Invisible Traces: The Photography of Mark Hahn

“I fell in love with Mark Hahn’s photography the first time I saw his black and white images in his book Beautiful Pointless Universe . Seemingly simple and abstract and at times austere on the surface, Mark’s photos ask us to take the time to study the illusory emptiness of his images, to explore the subtle geography of his photographs, and to find the rich detail that so subtly fills each frame.

Mark’s photos are not easy photos. They ask us to slow down and look close. They invite us into the image and implore us to take the time to open our eyes and really look at what we are seeing. When we do take that time, what we find is incredible delicacy laden with human emotion, longing, loss, and beauty. The play of light and shadow, little cracks and lines, traces of dirt and debris all become huge and infused with a tremendous sense of humanity where at first there seemed to be nothing but some minimal shadows and objects. There is an aura to Mark’s photos that contains phenomenally tender human urgency out of a sublime state of nothingness. The deeper I look into them, the more I see, and what I see more than anything is a lament for a lost world and a yearning for a world just beyond reach but so close, a world so tangible that it almost hurts the eyes and heart to glimpse it. There is a sense of domestic and emotional fragility in Mark’s work, but there is also a kind of heavenly presence that shimmers just below the surface. That presence is located within the often invisible details of this world (a crack in a wall, a pile of dirt, an empty kitchen drawer, the play of shadow and light on a dumpster). Mark was a painter before he was a photographer, and his photos very much function like paintings, the way they resonate with depth and subtleties in light, shadow and detail. There is so much to see in Mark’s photos precisely because there seems to be so little at first glance.

Mark’s new series of photos taken in the wrecked and abandoned landscape of Arizona’s Copper Belt (the towns whose economy depends on Arizona’s copper mining industry) give Mark’s vision geographic and historic specificity that redefines and expands upon the sense of domestic fragility that is present in his earlier black and white photographs. Invisibility is a key element in Mark’s work. He focuses on the things that most people don’t notice – the one hanging piece of fabric in a corner, a pile of staples on the floor, or the slightly lifted corner of a piece of floor tile. In his new work, the role of invisibility is critical. There is an aesthetic beauty in the objects, the places, the light and absence that he photographs, but there is also a socio-economic correlation that is written into these photos.

Mark is not just photographing random abandoned items and places in his new series. He is not merely capturing the things that people don’t see, don’t notice, and often overlook and the things that have disintegrated and been left by the wayside. He is documenting with tender beauty and poignancy the evidence of human lives that have been gutted and erased by the global economy. He is capturing evidence of a whole class of people who are invisible in this country, and he is paying homage to the wreckage of their lives. The state of disintegration and invisibility in Mark’s photographs can be directly connected to the invisibility of the people who have left these wrecked places behind – the vanishing working class that has left the Copper Belt landscape in such a state of abandonment and decay. These are photos of bankruptcy and foreclosure as much as they are photos of exquisite aesthetic discipline. The things Mark captures so beautifully in his series — the fragility of light, the cracks that seep with invisible humanity, the presence of people and their lives as documented in their absence, the traces of things they leave behind – work beautifully as objects of art, but they are also very much grounded in contemporary geography and economics.

The photographs, like the dwellings in which they were taken, seem to echo with decades of history and carry an aura of timelessness, yet they are very much rooted in our time as they were taken in places that have been erased, evacuated, and abandoned by the 21st century global economy that has rendered much of the working class obsolete. But this is not to say that Marks’ photos are political. More than anything, they are laments and testaments to the beauty and transience of human life and stability. Everything in the photos is held together by such a delicate and fragile thread – the way light shines through within the tenuous stability of the domestic space. Mark’s photos are grounded in the specific but also timelessly expansive as he captures the transience of human life by showing the traces humans leave behind rather than their literal bodies.

In all the photos in this series, there is a sense that someone has just passed through, that we just missed them. It is as though the photographs are haunted, and we can almost feel the breeze their bodies left behind as they passed through a room. In Mark’s photographs, the aura or body of human presence exists in the tension between geometric planes, in the fragility of light, and in the small often neglected details in the margins. The photographs instill absence with such enormous presence and exquisitely capture so much of the fragility and transience of life by showing the traces of that which was left behind by the people who once occupied the spaces. Mark’s new series of photos serves as a kind of lament of loss while also embracing the beauty of the invisible by making it visible. The images in the photographs are fragile and full of neglect, loss, nd , but also they hold onto traces of an almost angelic spirit. The compositions which rely so much on momentary glimpses of light upon a wrecked surface capture singluar moments that will be gone in a heartbeat.

Many of these photos feel like they captured a very specific moment that has been left in a time capsule out in the wrecked landscape of the Copper Belt. A washcloth on a windowsill is left frozen in time as if someone was in the middle of washing something, momentarily set down the washcloth and then just vanished. We can feel the presence of the hand that was holding the cloth even though there is no actual person present in the photograph. The way that the cloth is framed in the corner with the light streaming in and the expanse of windowsill simultaneously makes the cloth feel abandoned and isolated but also alive with tension from the sources of space and light around it. It’s almost as if we are seeing through someone’s eyes looking out of the window, but also cannot help but feel the emptiness of the place, the sense that there is no one actually there, only the lingering presence of the hands that held the cloth. The hands are there and not there, and their absence is what makes this image so poignantly human and beautiful.

