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There is a 1920 photograph signed by Man Ray and Marcel Duchamp that looks like it might be an aerial shot of a rural landscape; for me it brought to mind the mysterious crop circles that suggest an alien Earth landing from space. (“That’s Mars, obviously,” my 10-year-old said when I asked him what he thought it was.) That is not the photo’s subject matter (obviously); however, the story behind the work does contain elements of mystery and intrigue (and some serious surrealist cooked-up confusions).

When the photo was published in 1922 in André Breton’s avant-garde journal Littérature, it was described as a view from an airplane taken by Man Ray in 1921. It certainly looks like it could be such an image; at the time, with the Great War just over, the photograph may have easily conjured a battlefield, complete with trenches.

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Louise Oates, 'Notes on Hydraulic Fracturing: 'The Desolate North East, 1, 2 and 3', 2014, chromogenic print, Courtesy of the artistLouise Oates/Courtesy of the Artist

But this was a deliberate invention.

For many years, this photo has been a source of fascination – perhaps even obsession – for David Campany, the renowned British artist, curator and critic. So, when he was offered a chance to create his dream exhibition, he dreamed one up around this photograph.

It is the central work in his exhibition a Handful of Dust: From the Cosmic to the Domestic, which has just opened at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver.

The photograph was in fact taken by Man Ray in 1920 in Duchamp’s New York studio, a close-up of dust that had accumulated on a sheet of glass lying on sawhorses.

“Since it was to be a long exposure, I opened the shutter and we went out to eat something, returning about an hour later when I closed the shutter,” Man Ray wrote in his memoir.

It was one of two images Man Ray took with him when he left for Paris in 1921, according to Campany’s accompanying catalogue. (In a stroke of genius, there are two catalogues: one with the text, and one just with the images, so you can immerse yourself in the actual photographs without any text to distract you.)

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A woman photographed writing on a table after the Kansas dust storm in 1935.Courtesy of The Polygon Gallery

Then in 1964, the photo was signed by both Man Ray and Duchamp and given a new title, Dust Breeding. As for the glass, it would become part of Duchamp’s seminal work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even (1915-1923). It is also often referred to as Duchamp’s Large Glass.

In the exhibition, Campany, one of the world’s foremost voices on photography, poses the question: “What if that strange photograph, taken so long ago, really does signal the dawn of the modern age, with all its complications?”

It certainly makes a case for photography as being so much more than the faithful capturing of an image – which relates to the anxiety Man Ray was feeling when he took that photo; he was distressed about having to accept work taking straight photographs of other people’s artworks in order to earn an income.

The show, which debuted in Paris, followed by shows in New York, London and California, takes Dust Breeding as a starting point and presents a wide range of works that connect in some way to dust. There’s Canadian photographer Scott McFarland’s lens-cleaning series that visitors encounter first; each photograph is enclosed in its frame with actual detritus from his camera. (These works are unique to the Polygon’s presentation of the show.)

There’s the seminal photographic book Royal Road Test: the documenting of an experiment by Edward Ruscha with Mason Williams and Patrick Blackwell, who in the 1960s took a Royal typewriter out to the desert and ran over it with a speeding Buick, documenting it all. Campany has also installed every page from Gerhard Richter’s publication 128 Photographs of a Painting.

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A dramatic 1940 photo of men casually browsing at the Holland House library in London after an air raid.Courtesy of The Polygon Gallery

The show includes works by other masters such as Walker Evans and Jeff Wall, but also many stop-and-stare works by unknown photographers. They include a dramatic 1940 photo of men casually browsing at the Holland House library in London after an air raid. There are spectacular postcards of scenes of dust storms in the United States that Campany found on eBay. There is a photograph of Benito Mussolini’s car taken by a journalist in Milan 10 years after Mussolini’s death. The car is covered in dust; the photographer is unknown.

The Canadian photographer Robert Burley has captured in vivid colour – on Kodak film – the implosion of two Kodak buildings in Rochester, N.Y., in 2007. Your eye is drawn not so much to the mountains of dust kicked up by the implosion in the background as it is to a blurred woman in the foreground. Dressed in black and white and smiling, she is walking away from the action, on the move.

The show also includes an iconic colour photograph by Jeff Mermelstein that at first glance appears to be black and white. Taken on Sept. 11, 2001, near Wall Street, it shows Seward Johnson’s 1982 bronze statue Double Check – a businessman and his briefcase – covered in dust and debris, resembling many of the actual people fleeing the deadly scene that day.

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A photograph of Seward Johnson’s 1982 bronze statue Double Check – a businessman and his briefcase – covered in dust and debris, taken on Sept. 11, 2001, near Wall Street.Jeff Mermelstein/Courtesy of The Polygon Gallery

The final work in the photo galleries is a large work by the French artist Sophie Ristelhueber taken from the air over Kuwait just after the 1991 Gulf War and printed in 2007. The similarities to the Duchamp/Man Ray dust photo are so striking that she initially left it out of the resulting project, because it looked too obvious. She later printed it and titled it Because of dust breeding.

So much elegant work, as Campany noted as the show was being installed, about dust. There is a lot to be wowed by, but even more to sift through intellectually. If dust is something undesirable, something we seek to eliminate, it is also a record of something that was – perhaps something critically important.

a Handful of Dust: From the Cosmic to the Domestic is at the Polygon Gallery in North Vancouver until April 28).

Editor’s note: Feb. 12, 2019: A photo credit in a previous version of this article incorrectly attributed a photo to Man Ray. It should have been attributed to Louise Oates.

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