Thursday, November 25, 2010

Kiewit's Gone to Sanctuary - the Book as Image

Reproductions of images are not the original things in themselves. The medium of any craft or representation or artifact is the prefiguration of the ultimate meaning of the finished product--the aesthetic event in its apprehension. We can't help contextualizing or framing any kind of content, through the terms of its presentation. Any original painting, photograph, sculpture, piece of clothing, furniture, building, text, music, body movement, etc., is inevitably perceived within this pre-conceptual frame (which includes the mental presets of the viewer herself).

I raise this issue of framing in connection with the issue of photographic books. In the history of photography as a medium, individual original prints have always formed the first level of the realization of a work. With the onset of digital printing mechanisms (computer printers), this process has become increasingly efficient. Various emulsions have been employed since the inception of photographic technology (silver prints, platinum prints, and several other kinds), to capture the focused image which the inter-positioned lens facilitates.

But the technology of reproducing imagery in books has followed a slightly different, though parallel development, which has included photogravure, and various offset processes, etc.). The onset of digital image reproduction technology has made possible a new level of precision and sophistication of image reproduction, rivaling the exacting qualities and effects possible from the most meticulous employment of the processes which preceded the digital techniques now in general use.

Portfolios of original prints, created by whatever process, offer the opportunity to sequence and cluster groups of images, to create larger meanings out of related or varied subject matter. Thematic monographs of imagery may simply be samplings of the images of a single artist, or groups of artists working along similar lines, or images selected across multifarious spectrums of purpose. The growth and development of directed or themed texts and images has followed in the steps of photography all along its history. Photography as a fine art has received the same kinds of treatment in book artifact commoditization as traditional fine art. Photography books have a whole sphere of documentary potential which is much greater than that offered, for the most part, by mere plastic art representation. This documentary function has been dramatically expanded over the last century, but the single artist monograph has continued to offer opportunities to define the work of individual photographers of all persuasions.

Color photographic production and reproduction has benefitted from the increasing sophistication of print and printing technologies. In just a little over half a century, color reproduction has been completely transformed, and highly sophisticated color imagery is now available to almost anyone, without the necessity of relying upon a proprietary laboratory, or a messy processing set-up.

Are books of images, made from the highly sophisticated digital technology of the book printing industry, a rough equivalent of the original image prints (or image data files if created from digital technology) upon which they are based? The answer, of course, is an aesthetic question of major proportions. Images in books are a second tier of image reproduction, which further tends to dilute the sense of the value and originality of the inception of the moment of exposure. This moment exists first in the mind of the artist, and the sequence of realizations of this moment forms the hierarchy of the adaptations, comprised of the successive steps taken to achieve the end-point image surface.

Is it possible to achieve an aesthetic exclusively out of books, leap-frogging over the intermediate processes of generating individual images, to circumvent the historically necessary steps? Of course it is.

I don't know the details of the career of photographer John S. Kiewit, other than what bare facts are provided in the book shown below, Gone to Sanctuary: From the Sins of Confusion [Santa Barbara: Capra Press, 1997]. No technical information is provided about what format Kiewit employed, or what process was used to reproduce them in this book. "The John S. Kiewit Collection contains more than 10,000 color and black/white prints, color slides, and black/white negatives, taken from about 1968 to 2000."--from the University of California, Santa Barbara Special Collections website, where Kiewit's image archive resides. Born in 1948, Kiewit died in 2000. Primarily a landscape photographer, to judge by the file categories listed on the UCSB site, Kiewit traveled to Central America, New Zealand, Cook Island, and throughout the American West and Southwest, in search of subject matter, spending much of his life camping in the outback. Nothing is mentioned about any commercial applications of his work.

Kiewit's book is typical in some respects to the kind of color monograph with which we have all become familiar, but it has important differences from the usual format. The book contains 120 of Kiewit's images, eight of them in black and white, the rest in color. The page size is 10 1/2" x 10 1/8"--a nearly square, barely oblong format. Rather than using the whole page surface, most of the images measure 7" x 4 1/2" (or 5 1/2"), which is very nearly a "large" postcard size. All the images possess an extraordinary clarity, and freshness of color palette. There are only four portraits, the balance of the pictures devoted to landscape, landscape details, or architecture. Each image is accompanied by a facing page of text (preceding verso) chosen from among a wide reading of classic texts, as well as entries from Kiewit's private journal.

