Jeff Guess : »Fonse, Alphonse«, 1993
by Thomas Y. Levin
California-born Jeff Guess was an American photographer in Paris, where he had been living and working as a photographer since 1988, when in 1993 he was suddenly informed by the local authorities that his work permit had expired and he would have to leave the country. His response to this all-too-real threat to his livelihood and his person is readable in two works produced that very year in which Guess enlisted his cunning and his body to both allegorize and ironically subvert this unwelcome intrusion by the State. In the first, an extraordinary 22-meter long panoramic installation of 24 stenotype [or pinhole camera] photographs, Guess used his mouth as a camera obscura to expose a series of quotidian objects presented manually to his built-in »apparatus.« The work’s title - From Hand to Mouth - not only invokes the condition that would have resulted from the suspension of his ability to work, but also describes the installation’s mode of production. Indeed, the issue of embodiment and labor is foregrounded both by the thoroughly corporeal technology Guess employed in making these images and by their means of display, a continuous circular strip which, when viewed from within, places the spectator in a force field whose focal point is none other than the implied site of the photographer’s own body as image-making machine.
The second work which Guess produced in 1993, while no less subtle and inventive in its irony, began with a classically subversive institutional maneuver: having decided to marry his French partner and thereby »regularize« his employment status, Guess and his wife-to-be rushed off to the official ceremony in classic - which is to say, readily readable - wedding attire [black tuxedo, white wedding gown complete with headpiece], racing down a street in Lyon known for having a photographic detection device to capture infractions of the local speed limit. Like clockwork, a few days later a handsome photographic memento of this transgressive moment arrived at their house, depicting the soon-to-be-married couple in their car complete with date and time stamp: this was, so Guess explains, their only wedding photograph, provided free-of-charge [including home delivery] by the State. One can only imagine the scene at the Préfecture de Police when the now-married [and thus »legalized«] Guess appears with the »evidence« of his »crime« and explains that his excessive speed was because he was late for his wedding [which he "proves" by means of his official marriage certificate], harnessing the pathos of family-values to provoke the sympathetic official to waive the fine and wish him a long and happy marriage.
The result is a masterpiece in the tradition of the appropriation of surveillance apparatuses for self-portraiture, as in Dennis Beaubois’ later Red Light Camera Portraits [where the Australian artist depicted himself by standing at an intersection known to have a similar violation-driven photographic device while a friend purposely drove through the red light]. But whereas Beaubois acquired the photograph by asking for proof of the infraction and then simply paying the modest fine, Guess not only recasts the police apparatus as a wedding-photography machine, but is even able to undermine the consequent financial penalty by hoisting the state by its own petard. Indeed, what better document of the institution of marriage [that intervention of the State into the very private matter of a couple’s domestic cohabitation] - not to mention of a marriage effectively necessitated by yet another intervention of the State - than an image generated, inscribed by and delivered by an apparatus of that very same State?