The split-second precision of Adam Ekberg's 'Minor Spectacles' at the Eastman Museum 

click to enlarge The one-man show "Minor Spectacles" by photographer Adam Ekberg runs through Sept. 6 at the George Eastman Museum. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • The one-man show "Minor Spectacles" by photographer Adam Ekberg runs through Sept. 6 at the George Eastman Museum.
Every now and then you’ll be the sole spectator of something astonishing, and if you didn’t record it, you’ll be left trying to prove it to someone. Video, or it didn’t happen.

New Jersey-based photographer Adam Ekberg plays in this blink-and-you'll-miss-it territory with his one-man show, “Minor Spectacles,” now on view at George Eastman Museum’s Project Gallery.

Ekberg’s funny little pictures simulate odd phenomena with the perfect-timing-and-alignment precision of a Rube Goldberg machine.

“I make photographs of things that I make happen in the world,” Ekberg says in a video that plays at the show.

click to enlarge "A Minor Shelter" by Adam Ekberg. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • "A Minor Shelter" by Adam Ekberg.
In “Occurrence #2,” milk explodes upward from a glass on a kitchen table, the liquid’s weightlessness presumably captured the moment after an object was dropped into the glass. In “A Minor Shelter,” a stream of milk arcs from a pierced jug onto a paper umbrella protecting the flame of a lighter, which is kept lit by the umbrella’s stick wedged to hold the button down.

Other images are less whimsical and more witchy, like “Burning Skull,” featuring a cow’s cranium ablaze on a sand dune.

Ekberg says he only has two parameters for creating the images: he needs to capture the occurrence at just the right moment, and there is zero digital manipulation. Ekberg admits this often requires a lot of trial and error.

“Whatever transpires in the blink of an eye can be either a minor occurrence or a great spectacle, depending on our perception of that event,” reads the curatorial text to the show. “What happens when we are the sole witness to an event?”
click to enlarge "Occurence No. 2 by Adam Ekberg. - PHOTO PROVIDED
  • "Occurence No. 2 by Adam Ekberg.
What happens is we either make our own meaning, or shrug and get on with our lives.

“When people see my work, I hope it’s an offering, and I hope it meets them where they’re at,” Ekberg says in the video. “I’m following my own personal rabbit hole to the bottom.”

Ekberg found his rabbit hole shortly after he moved to Chicago for graduate school from Maine, where he had been taking care of people with HIV and AIDS. During that time, he witnessed several documentaries get made about the residents that he felt didn’t quite capture the experience of being with someone at the end of their life.

“And so I drove back to Maine, and with the help of a friend we went up a mountain at dusk and took a picture of a disco ball radiating light throughout the woods,” Ekberg said.

Producing the image involved lugging a car battery, power inverter, and smoke machine to the site. To Ekberg, staging this strange, symbolic event represented the experience of facilitating end-of-life care better than photographing a dying resident.

The resulting image is quietly arresting. Sparkling light dances over the blue-shadowed snow drifts. From skeletal limbs hangs a globe of mirrors emitting beams of light, like the last pulses of an earth-bound quasar.

Not every Ekberg image is so profound, nor is it meant to be. There’s a lot of subtle, silly tension in the balancing acts of stacked objects, or the orchestration of a light beam bouncing between mirrors in a door frame, or tilting dominoes on the brink of toppling.

“Minor Spectacles” continues through Sept. 6. Adam Ekberg will give a talk at the museum at 6 p.m. on April 4.

Rebecca Rafferty is CITY's life editor. She can be reached at [email protected].

CORRECTION 3.31.23: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the artist, Adam Ekberg, in photo captions and the headline.
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