are like these little pockets of feeling that people will send to represent what they’re going through or a feeling that they’re trying to convey to another person,” he says.
“If the information age is all about how fast we can send information to each other, then is something being lost in the human connection?”
It’s strange how often I hear this argument from artists, our primary creators and defenders of images. Wouldn’t an image be more communicative than just words? When I call him out on it, Allen disagrees.
“If people are forgetting how to actually express themselves then people can’t function without [emojis]. They start to rely on it. Somebody sends me a text message and says something I don’t know how to deal with so I just send them a laughing emoji and I don’t actually say anything back. You know?”
It’s always the things you love, the things that make being human more convenient, that destroy you. If that seems dramatic, I’d love to know when the last time you called your best friend instead of just texting them was.
It’s the uncertainty of our 21st century hieroglyphs that gets under Allen’s skin: their relatability, their ubiquitousness and their elastic meaning. “Everybody’s drawn to a sad face or a happy face for some reason, I find. I’m interested to see how people take it and also how it can be so broadly interpreted.”
As a multidisciplinary artist, Allen is using the many tools he has (painting, digital collage, photography) to excavate cultural meaning. Smiley faces, emojis, text messages, screenshots – they’re all in danger of being judged too commonplace, too lowbrow to center an artistic dialogue around.
Let’s not fool ourselves, though.
So much of our communication hinges on uncertain images and unspoken words, layered to create relationships with other people; an emoji can mean the difference between silence and connection. Maybe Allen has just realized that sooner than most.
You can check out more of Cameron’s art on his website www.cameronallen.xyz or at Lee O’Neil Gallery – his work in The Print will remain up through February 18th.