Vanishing Points

Landscape's Narrative

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Wind ripples across an estuary creating a rhythmic pattern on the surface attracting my attention. Waves of thought break and wash over the moment, dredging up an internal dialogue. Words break the surface, invoke memory, emotion and spirit, and mix with historic, scientific and literary associations. Questions form, hover and move on, like clouds in the sky.

Landscapes of vast, undifferentiated spaces such as deserts and large bodies of water have a hold on me. They have been a source of inspiration for me as an artist and photographer for over two decades. My concept of landscape begins in the material world and a geographic location.But it is more than that. It is a dynamic situation, a narrative of interaction between human and natural forces. Karl Marx noted, “All of history is a ruin,” ever folding and unfolding. The faint trail now only marked by the antelopes’ track across the meadow, the cottonwoods that remain as the sole occupants of the homesteads that once thrived in this desert―landscapes are what remain of human and natural histories in flux.

In my series Vanishing Points, point of view becomes a narrative gesture employed to examine the dualities that abound―emptiness and fullness, near and far, past and present, life and death― literally and figuratively seen from one perspective. It is the confluence of personal, cultural and natural histories. And, as with all histories, our understanding and interpretation change with time and distance.

Ripple Effect, South Jetty, sepia toned silver gelatin print with graphite text

The photographs I create punctuate moments along the continuum of perpetual change. Inscribed marks of soft graphite, minute written words, often barely visible, float upon the surface of the print or may appear to emerge from the depths of the far horizon. A gestural, textual filter forms through which the landscape is seen. Even when illegible, these notations indicate their potential for meaning―if only it could be perceived. They may be read as an intervention, call attention to details, or suggest alternative ‘readings’ of the natural world as Rachel Carson in Silent Spring describes it being “spread before us like pages of an open book.”

The metaphor of the book and the act of reading as a quiet process of internalization are ideas that correspond to some of the physical properties of this series. The enlarged photographic prints result in images that are no bigger than the palm of my hand. The diminutive size (3.25″x4.75″) makes gentle reference to personal diaries and journals, and to the miniature as an historical art object― illuminated manuscripts, miniature paintings and the Daguerreotypes and ambrotypes of the 19th century. Qualities that I associate with these objects and with this small scale, such as preciousness and intimacy, are also the qualities and associations I want to elicit from the viewer regarding the subject matter contained within the frame. With the focus set to reach to infinity, the transformation of a wide sweeping view condensed into a structure that is so extremely small begs for heightened attention in order to distill the details. The all-compassing material world represented in such diminished scale forms an inverse relationship and, like the Latin phrase multum in parvo, signifies there is much in little.

The photographs in Vanishing Points are created to be unique objects. This is an attribute more common to archaic 19th Century photo processes than to those of the 21st Century. Although I make a limited set of prints from each negative, the end result is not an edition, but in works that are one- of–a–kind. The variation of the graphite marks on the surface described earlier is one feature of their individuality; another is the split tonality of the print achieved with a sulphide sepia toner. This toner converts bleached metallic silver to silver sulphide, changing the neutral quality of the monochrome black-and-white print to a warm tone that can range from a soft peach color cast to an overall deep brown. I use the process selectively, limiting the effect to mid-tones and highlight areas of the image. This is accomplished by limiting the preliminary bleach bath so that it reduces only the lightest areas of the print. I control this by visual inspection rather than by time. After a rinse, the re-development bath is used in much the same way. Always working with a fresh sulphide re-development solution creates more predictable results Prior to making final prints, I do an extensive set of test exposures with variations in contrast and density using a step scale method. I tone these tests, studying them to determine the range of effect I want in the final prints. Just as every moment in the landscape is different, each print is a unique combination of light, time and interaction.

I enjoy time spent in the darkroom more than at the computer screen, but that is not the reason underlying my decision to use film over digital capture for this work. I have been drawing into and on top of photographs since I first began seriously using photography in my art practice in 1979. Conventional black and white photo paper, with its gelatin emulsion, creates a very smooth surface that holds the graphite and withstands vigorous erasure, acting much the same as a prepared gesso base. This characteristic of traditional silver gelatin photo paper as a drawing surface is the primary reason I continue to use conventional black and white film―as surprising as that may seem.

Creating photographs in the way that I do is to openly admit their mutability and to accentuate the subjective capacity of the medium. The landscape, as a repository of human experience, becomes as a cultural palimpsest, bearing tangible evidence of our past and present. Then, too, there is that which is intangible, when the surface is as a reflection mirroring our values, our fears and our aspirations. It is in the liminal space where these two co-exist that I travel to make my photographs.

Camera notes

Twenty years ago my long-time friend and mentor, the late Jerry Dell, had the hunch that my vision and ideas might be better served by a 6x9cm format rather than the 21/4 square I was using at the time. He pressed his Fujica SW 690 into my hands and encouraged me to use it for a few days. The next week I purchased my own. I continue to rely on that same model to this day. After 14 years and 19,000 exposures I retired my original and replaced it with another of the same. It could be that the only place I respond well to change is in the landscape. Beyond its initial affordability and its outstanding reliability, other aspects of this particular camera are well suited to my needs. It focuses with a rangefinder rather than TTL (through the lens) system, resulting in a camera that is mechanically simpler and substantially lighter. The fixed 65mm lens that the SW (super wide) is equipped with freed me from the burden of carrying lenses I never put into use, allowing more room to carry film―an excellent trade-off for working in remote locations.

Decomposition, Summer Valley, sepia toned silver gelatin print with graphite text

Product Resources: Camera: Fujica GSW–690; Film: Kodak TMax 400; Filter: Tiffen Yellow 8; Meter: Gossen Luna–Pro; Tripod: Manfrotto 694 magfiber monopod with Manfrotto 234RC head; Darkroom: Besseler 45MXT enlarger, El–Nikkor 105mm 5.6, Peak 2000 (model 1) Enlarging Focuser, Saunders 4 Blade Easel, Gralab 450R Timer, Gravity Works Archival Print Washer; Paper: Bergger VCCM; Chemistry: Kodak Xtol Developer, Sprint–Print Developer, Stop Bath, Fixer, Fixer Remover, Edwal LFN Wetting Agent, Kodak Sepia Toner; Incidentals: Giotto Rocket Blaster Air Blower, PrintFile WorkBox, PrintFile Archival Preservers, Marshall’s Spot- All Spotting Dyes, Schwan Stabilo mico 9000 8 B Graphite Pencil, Silver Prismacolor Pencil, Pink Pearl Eraser.