'Chuck Close Photographs' a fascinating and demanding show

“Bill T. Jones,” a black and white Polaroid diptych mounted on aluminum.

The first thing one learns when working with a camera is that the lens doesn’t see as the eye does. Subjects that seem to dominate the scene when we look at them with the naked eye often come out uninteresting or barely visible in a photographed image.

Together, our eyes and our brains are constantly composing meaningful pictures that help us see the world. Our sight is unavoidably subjective. Learning how to take photographs involves understanding this subjectivity and using the camera to communicate this vision in the final work.

The artist Chuck Close was drawn to the camera for the opposite reason. It enables him to escape his mind’s-eye view and to record, without emotion or interpretation, what is in front of him. He has been working with photography for four decades, but “Chuck Close Photographs,” on view at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts through April 8, is the first museum exhibition to concentrate on this part of his career. It is also the first full-scale exhibition of the artist’s work in Philadelphia. It’s a fascinating and demanding show that really makes you think about how you see.

The show traces how Close began working with photography in the 1960s as a tool for his painting. He valued photography for its ability to document what he calls “the blur” that surrounds what our eye is focusing on. Over time, exploring technologies both innovative and antique, Close produced photographic works to extend his art. If you know Close’s paintings — characteristically large canvases filled with closely cropped heads against a neutral background — many of the photographs will be familiar. But his photographs also include subjects, such as nudes and flowers, largely missing from his paintings.

Close was born in 1940, which more or less guaranteed that his art education would introduce him to the triumphant American style of the post-World War II era, abstract expressionism. Flatness — the rejection of spatial illusionism and the recognition that a painting consists of pigment on canvas — was an important part of the ideology of that movement. But abstract expressionism was not emotionally flat. It was an art of outpourings, egotistic and highly subjective.

The generation trained in this style was also the one that would inevitably reject it. Even more than Andy Warhol, Close rejected the fever pitch of his predecessors. He looked at himself and other people, mostly friends and fellow artists, and attempted to show all that could be seen. When he decided to paint a large female nude, he took many close-up photographs of parts of his model’s body: shoulder, knee, feet, torso. In the American tradition of Thomas Eakins and Ernest Hemingway, he found moral force in cataloging what’s real.

Close has referred to his approach as “dumb.” That’s a word that was often applied to him as a child. He suffered from the disability of being unable to remember people’s faces. Later, as an adult, he was diagnosed as severely dyslexic. That explains why he was considered “slow” in school, but he has made slowness a key part of his art, even in the quicksilver medium of photography.

In 1989, he suffered a spinal blood clot that left him quadriplegic. However, this extreme disability seems to have had little effect on his work, though he has in recent years taken up even slower and more laborious techniques, notably daguerreotypes.

Relatively few of the images in the show were made with a conventional camera. His chief medium has been large-format Polaroid cameras, beginning in 1977 with one that made 20×24-inch images, and eventually working during the 1980s with a 40×40-scale camera that was literally the largest ever made. (There is only one.)

The earliest Polaroids were made in preparation for paintings. He would take the images, crop them, and overlay a grid on them. Several of these pieces, which he calls maquettes, are in the show. Unfortunately, none are shown with the paintings that resulted from them.

Camera icon Chuck Close
“Anthurium,” a color Polaroid diptych mounted on aluminum.

The most striking works consist of huge color Polaroids hung side by side to make a single image. The centerpiece of the show is a pair of nudes from 1984, one female, one male, stretching across five giant Polaroids, nearly 18 feet wide and eight feet high. On the wall perpendicular to them are two double-panel photographs of flowers, in extreme close-up. The wall text argues that the flowers are more sensual than the nudes. This may be true, as what we are seeing in the flowers is all about sex, while the nudes are more like landscapes, and the genitalia are not as assertive as the toes. Close doesn’t approach skin like a pornographer. He’s more like a dermatologist who finds beauty in the blemishes.

Skin is the overriding theme of this show. People sit for a picture and try to tell a story of themselves with their eyes and attitude. But the skin and its wens and hair, its wrinkles and sags tell another equally human story. A diptych of the African American dancer-choreographer Bill T. Jones is as neutral as a police mug shot, but the beauty of the skin and the experience that the body expresses, even when it’s not trying, make it memorable.

In the exhibition catalog by Colin Westerbeck, Close rejects the usual photographer’s procedure of taking a lot of exposures then going through afterward to pick and refine an image. The Polaroid lets him, and the subject, see each exposure as it happens, so he can work gradually toward a finished work.

The daguerreotypes he has made since 2000 have some of the otherworldly quality of those made in the mid-19th century. But Close’s use of a monster strobe light, one that sometimes leaves behind the odor of burning hair and flesh, allows more natural posing. The famous model Kate Moss looks a bit as though she has survived an atomic bomb. As Westerbeck notes, the black skin of photographer Lorna Simpson emerges from the process as though made from basalt. And the theater artist Robert Wilson looks out from the mirrored darkness looking mortal, yet permanent.

Camera icon Chuck Close
“Self Portrait/Five Part,” based on daguerreotypes.

Daguerreotypes reverse the image, as a mirror does, so it makes sense that the most imposing result of Close’s experiments shows us the artist looking at himself five times. It turns out to be a tapestry, woven on a Jacquard loom, that makes use of a process that was the precursor to the binary programming of computers. It takes a moment to realize that this photographic image is actually a textile. But it is clearly at a slightly lower definition than all the rest of the show. Close has found his blur.

Chuck Close Photographs

through April 8

Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts

128 North Broad St.

(215) 972-7600

www.pafa.org/museum

Tues.-Fri. 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Sat-Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.

Adults $15. Seniors and students $12. Youth $8. Under 12 free