Thursday, January 27, 2011

Howard Bond's Abscapes & Landstracts

The word resolution has a lovely combination of meanings: When something is resolved, it achieves a completion, a wholeness, which is at rest, peaceful, balanced, timeless. The other meaning applies to focus: an image is resolved when the lens through which it is being perceived reaches its maximum degree of clarity, so that, throughout its depth of field, every detail and edge is accurately reported. A great photograph may exhibit both of these senses of resolution, becoming aesthetically and technically resolved. A third sense, that of a deliberate assertion, as in "we resolve" to do or think something, may precede the other two senses: the photographer resolves to capture what his imagination (or eye) may be telling him.

Desire and love and craft and labor and luck and inspiration all play a part in the photographic process, and each step of the enterprise is required to make great imagery. Howard Bond has all these gifts, and his work is a masterful record of his success as a photographer of power and delicacy. One wants to reflect on the range of prints that Bond presents, but beyond a certain point, the only appropriate response is silence. The mind stops before a vision that is self-explanatory, we know, on some intuitive level, what is occurring, but words seem inadequate to elaborate on the constituent parts out of which the whole is made. There must be some secret beneath the circuit-board. It's too obvious, or too finished, too complete. It needs nothing, requires nothing. It is whole, balanced, resolved. But not all resolutions are static. An image may signify movement, or disharmony, and still furnish a resolution of a principle.

What Howard Bond gives us are not dead scenes, but a formal purity and clarity that allow us to see completely through to the very surface of resolution. This is what it looks like, this is what matter and the four tempers and the music of the spheres and the golden section and the ultimate formula look like.

Bond's images may be classically framed, as in this zig-zag freshet, its frothy mesh glowing at our metaphorical feet. The damp air is almost palpable through the delicately crisp edge of forest in the background.

Waves are like the ocean's cyclical respiration, the slow intake (pause), followed by the pressured exhalation, a sublimation of matter dashed against an obdurate resistance. Contrast between the the fixed immutable rock, and the tempestuous waves--forces played out in a chosen moment of impact. States in collision. And the jagged upthrust of dark shapes forms a perfect dialectic of intersecting vectors, beyond which the larger profile of the landscape resolves.

These white trees might suggest pure ice, a wintry presence devoid of life, crystalline perfection frozen into stillness, slender arterial elaborations caught, fixed.

The sense of deep space is one of photography's great qualities, especially when the framing device isn't simply the rectangular edges of the negative. Here, the arrangement of rocks is like a natural window which leads the viewer's eye out into the distance. The rocks also tend to unsettle our vantage, as if our vision, hovering like a bird on a towering outcrop, had no limits. One feels a great sense of freedom, which seems very much the point of such a picture.

Bond has traveled in the Mediterranean, particularly in Greece, and he published a whole book--White Motif*--devoted to his abstract studies of the whitewashed architecture there. My favorite is this one--these steps seem to float in insubstantiality--

The values of the original print, of course, are much more subtle and diaphanous than this reproduction is. Nevertheless, the feeling of a miraculous ascent is undeniable. The free appropriation of geometric shapes from architectural structure is one of the glories of Abstract Expressionism, and our thinking about such designs seems inherently modern.

Here, two different studies of the same structure, show how convergence and the interplay of voids with solid masses creates august, almost glowering monumentality. Diagonals and steep verticals have their own particular language--a commonplace in aesthetic discourse.

Similarly, religious iconography may inspire us in purely aesthetic ways, without regard to the meaning or underlying significance of the symbology.

It's also interesting how pictures of different phenomena may, in effect, be reports of the same thing visually:

To my eye, these images are formally similar--each is a kind of expanding fog or inflorescence of white emerging from a darker background. The properties of each kind of matter (cloud, whorl of petals) are expressed as an expansion from a distant vanishing point (stem, horizon-line). In a similar way, undulating lines may "say" the same thing in different material formations:

These striations or parallel meandering ribbons of shape express forces of nature on the one hand, and man's manipulation of matter (metal) on the other, though visually they're cognates. Here's another example of the same principle:

Are these examples of nature imitating art, or the other way around? The veins of the leaf carry the nutrients of the plant juices, but they're also reinforcing ganglia holding the leaf's shape in space. In a different way, the heavy lattice-work on the ceiling of this church is both decorative, but not strictly functional.

How light behaves under certain conditions is always fascinating, and sometimes deceptive, telling us the "same thing" about completely different objects or surfaces. The white edge-trim of these petals (or leaves?) below seems very similar to the light edges of the inert rounded shapes in the other image, those it isn't at all the same material. Translucence in once instances, hard reflectivity in the other. Light is absorbed or reflected in differing measures, which translates into our visual assumptions about density and resilience.

We may think of pictures as kinds of stages of view, and framing may imply a literal proscenium, as here--

We may be looking into something at the same time we're looking at it. The distinction becomes more important in photography than in painting, where the freedom to alter and appropriate views is not a literal issue. Cameras can't go everywhere, hence are subject to the limitation of vantage. The camera is more precisely an extension of the body (and eye) than a collection of brushstrokes on a canvas.

But Bond doesn't ask us to make these huge metaphysical leaps of apprehension. He's a traditional image-maker with an eye for total compositional accuracy, and impressive control. He hides his accidents, and lets the photograph speak for itself.

I'm very fond of this image taken in Austria. It suggests a sort of Medieval figure in chain mail, helmet pushed down over his eyes, surveying his view. Also, the "weight" of the tower clearly depresses the roof structure, ramifying our sense of its mass and presence. It's a powerful composition--and totally composed from (imposed upon) what must be a much larger structure.

Anthropomorphic assignments usually seem hokey to me, but there's almost a feeling of agency in this great trunk below. The patient, powerful, thrust of vital force is undeniable. Muscular, deliberate, insistent.

I spoke briefly with Mr. Bond yesterday on the phone; we'd spoken once, years before, when I called him to inquire about obtaining a copy of his first self-published monograph: Light Motifs [Ann Arbor, MI, Goodrich Press, 1984].* He's turning 80 this year, and is still making prints, but no longer teaches the workshops he's held for decades. He's just completed putting up his own website, here. Be among the first to visit it!


* His second published monograph, White Motif: The Cyclades Islands of Greece [Goodrich Press, 1991] is also still generally available on the market.

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