January 2017

A Glitch in Time

by Peter Chawaga

“It’s this idea of how we identify people, how much of our idea of people is based on visual data.”

How far can a familiar image be pushed until it becomes wholly unrecognizable? When does a neighbor’s face become a stranger’s? When does a distant figure seem to come from another world completely?

Questions like those drive the work of Travis Commeau, a photographer and graphic designer living in East Nashville. Particularly his “glitch” portraits, in which the subject seems ripped from the digital world or to be processing into it, distorted, vibrating, and ethereal.

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Piacular 3, 2016, Archival Digital Print, 28” x 65”

“It’s this idea of how we identify people, how much of our idea of people is based on visual data,” Commeau explains. “How far can I blow up detail and recognizable attributes before it’s not recognizable as a face, or people who might know that person won’t recognize them? You can come to the gallery and the subject might be standing right next to their portrait—would the casual observer even notice?”

Before moving to Nashville a year and a half ago, Commeau spent years doing graphic post-production for Manhattan’s ad agencies. Growing tired of retouching other people’s photography, he decided to focus on his own work. His experience in the corporate world informs his creative pursuits more than one might think.

“Coming from the commercial side, I don’t think of it as if I was doing clean work versus dissolving or destructive work now, because as chaotic as they look, these images are really very intentional,” he says. “The wider, full-body images are built to be about five and a half feet wide, so they’re really rich with detail and intention.”

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Piacular 4, 2016, Archival Digital Print, 28” x 65”

The process for creating a glitch image is much more labor intensive than mere computer generation. Commeau takes nearly a hundred pictures of each subject and narrows those down to his favorites. He retouches those underlying images to make them as sharp as possible, then runs them through a photo editing app called Decim8. He might make 200 “glitch” versions of a single portrait before he finds the few that meet his standards, then edits those until they are just right.

With a sense of how exactly the benign becomes so precisely broken, it follows that Commeau identifies as a laborer. “I often think of myself as less of an artist and more of a craftsperson or a tradesperson,” he says. “I want to be able to show that I have the capacity to make an image that you know is a composite but still looks incredibly natural. Problem solving is what makes me interested in any of it, really. In another life, I probably would have gone into physics or something.”

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Piacular 2, 2016, Archival Digital Print, 28” x 65”

Despite his affection for the technical, there is something natural in how Commeau’s work is achieved. “When I’m doing the glitch images, I’ll know 70 or 80 percent of what I want and then the remaining 20 or 30 percent is formed by chance, and it sort of takes on a life of its own,” says Commeau. “The glitching process is where it’s much more organic, which is funny because it’s a digital process. That digital process is very organic.”

It seems like an odd notion at first, but spend enough time with the images and it rings true. The portraits are stylized, in worlds possible only on the computer, but they are also firmly based on real, everyday things that might not resist digital transformation for long.

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Travis Commeau self-portrait

“There’s the question of our reliance on technology and how pervasive the digital is in our lives right now,” Commeau says. “This work describes the divide between organic and digital in a way that I feel is partisan. I’m not trying to say one is better or one is worse.”

To see more of Commeau’s work, please visit www.iamrevolver.com.

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