The exhibit at Pioneer Works is called “A History of Digital Photography” and features some of the first images taken with Kodak’s earliest digital camera. The show includes that camera, its maquette, and the ever sharper, smaller cameras Lucien Samaha worked with over the years, plus ephemera. But at its heart, this show is less about technology than an artist’s journey, and is deeper and far more human than its title suggests.
Lucien Samaha was born in Beirut in 1958 and immigrated to America in 1970. He attended Annandale high school, Virginia, where electives included home economics and shop, but he chose art. It was the ‘70s, the teacher was progressive, photography was taught.
Using his father’s Kowa, then a Canon EF, Samaha also began shooting for the school yearbook. He covered swimming, basketball, and technically adventurous, even shot cheerleaders on the lawn with a flash. The resulting pictures were a little wonky, but he was off and running. He won a best photo and best portfolio award, and began to think he might have a future in the field.
He dreamed of going to Goddard Collage in Vermont or Rochester Institute of Technology, but they were expensive, so he wound up at Northern Virginia Community College which he hated and soon left. He also had to deal with harsh family dynamics and parents who didn’t want their only son to be gay. So he moved to Chicago and became a flight attendant, taking pictures wherever he happened to be, which because of his language skills, was often the Middle East.
In the mid ‘80s, Carl Icahn took over TWA and slashed salaries, prompting Samaha to go back to school. This time he headed to Rochester Institute of Technology, settling into a tech track that dealt with chemistry, optics, and the first iterations of digital photography.
In 1989, he won Kodak’s Professional Division Scholarship and became the first person to use the company’s DCS 100 Professional Camera outside the factory. It was large and clunky (forcing Samaha to see a chiropractor), but his imagery was graceful. Not the work of a geek seeking data, but a photographer doing what they always have: exploring their world with the tools of their time, synthesizing light and shadow, space and form into a cohesive visual whole. As with 19th century technology, early digital quirks became part of Samaha’s process. Because of low resolution (1.3 megapixels), colors shade gently into one another, lending the pictures a sense of intimacy and warmth. A long lens with multiple mirrors created wavering lines, accentuating the mirage-like feel of early shots he took on the street.
As technology evolved, Samaha always used it in service of his images, because people, not gadgets, are the focus of his work. His most beautiful series “Alternative normative,” is built on photographs from the Arab Image Foundation. He began it working broadly with Photoshop layers, then set it aside. When he returned, it was with a lighter touch and deeper focus, combining faces and features into subtle portraits that address issues of heritage and gender identity. Rendered in exquisite grayscale, these combine classic form with subversive details like eyes that don’t quite match, clothing that is both masculine and feminine, faces that slip gently into one another, leaving a trail of ghostlike shadows.
A series in Vienna on transit riders involved clandestine video that was run over a flatbed scanner then re-photographed using mirrors to create images that are light years from the Depression era pictures Walker Evans shot in the New York subway.
In 1993, Kodak moved Samaha to Manhattan as the rep for the photojournalism and stock photography markets. Upstate, immersed in his work, in a time before instant messaging, he’d been cut off and was shocked to learn how many friends had died of AIDS. “Hung Out to Dry” is a moving series devoted to them, each image printed on paper that takes up to a year to dry, the ink running downward in ragged tears.
Upstate Samaha had produced several radio shows, and back in the city, he snagged a DJ gig at The Greatest Bar on Earth atop One World Trade Center. Naturally he took pictures, some a few days before 9/11. These are featured in a large-scale installation, poignant for their joy, and innocence of what is to come.
Samaha has a knack for turning up at hinge points of history. He saw the decimation of AIDS, the destruction of the World Trade Center, the shifting face of the Middle East, the changing ways of photography. He has a gift for technology, but it is the human factor–the faces and stories–that inspired him to create haunting work with the tools of his time, the evolving technology of the digital age.
“A History of Digital Photography” is on view at Pioneer Works, 159 Pioneer Street in Red Hook, Brooklyn through December 15, 2019. Hours are Wednesday – Sunday, 12:00 – 7:00.