Friday, December 31, 2010

Pure Abstraction vs. The E-col-con-ogical-omic Implications of Raw Subject Matter

I've written before about Brett Weston's work here, on August 13 2009. Weston, the son of Edward Weston, literally grew up surrounded by cameras and the production of images, and I think it's safe to say that his ability and emotional development as a photographer happened in so natural and "inevitable" a way that he probably never had to project an intellectual foundation for his approach to subject matter and choice of image. When faced with the challenge of describing his work habits or the meaning of his work, he chose to let others do this, or to let another art (i.e., poetry) stand for his "explanation" of what his art signified. This "intuitive" or "naive" stance is not uncommon. Harry Callahan was often thought of as a "naive" genius, for whom words and thought were unnecessary; and, in Hemingway's case, critical thinking seems to have constituted a metaphysical threat to his identity and function as a creative writer. "I don't know what it means, but I know what I like."

Brett photographed all over the world during his life, but he was never averse to discovering subjects that just happened to catch his eye, whatever their relative "importance"--his interest in abstraction led him to take exposures in all kinds of unlikely places. He could turn out the most dramatic big landscapes, like his father or Adams could, but he didn't limit himself to "classic" views and certified "scenes." This is nowhere more apparent than in his textural studies of ice, glass, metal, tar, lava, building materials, sand--stuff which he called "elegant gorp." Gorp might resolve itself into a composition in any circumstance. The image below is of a road cut, a newly paved segment of highway somewhere in the American West, probably in California. It's about as unprepossessing a "subject" as any serious photographer could think of as pure art, or pure abstraction. Highways are usually considered aesthetically "ugly" or drab or empty. Asphalt, or gravel mixed with bitumen, is particularly unpleasant to be on, especially in warm weather, when it becomes soft, even sticky--especially when it's fresh. As paving for vehicles, though, it's ideal.

Highway engineers tend to prefer straight lines, and if they're presented with barriers between two respective points, they usually want to push straight through the landscape, obliterating obstacles by cutting them down, or cutting through them, instead of paying the price in materials, cost, and efficiency by going around. This example of the "roadbuilder's art" is transformed in the eye of the photographer into a stunning abstraction of dramatic perspective, its mathematical efficiency a testament both to a human determination to lay down a straight vector of transport, and to the destructive effect of man's manipulation of the environment--like a slice through the organic contour of the earth. Questions about the destination of such a ribbon of desire through an otherwise "empty" landscape seem secondary to the isolated appropriation of form that is the abstractionist's first priority--to make a powerful image, without immediate reference to the ulterior purpose or utility of the matter itself.

Flat representation of the environment which implies depth (of field), but which presents an absorbing two-dimensional design within the confines of its frame (in this case, a horizontal rectangle), may serve multiple vantages of regard. The post-Modernist Robert Adams has built a reputation, taking degraded and depleted American landscapes with large format equipment; his images often are as "ugly" as they are compelling visually. The irony of abstraction is that it may indeed present a chaotic scene in such a way that we simultaneously luxuriate in, and revile, what we are presented with. This seems one of contemporary photography's primary post-Modern tropes, the ambiguity of man's effect on the environment. Among the various contrary traditions in the history of the medium has been the production of idealized views. The intersection of "scenic" with documentary styles has led to a de-naturing of the positive assumptions about notions of memorable recordation and celebration.

The decadence of the romanticization of the West in the American imagination has evolved into an elegiac despair, in which the accuracy of our vision is a testament not to our joy in finding beauty (the beauty of unspoiled nature)--which is rapidly being eroded and degraded through exploitation and development--but has led, finally, to an indignant and grim despair at the approach of a coming waste land of over-use and mindless growth. Photography has been used to document the horrors of war, the suffering of child-labor, human degradation, and so on. We've learned to look at stunning views of things, fascinating and eerily lush, even hypnotic, while knowing that what we're looking at is a rape of the landscape, perpetrated for economic gain, or personal gratification.

Brett Weston's career began well before the advent of this kind of aesthetic thinking even began to be imagined. In the California, or Mexico of his childhood and youth, the world seemed much less spoiled and crowded and poisoned than it would eventually become. Coastal aspects, for instance, were largely open and unrestricted. This "open country" illusion was central to the implied aesthetic of the first and second waves of serious photographers who explored the great expanses of the North American continent in the late 19th--and first of half of the 20th--Century. Brett's adaptation of the abstractionist's interest in pure form is a transitional stage between the regard for landscape as picturesque, friendly and heroic phenomena, and our present sense of nature not only as a casualty of our rapacious expansionist practices, but as a deeper realization that the universe may not, on balance, be a friendly place after all. The first pictures of the atomic bomb, and the photos of earth taken from space, or on the empty, airless surface of the moon, would have confirmed that. Inert matter does not "care" whether we exist or not. And life is a struggle amongst competitors. The fragile ecological balance which existed for countless centuries before the rapid explosion of human activity on the planet, has already been irrevocably mismanaged and distorted. The ultimate photographic act may be as documentation of the last stages of our existence, though for what purpose such a record might be created would seem moot. Maybe by seeing truly, without the deliberate distortions of wishful thinking, we may confront the obvious catastrophe before it's too late.

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