Monday, September 15, 2003

The tapestry of circumstance is intricate and dense.
Ants stitching in the grass.
The grass sewn into the ground.
The pattern of a wave being needled by a twig.
When I see such things, I'm no longer sure
that what's important
is more important than what's not.
-- "No Title Required", Wislawa Szymborska

Scratched, punctured, bruised, and oozing -- such is the land as seen from above in Emmet Gowin's "Changing the Earth" series. In sepia photographs taken mainly during the 1990s in the U.S. and abroad, Gowin plunges the lens downward to record scapes scarred by large-scale nuclear and chemical experiments turned ecological disasters. The images are somber and unsettling, as well as magnificent and serene. Abstracted destruction and malady are paradoxically, guiltily comely and entrancing. Bodies of water, fields, and desert -- fiddled with, maimed and abandoned -- expose gaping wounds and parched derma. Fissures and sores masquerade as innocuous dents and dimples. Cavities, chasms, and other concentric figures hide spreading and pulsating cancerous growths.

"Aeration Pond, Toxic Treatment Facility, Pine Bluff, Arkansas", 1989, Emmet Gowin.

Gowin's "Changing the Earth", a collection of nearly 100 photographs, began its nation-wide tour at the Yale University Art Gallery in 2002. Accompanied by a book, it has since traveled to the Corcoran Gallery of Art. (Several good web reproductions are available at Corcoran's site but you'll have to click through to "Previous Exhibitions - 2002" and wait while this very slow site loads.) Additional images and a short interview are to be found at PBS.org, in an archive of the series' presentation on "NOW". Read viewers' reactions to one of the photos online. George Eastman House's collection also features several of Gowin's aerial pictures. A stunning and unusual for the series photograph of the Chemopetrol Mines in Bohemia is on the web as well. Plus, there's this phantasmagoric image from Turkey, but I'm uncertain whether it belongs to the same body of work. Another photo was part of "Chronic Beauty: Art and Environmentalism" exhibit at Bowdowin College in 1999. Through September 24, 2003, Emmet Gowin's exhibition is on display at Vassar College's France Lehman Loeb Art Center. The photographer will give a lecture at the gallery tomorrow, September 16.

"Copper Ore Tailing, Globe, Arizona", 1988, Emmet Gowin.

Although only a few of Josef Koudelka's images from the "Chaos" collection are aerial, virtually all of them present land, structures and surfaces in a topography that's kindred to Gowin's. The sweeping panoramic format of Koudelka's series emphasizes this connection. Koudelka is an absolute master of composition and space, slicing, piercing, and craning an image's plane incessantly, obsessively, and always harmoniously. An eerie, gritty, grainy, and utterly sad, world emerges from abandoned factories, stalled construction sites, and other industrial shambles. Unpopulated, unwanted, and unsalvageable, it does not, however, warrant a requiem. At least some images in "Chaos" are semi-neutral -- marked but not necessarily marred by human presence. Koudelka's partitioning and contouring of angles, arrows, patches, and fragments is feverish, as it cascades multidirectionally in the massive, severe prints. Halos, void of contents or swarming with them, are frequent in Koudelka's pictures, as they are in Gowin's.

"The Black Triangle region (Ore Mountains). A former mining area." Josef Koudelka.

Unfortunately, no exhibitions of Koudelka's work that I am aware of are scheduled for the near future. But Magnum's site makes so many of his photographs available that one can't complain.

"Paris. Bois de Vincennes." Josef Koudelka.

Nubar Alexanian, whose photography I came across through his review of Koudelka's "Chaos", and whose portfolios have just appeared at Photo-Eye, also favors the panoramic format. However, it is this dazzling photo that I admire most by Alexanian. Its loss of a sense of scale and its mute, astounded stare link it to Gowin's and Koudelka's imagery.

"Striped Bass", 1998, Nubar Alexanian.

Finally, another occasionally aerial photographer and a disciple of Emmet Gowin is David Maisel. He works in color and is also concerned with calamitous consequences of unsound ecological management. Some of Maisel's images are considerably less remarkable than Gowin's and Koudelka's, while others are quite mighty and marvelous. The Fall 2003 issue of Aperture magazine features a portfolio of Maisel's aerial work.
"Owens Lake #9281-4", David Maisel.

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