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Fredrick R. Archer

American
(1889–1963)

Reflections of a Mirror
circa 1921

Bromide print
22 x 19.25 in. (55.88 x 48.895 cm)
Gift of the Marie Eccles Caine Foundation
2000.67

This work represents one of the earliest examples of abstract imagery in American photography. Archer’s nonobjective experiments were an anomaly within his usual eclectic subject matter, which ranged from Hollywood portraiture to pictorialism. No antecedents appear to have influenced him. He may have known Alvin Langdon Coburn’s Vortographs of 1917, but these are informed by the repetitive geometric patterning of cubist and vorticist paintings. In contrast, Reflections of a Mirror is a more lyrical abstraction, though caused by a natural phenomenon.

The image captures a momentary apparition shaped by the reflection of a light source from a mirror. In a variant print, the mirror can be seen in the bottom center, imposing an explanatory intrusion onto the design. In this print the image remains mysterious, allowing its origin to be left to the viewer’s imagination. In contrast to the technique of using illumination to form an object through light and shadow, here the subject is the light itself. Although Archer’s image doesn’t appear to be conveying any specific idea, it recalls the evidence of ectoplasm recorded in so-called spirit photography, initiated by adherents of the Theosophical Society and spiritualism. Ten years after this print was made, photographer Toyo Miyatake also produced a series of light abstractions.

Archer’s experimental work shares an aesthetic with artists such as Man Ray, László Moholy-Nagy, and the “photogenics” of Lotte Jacobi, done decades after Archer’s print. The main difference is that these photographers used the photogram process, creating images directly onto sensitized photo paper and bypassing the use of the camera.

David F. Martin


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