February 7: American photography already gets plenty of airtime so in all fairness I tend to concentrate on that of other countries. On this occasion two exhibitions by American photographers demand attention.
One, Notes sur l’asphalte, une Amérique mobile et précaire, 1950-1990 is the first exhibition in a cycle devoted to American art, can be seen in a preview tonight 6-8pm at Le Pavilion Populaire, Esplanade Charles de Gaulle, Montpellier, in the south of France. The other, Dark City: Photographs by Lynn Saville, opens today at the Griffin Museum of Photography Atelier Gallery, 67 Shore Road, Winchester in Massachusetts in the USA with an opening reception upcoming, March 21, from 6:30 – 8:30 p.m.
The country that gave us Jacques Tati’s Trafic is best qualified to give us perspective on America’s obsession with the automobile.
The exhibitors in Notes sur l’asphalte, Donald Appleyard (1928-1982), John Brinckerhoff Jackson (1909-1996), Allan Jacobs (*1928), Chester Liebs, Richard Longstreth (*1946) and David Lowenthal (*1923) are all university researchers with reputations in the fields of architecture, town planning and landscape.
Each used documentary photography as a research tool; aesthetics not being their priority, five of the six used colour photography for its added data in an age when black and white was the convention amongst art photographers.
Their attention is on the idea of mobility in the ordinary landscape of roadside America; places and spaces so familiar that we have trouble actually seeing them; the precariousness of habitats; the effects of traffic upon the lives of local residents; the physical characteristics of cities as fulfilling and joyful places to live; how to manage traffic in residential areas; conservation of neighbourhoods, the vernacular planning and construction of working-class neighbourhoods; or the plethora of advertisements seen over the dashboard.
All of these explorations took advantage of the photographic record made by the researchers themselves.
They are joined by the until recently little known American documentary and street photographer William Gedney (1932-1989). He is most remembered for his series of rural Kentucky, and series on India, San Francisco and New York shot in 1960s and 1970s.
Gedney stayed with eastern Kentucky families in 1964 and again in 1972 in a project similar to that of Walker Evans and James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men.
His laconic photographs reveal the penetration of the cult of the car into these isolated areas; few of the subjects are seen driving, but the car is clearly a pivotal part of their lives, a power symbol as much cherished as their guns, which also appear regularly amongst these images alongside quite tender family studies.
Notes sur l’asphalte, une Amérique mobile et précaire, 1950-1990 will provide a timely, penetrating and objective view of the American subject by thinking Americans.
Lynn Saville’s photographs of “dark cities” are consistently empty of people, but light and shadow invade the architecture with their psychology.
She describes a desire to document buildings and places that have undergone urban decay and renewal in recent years, “to pursue this contrast between aesthetic perception and the subtext of economic distress, a contrast that evoked a disquieting beauty.”
The first thing that is apparent in Saville’s night photographs is the abundance of light. These photographs are taken in the night, yes, but there is little risk of underexposure. In Paris de Nuit by Brassai or in any of the even earlier pictures by his teacher of nocturnal image-making, Andre Kertesz, the streets are lit only by the occasional gas lamp or by the photographer’s flash.
Van Dyke Street, at the Statue of Liberty end of a dockside warehouse row in Brooklyn, by contrast, is flooded with light so strong it is easy for a moment to mistake it for sunlight were it not for the black detail-less shadows.
Certainly there is beauty here, the seductive beauty of colour contrasts, between the ruby of the window and what may be crepuscular sky, but which as easily could be lit by the city beyond. The white balance is keyed to the street light that casts its glare over this neglected scene. Tufts of grass and weeds grow in the seepage around the parking sign that also dampens the seams of the forsaken building.
Soon to return to polish the cobblestones and tar is the traffic, the subject matter of the more than 200 photographs in Notes sur l’asphalte, une Amérique mobile et précaire, 1950-1990.
It is possible to track down the sites of Saville’s photographs on Google Maps which confirms the added aesthetic value of shooting at night.
Its hard to say which was shot earlier, as it is only the grass and the damage to the parking sign, that and the rather prophetically ironic graffiti, which provide clues that Google’s capture of 2013 comes latest. Saville’s is quite understandably a long-term project.
A comparison on the universal search engine of these mundane ‘no-places’ in warehouse precincts with Saville’s reveals the effect of the accidental theatrics of street lighting modulated through her selection of viewpoint and exposure which transforms them.
Not all of her subjects are in low-rent areas. E.W. Bliss Machine Works building occupies the whole block between Plymouth, John, Adams and Pearl in DUMBO (acronym for Down Under the Manhattan Bridge) in Brooklyn, where Eliphalet Bliss manufactured machines, tools, presses, dies, and sheet metal cans, used for kerosene and paint, on a stamping machine of his own invention. Now it provides upmarket apartments for go-ahead tech and arts professionals.
However the contents of the building are hidden from us and its shell, a foreboding relic of the industrial age is all that registers to Saville’s camera. These are not architectural photographs and nor are they concerned with the buildings themselves.
The astonishing chevron of cadaverous green light that sweeps across the corner facades must come from the Manhattan Bridge pylon overhead. Against the deep indigo of the sky, brick and stone become copper patinated with an otherworldly glow. We read ‘Waring’ and register ‘Warning’; against ‘Envelope’ this becomes sinister.
Photographing where she does, often near bodies of water, or in the mist and rain, Saville embraces its ethereal, wreathing, reflective qualities to hint at a pervading disquiet about her subject.
Poet Philip Fried is her partner, and the photograph above is the cover for his anthology Interrogating Water (publ. 2014, Salmon Poetry).
It is the poem of the book title that encapsulates this disquiet, one shared by this couple and many in the world now, about America and what stands for. Fried’s poem contains instructions that seem to have been transcribed from a Boys Own Annual; “You can perform this at home with simple materials. All you need is a battery, two no. 2 pencils, salt, thin cardboard, electrical wire, a glass …” but somehow the language is corrupted to threaten violation, coercion, cutting, and penetration. Interleaved with these commands are verses about qualities of water that only the interrogator’s paranoia can detect;
Water, a non-state actor,
flows secretly over borders,
gathers in pools, conspires
with bacteria and mosquitoes
We read thirteen days ago on January 25 this year;”President Donald Trump is asking for a review of America’s methods for interrogating terror suspects and the possible reopening of CIA-run “black site” prisons outside the United States, according to a draft executive order obtained by The Associated Press.”
Yes, Lynn Saville’s photographs of “dark cities” are consistently empty of people, but shadow invades the architecture with their psychology.
Lynn Saville’s press release informs us that she published several books herself including her most recent; Dark City: Urban America at Night (2015) which features the content of this show, and that she will also be teaching a workshop at the Griffin Museum.