In my experience, meaningful interactions with place — be they big or small moments, in the heart of the city or in wilderness — almost always involve an awareness of my body’s reaction to the site’s physical and spatial qualities. Certain encounters, like stepping to the edge of the Grand Canyon as a young child, or my first time skateboarding through downtown Chicago traffic, exist in my memory as a complete reorienting of my body in relation to the space of the world. It’s like being overwhelmed by a powerful wave while body surfing. While photography is well suited to showing, with great precision, the visual details of a place, it is less successful at conveying the material qualities of a place and the physical sensation of being there.
Even on a purely visual level, a photograph does not capture the perceptual experience of moving through place in space and time, where shifting positions and attentions create a space of fluidly connected fragments. The space of a photograph, taken from a single, monocular vantage point, is isolated unto itself. When it’s done well, this can be deeply immersive and compelling. And yet, too often photography constructs an idea of place that, despite the appearance of being real, only serves to further separate us from reality.
The artists presented here investigate the materiality of the landscape, the complexity of perceptual experience, and the relationship between our physical and mental experiences of place.
Matthew Brandt, a young artist from Los Angeles, makes photographic work that is concerned with the physical process of its making, and the relation between that process and the image. For his series Lakes and Reservoirs, he has created traditional, large-scale color photographs of bodies of water, predominantly in the American West, then soaked each print in water taken from the place it pictures. The chemistry of the lake water interacts with each photograph in a slightly different way, altering colors, bleaching and distorting the image, at times all but dissolving it. Forced into literal contact with a physical element of the landscape it represents, the image is transformed, creating a hybrid space somewhere between photographic representation and physical experience.
Chris McCaw, who lives and works in San Francisco, is also interested in the material production of the photographic image, having specialized for a number of years in platinum printing and other photographic processes that use hand mixed and coated emulsions. The work he is best known for, his Sunburn series, uses standard black and white photo paper in such a way that the print becomes an artifact of its own exposure. McCaw uses extremely large format cameras, most of which are homemade, and exposes large sheets of photographic paper directly in camera, eliminating both negative and enlarger from the process of making a print. In exposures often lasting hours, the sun literally burns the arc of its travel into the photo paper, leaving a void within the image that it has helped to create. Because of a trait of the silver-gelatin paper that he uses — appropriately known as solarization — the tones of the image revert from negative to positive with extended overexposure, creating a realistic but ghostly image of the landscape. This image, however, is overwhelmed by the material fact of the print testifying to the elemental power of the sun.
William Lamson has also used the sun’s power in his work. Lamson, an artist based in New York, makes sculptural installations and performative interventions directly in the landscape. Some of his works, such as his recent installation “Solarium” — a greenhouse-like structure featuring panes of glass embedded with amber-colored, carmelized sugar — at the Storm King Art Center in New York, are meant to be experienced directly, but many of his works take the form of video or photographic documentation of his constructions and interventions. “A Line Describing the Sun” shows Lamson methodically pushing a makeshift cart carefully across a dry lakebed in the Mojave Desert. The cart holds a large Fresnel lens, which focuses the sun’s rays to a point on the ground, burning and melting the earth as it passes slowly by. Over the course of the day, Lamson and his machine burn an arc, following the sun, across the playa. Like McCaw, he draws attention to the elemental power of the sun, but Lamson also alludes to the technological harnessing of nature’s power — I can’t but think of the glassified desert sands of the Trinity nuclear test site. In “An Action for the Delaware,” we see Lamson floating down the river, seeming to stand, unsupported, on the surface of the water. The video then cuts to reveal the piece of home-crafted technology that has enabled such apparent magic. Lamson’s work combines the Romantic notion of a lone individual confronting the wilderness with the modern industrial notion of technological domination, while slyly undercutting both by pointing to the futility and improvisation inherent in each undertaking.
Mieke Woestenburg is a Dutch artist who pushes photography past its monocular limitations to create a perceptually nuanced rendition of space that is more aligned with subjective experience. Her subject matter is the built environment, specifically the suburban apartment blocks and urban outskirts of Soviet-influenced socialist regimes. Even such over-determined, site-blind architecture as this — the foliage is the only element that truly distinguishes photographs taken in the former East Germany from those those taken in Tanzania — reveals a certain complexity, even richness, when seen in this fragmented, experiential manner. This complexity arises not from the place itself, but from our interaction with it. Woestenburg’s work shows that it is our experience and use of a place that gives it meaning.