Photographs seem to sever time into two distinct realms: “before” and “after.” With each click of the camera an instant of history is immediately divorced from the ceaseless flow of time, paradoxically preserving a moment that is, ultimately, transient. If this was even more extreme in the age of chemical photography, when the making of the print might occur days, months, even years, after its taking, these dynamics are nonetheless still a crucial factor in the age of the iPhone. We know, for instance, how photographic and video footage of police brutality has played a crucial role in current political movements that seek to create a more equitable “after” to the oftentimes brutally unjust “before” of American history. As a photographer who has directed his camera into the flow of time for over 40 years, Ari Marcopoulos has understood photography’s singular capacity to apprehend and comprehend the world. And as an artist who has produced around 250 books and zines as well as a number of short films, Marcopoulos is also sensitive to the archival time contained in the photographic medium, and he grasps the fact that this temporality often resonates both backwards and forwards.
These complex, multidirectional currents suffuse the photographs that Marcopoulos has been taking for over six years of the Conrad McRae Youth Basketball League, that meets just outside of his apartment in downtown Brooklyn. Marcopoulos has taken hundreds of portraits of the players, who range in age from 6 to 18, as well as numerous action shots from the court and depictions of moments of casual intimacy between the players on the sidelines. Connecting these various image formats is something like a visual rhythm that parallels the fast-paced game he depicts. This is perhaps most evident in the ubiquitous chain link fence that surrounds the court in numerous pictures and which appears to arrest the players’ dynamism within a diamond matrix that evokes the measured backgrounds of Eadweard Muybridge’s motion studies. Other linear patterns that appear throughout these photographs, from the boundary lines on the court to the referee’s uniforms, have a similar effect, providing both structure and counterpoint to the dynamic movement of players and ball.
The complex formal and narrative relationships that Marcopoulos constructs between distinct images are only highlighted when his photographs are presented as a coherent body of work—this is very much the case with a recently published 800-page volume collecting a selection of the Conrad McRae images (Conrad McRae Youth League Tournament, Roma Publications). As Marcopoulos notes in an interview at the end of the book, the league is named after a local basketball player who played for Syracuse in college. He spent most of his short professional career in European leagues before an untimely death, likely due to a heart arrhythmia, while training at the Orlando Magic summer camp in 2000. With its dimpled and textured cover, the book itself feels a little like holding a basketball. It exudes a sense of commemoration, honoring the numerous players who have participated in the league over the years, many of whom were photographed standing in front of a large mural depicting McRae. The notably dilapidated and paint-flecked surface of this mural suggests the ineluctable transience of all things, especially when set against Marcopoulos’s offhand and vibrant portrayals of the young players.
The peril of precarious impermanence equally informs Marcopoulos’s conversion of his digital photographs into printed matter, thus granting them a degree of physical concreteness uncommon in a moment dominated by social media. Marcopoulos’s commitment to the materiality of the image was itself materialized when the artist mounted an informal exhibition on a May afternoon in 2015, displaying 280 inkjet print portraits on the very chain-link fence that surrounded the basketball court. These prints, which he arranged in a grid, were free for members of the community to take home. As Marcopoulos has said, many of the players had never seen photographic prints outside of commercial or photojournalistic contexts and when they were found out that they could take a print home with them, a number of them chose instead just to take pictures of the prints with their phones. Nevertheless, many people did in fact take the prints, and as the day progressed the grid of portraits lost its order and unity, echoing the decomposing mural nearby.
This unconventional exhibition practice aligns with Marcopoulos’s particular commitment to the photobook, a format that largely eschews the elitist connotations of the art object as preciously unique entity. His embrace of non-professional activities and techniques is equally vivid in a pair of small books that Marcopoulos has also recently released (Polaroids 92-95 NY and Polaroids 92-95 CA, Dashwood Books, both 2020). These volumes reproduce Polaroids taken of skateboarders in New York and Los Angeles in the 1990s. In these books, some of the Polaroid prints bear the traces of material degradation from their unstable chemical constituents, turning pictures of youthful innocence and physical grace into meditations on the passage of time as potent as the mural dedicated to McRae.
Just as Marcopoulos is able to discern the undeniable artistry and aesthetic intelligence of the non-elite, yet undeniably virtuosic, endeavors of skateboarding and basketball, his approach to photography shows his appreciation of techniques beyond the limited vocabulary of so-called art photography. By moving outside self-consciously artistic visual conventions, Marcopoulos paradoxically expands our understanding of what one might call a “good” photograph. At times the images in his books look like skewed sports photojournalism, at other times they take on the atmosphere of a high school class photo, sometimes they are presented as filmstrip-like sequences. Indeed, Marcopoulos’s anti-elitist attitude is evinced in the numerous people one can discern within the crowd taking pictures of the games with phones and SLR cameras on the sidelines and behind the fence, marking him as just one photographer among many others capturing the face-paced action before them.
Art, one could argue, is always forward looking, asserting the possibility of seeing and thinking differently from the “now time”; of its perception. It thus fosters the sort of open-ended occasion for change that is engendered by historical events such as those we are currently living through. Like so much of life in 2020, the Conrad McRae Youth League’s summer season for 2020 has been canceled due the COVID-19 pandemic. Created before these occurrences, but now, like so much of the recent past, appearing inevitably informed by them, these photographs seem to memorialize something whose significance, much like the lives, one imagines, of the subjects depicted in Marcopoulos’s books, remain to be fully realized.