On one level, the variety and distinct occasions of each image suggest a kind of travel-logue, not unlike the Koda-Color record which millions of ordinary citizens have been taking and making over the last 50 years. On another level, the image choices and kinds (ways) of seeing are very typical of the color landscape tropes which have characterized both art and popular photography since Weston, Adams, Porter, and a host of other pioneer figures began to establish what we now think of as the body of accepted (and acceptable) artistic-photographic work. In other words, the work's interest lies neither in the originality of its craft, nor in its exploitation of different approaches to framing. What distinguishes Gone to Sanctuary from other typical color landscape monographs is its almost complete lack of pretension, as well as the discrete separateness, clarity, unity and conviction of each image. The images, as arranged in the book's sequence, don't build or accrete in effect, but remain isolated within the contexts of each picture's occasion. There is, then, an overall impression of lonely instances, mostly unpeopled, with a mood of abandonment and calm remoteness.

Of course, this is no accident, but it would be wrong to imply that there is no sensuality or delight to be found. Some of the images have subtly caught textures, the kind one might miss, but many, too, are bright, eye-catching, colorful objects, appearing with surprise in an otherwise unremarkable context. One could say, with some justice, that here are 120 different ways of thinking through a camera lens, given the great range of their pictorial structure. Other than the eight monochromatic images, color and composition (as separate dimensions) don't compete with one another, because the colors are completely integrated into the potential apprehension of each instance. The red siding of a barn (seen in Lowell, Oregon) isn't an exercise in the color red, but a study of the material appropriation of a simple combination of substances in the real world--an important difference. David Muench, for instance, often will choose to exaggerate not only the relationship among objects in a natural landscape (through the "creative" use of super-wide lenses, on occasion), but through the manipulation of an otherwise rational, natural color range, achieved through distortions, in the studio. This is clearly not a part of Kiewit's aesthetic.

The conceptual "miniaturization" of the images here I also find extraordinarily attractive. The tendency has traditionally been to expand and raise the ante of scale, as if larger--particularly with landscape work--were always to be preferred. But an intensely seen 35 mm print, even (or especially) in color, can offer more pleasure than a wall-sized print. Books, after all, are meant to be held in the hand, or (with coffee-table formats) placed on one's lap, or on a table. It's a medium that defines the limit of its occasion. In a gallery, patrons or viewers will stand, between 50 feet and 2 feet away, and move back and forth in front of a mounted image. But in a book, images are seen at close range, and can be riffled and compared and cross-linked quickly, unlike the casual progress one makes through a museum or gallery space.

One can't be sure, but my intuition is that Kiewit intended this sequence of images, selected from over a thirty-two year span of time, to be considered in the intimate context of a private reading, which the facing quotations, complementing each image, reenforce.

No matter how many images from the collection I were to display here, there could always be more, because the total affect is magnified by each additional plate included. Every image is different, and has something unique about it. Mostly, they are quiet, contemplative, relaxed, and suggest a modest bearing. In the color landscape business, this is atypical. The temptation is always to go for prurient aggrandizement, rather than for subtle effects, or straightforward, "normal" lens-length compositions.

Kiewit, to judge by the images here, strove for a unified, balanced presentation, unintimidated by the horizon line, comfortable to allow the subject to define itself, rather than to impose an odd angle or an exclusive cropping upon a plain view.

Color may be delicate and feathery in the aggregate, as in the grassy slopes above, where the value of the tones is in their subtlety and shading. The strength of a personal colorist vision may reside in the incremental apprehension of shades in a "flat" field. Loud contrasts and splashes of pastel command immediate reactions, but how much do such impressions tell us about the unique vision of a photographer?

Tawny or weathered tones are almost always more "natural" in nature, and the steady decay of the color of objects out of doors produces a complexity, a rich logarithm of variation whose beauty we may not always "see" at first, but which we come to recognize as a characterization of specific terrain, of eco-logical systems in process.

Kiewit was only 52 when he died, but the record he left--of which this book is only a singular segment--is ample evidence of the purpose of his passage through the world. His life was a search, and the evidence of his discoveries is in his images. But lots of artists (and photographers) share that privilege. Kiewit's Gone to Sanctuary is a special book, which departs from the expected clich├ęs of the color monograph in interesting, intriguing, original ways. A kind of hybrid of the "environmental" propaganda-piece, composed equally of technically perfect realizations and thoughtful framing; and an ode to the passing of a landscape quickly disappearing underneath suburban sprawl, and accelerated resource exploitations.


Kirby Olson said...

Oh wait this is Kinnell. I get a lot of people confused. I was never able to read either one except in a cursory manner. I don't know why.

Is it the lack of a sense of humor. All the poets who don't have a sense of humor sound the same to me.

As soon as they have a sense of humor they become quite individual to me.

The difference between Lear and Carroll, and between Corso and Codrescu, strike me as worth thinking about.

Without a sense of humor, oatmeal or whatever else just sits there like a lump in my stomach: the same dull and inedible mash of indigestible ook.

(I could never take Milton, either.)

Curtis Faville said...

Well, it's better than eating a caul!