It is in images like the ones with the washcloth where we most strongly feel the presence of the body. A mattress, a bottle of mouthwash, a piece of pipe on a table, a door partially opened — the presence of the body is contained in these things. In one photo, the images of a mattress and a slightly opened door contain whole lifetimes of stories. It is not just that the mattress and the door are symbols onto which we can easily read human narratives. What really makes this photograph so complex and powerful is the tension that Mark creates between the planes of the photo – the tension between the door and the mattress, the angles of these objects, how they exist partially off-frame, and how their forms push and pull against each other. The cracks on the right side of the frame provide a kind of symbol of trauma or an opening to a different place. The unconventional composition and tension between the elements within the frame create a rich density of symbol and meaning within an image laden with emotion and narrative potential.

As in his earlier work, we have to slow down and let our eyes digest every minute fraction in the field of the frame to allow Mark’s photographs to work their magic. Each detail becomes almost angelic in its presence. In a photo taken inside an abandoned store, my eyes are initially drawn to the central images of two bottles and then to the severed end of a plunger, but then as my eyes explore the photograph, I find myself drawn to the peripheral details –the seeping wet spot in the middle, the stain in the lower left, the hangers in the bottom right corner, and then finally all those little staples on the ground. The closer I look, the more each little detail becomes an object of exquisite beauty, the sum of which comprise the whole of the photograph. These are not images to glance over in a hurry. They are meant for the eyes to linger, wander, and really learn to see that which is rarely noticed.

It is not just the objects themselves, but the spaces between objects and the light that briefly illuminates them that bring so much life and aura to Mark’s photographs. The light leads us into the photos, but also beckons us to try to reach to the other side. In one photo of light playing across floor tile and a wall, the composition seems so minimal, but then when I look closely at the tiles, I see that each piece is like a separate entity, almost alive, lifting off the ground, precariously holding on, or maybe opening up. It’s hard to tell if the tiles are on the verge of collapse or getting ready to float up through that light. Sure, there are no humans in this photograph, but the ghost of human presence resides in the wear of the tile, the feet that have walked on them, the heaviness of life that has dislodged them, set them askew and opened those cracks between them. It is inside those little variations of space between the tiles – this one lifting up at a corner or that one overlapping with another – that contains the bodies of the humans who once occupied this space.

So many of the photos in this series beckon us to subtle openings, the delicate spaces between floorboards and walls, where such tiny details are waiting to be discovered — little fissures in the surface and stains and patterns that are so subtle. The eye is naturally drawn to the big cracks, the places where holes are ripped through domestic spaces, but if we look hard and close, we can find such beauty inside the tiny cracks and discover the subtlety of details lurking just below the surface. One photo features a formal composition based on cracks in the domestic plane – an expanse of white, a dividing line of the corner where two walls meet, a triptych of holes in the walls, and the geometric planes of the floor. These elements provide a sort of illusion of austere minimalism, but this photo is far from austere. Look closely and all all those little details in the margins come into focus. They are ragged, shredded, torn and discarded. We witness the evidence a violent eruption of the domestic space in the holes in the walls, but below the surface we find the frail underside, the little bits and pieces that are left in between the cracks, the pieces that no one sees or notices, but which Mark captures with his camera.

In another photo, a seemingly minimal composition delivers maximum beauty. Three elements work together to create an image that feels like a kiss from heaven: a piece of dangling fabric, a crack, and an amazing wash of light that fills the left side of the frame and infuses the whole image with divine radiance. It takes incredible vision and discipline to allow such an expanse of white light to fill so much of the frame and to become such a presence next to the minimal elements of the fabric and the crack. The play of depth is also critical to bringing Mark’s photos to life – the way the fabric hangs forward while the crack recedes into velvety rich blackness while the light spreads through the frame from an entirely different plane, making the whole image hover in suspension with fragile beauty. As in so many of Mark’s photos, one tiny detail pulls the elements of the photo together and holds the whole image in delicate balance. In this photo, it is the one tiny black mark on the wall on the lower left/middle.

In a similar photo, remnants of torn fabric hang on the fine line between decay and divine transcendence. Seemingly so simple at first glance, fine threads dangle delicately from the fabric’s edge and lead the eye to the subtle details that so quietly bleed through the photo like the dusty fingerprints of angels — the traces of dirt in the corner, the fine line of a crack, the square smudge on the right like a half erased love song, and finally that one long piece of fabric draped down across the frame like a whisper.

All of Mark’s photos seem like they are leading us through the ruins of this world and towards another world that is being teased out of such insignificant elements as dirt, fissures, and shadows. Mark’s unique vision which is so precisely attuned to form, light and composition, leads us into a new way of seeing and acknowledges the invisible by making it visible. He takes a seemingly minimal compositions but then ‘paints’ so many layers of detail by revealing the things in the margins and the things that have been neglected and that are usually left by the visual wayside. The closer we look at his photographs, the more there is to see. It is so refreshing to be able see things that are mostly invisible and to see them in such a unique vision and light. With Mark’s new series, it is particularly meaningful to see such beautifully documented evidence of a whole class of people who have been rendered invisible and to see them portrayed with such delicate and fragile beauty. Mark’s new series is both urgently of our time but also beautifully and profoundly timeless.”