Saturday, February 23, 2013

Heavy Weather: The Dayton Art Institute Commemorates the 1913 Flood

April Gornik, Sea After Storm, 2010. Oil on linen. 74 x 77.5."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
The Dayton Flood of 1913 was one the worst natural disasters the United States had experienced. The hurricane that leveled Galveston, Texas, killing nearly a quarter of its population, had occurred thirteen years earlier as a single event. 

The Dayton disaster was a devastating succession of three storms from March 23-27. Temperatures dove from the sixties into the twenties after the first deluge, inhibiting the absorption of more rain. The entire episode dumped tropical levels of precipitation, drowning the city under three months of rain in four days and demolishing the system of levees that protected Dayton—a city below the flood plain—from the Great Miami River. Yet as a result of this disaster, private citizens contributed $2,000,000 to the Flood Relief Fund, which was the basis for the country's first flood Water Conservancy District. The 1913 flood was one of the greatest tragedies and recoveries of its era: Witness that this exhibition includes a commemorative booklet of photographs sold at the 1915 World's Fair to illustrate the impact of the notorious event.

The Dayton Art Institute's interlocking shows, Storm, Watershed, & Riverbank pull its community together once again to remember the tragedy and to commemorate the city's determined and unified recovery. The flood is a citywide topic this spring involving many local institutions and events organized through a website, 1913flood

Several things drew me to see this show, most of all the subject of a weather disaster. Since 1913 when Dayton was forced to conceive anew its natural environment and vulnerability to weather forces, America has been hit by many and more frequent weather disasters. How much can we still care about an event a hundred years removed when it feels that our world is hit constantly by weather catastrophes? Do catastrophes become normal and undermine our concern with the past?

The best thing about Storm, Watershed, and Riverbank is its conception as separate but linked shows, each with its own focus. Storm occupies one gallery of tremendous paintings by April Gornik picturing stormy weather in virgin nature. Watershed pairs photographs of Dayton during and immediately after the flood with current photographs of the same locations by documentarian Andy Snow. This exhibit arose from a book project, Snow's commission by the Miami Conservancy District to produce work resonant with the historical photo cache.

Riverbank concerns city planning and redevelopment, inviting viewer's visions for the considerable riverbank frontage of a city defined by the very water to which it is vulnerable.
April Gornik, Lowering Sky, 2010. Oil on linen, 25 x 30." Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
To include Weather itself as the first, central, and even neutral element in this commemoration of the flood struck me as brilliant. It's the decision that opened the show wide open for imaginative interpretation and linkage to all the wind and water since and to come. The documentary photographs were expanded for me by coming after Gornik's paintings.

April Gornik, The Horizon, 2008. Oil on linen, 76 x 76.25."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
Storm opens with an unusually small work for Gornik, her 2010 "Lowering Sky." The impact of this painting is infinitely greater than its modest size. The scene manages to be terrifying and exciting at once. It conveys swift movement in the clouds above trees massed like a stout gilded fortress.The brilliant edge and axe of clear sky could symbolize in its clarity the force of the storm rushing ahead to unleash itself. Will we cower then, or remain in a state of shaking elation?This view, like all of Gornik's work, is unpeopled. We are reminded that the weather and its effect on people are two different things.

Storm is an awe-inspiring show, filled with Gornik's landscapes that measure five feet or more in their smaller dimensions. Each places the viewer on a fantasy rise to survey majestic, cloud-delivered events upon the earth and water. In works like 2008's "The Horizon," stormy skies create what lies below them as if the land and ocean were thin mirrors for the beauty and power of the infinitely rising clouds. In many of her paintings, Gornik thus emphasizes the height of the clouds compared to the static flatness of the earth's surface. The earth lies and receives, the image suggests. The sky, however, is constantly forming, filling and emptying, rising, falling, acting on the immobile, passive earth below.

April Gornik, One, 1986, 72 x 98."
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
The drama, size, and contrast in Gornik's romantic skies and storms invite us to the grand, universal feelings that almost inevitably anthropomorphize Nature. We read human thought and emotion into what is spectacularly not human. It's difficult not to read the painting "One" as a virtual benediction, as something with a holy message in its light breaking darkness, the clearing of a storm with hope. No matter how large, overwhelming, and unpopulated Gornik's landscapes, we see through them the difficulty of keeping human feeling—personal or religious—out of our visions of weather.

Gallery label detail, Watershed, Dayton Art Institute, 2013.
Camera of the show's period in use on the rooftop.
After Gornik's oil paintings in Storm, we are eased into Watershed's documentary photography by Andy Snow's informative exhibits about the processes of presenting the great storm. There are magic lantern slides, and an eye-opening display of the equipment and techniques used by the period's photographers. The latter removes any hyperbole from considering heroic the efforts of those who set out to record the event, given the immense size of the cameras, the cumbersome stationary setups, and the low probability of success for any single shot. 

1913 photograph #6 from Watershed. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.
Weather has no mind or emotion and is indifferent to humans, yet for humans few phenomena are so easy to fill with fantasy and emotion, or are taken so personally. Still, as I moved through the galleries of these photographs, I was interested that I reacted to them so clinically. Maybe I've seen too many pictures of weather disasters lately? Haiti, Japan, New Orleans, New York.

I found myself startled, too, by Snow's photos of present-day Dayton. I expected them to complete a narrative of phoenix risen from the ashes of disaster; of transformation from inundated calamity site to shining "city on a hill." This is not what one gets. 

Snow's photographs are beautiful for their saturated color, their composition, and exquisitely focused detail. They communicate that glorious sense of omniscience. Most were taken on days of brilliant blue skies and sunshine, circumstances that automatically improve the inner glow of any subject. (In response to my question about this, Snow told me that in 1913, most pictures were taken with orthochromatic film, which is highly sensitive to blue. The skies during a shoot may have been clear and bright, but the picture would print as the ubiquitous light gray that we know so well and that I am prone to read as an aspect of the misfortune.)

Andy Snow, Watershed #6, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute. View corresponding to #6, above.
Snow studied photography with Sol Libsohn, one of the members of the great New York Photo League of the 1930s, documentarians par excellence. When we discussed this pair of pictures, numbers 6, he told me that he used to have his studio in the century-old building that has become an artists' building. The assorted buildings in the foreground of 1913 have been replaced by a diner-become-a-club. The tall buildings on either side of the street, which  might indicate commerce, are now low ones. Snow is a native of Dayton, but he brings a dispassionate eye even to such familiar scenes.
1913 photograph #18 from Watershed.
Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

Another pair, numbers 18, similarly depict an underwater street that a century later appears to be less prosperous than it was in 1913. The building with the ionic columns was the original home of the Dayton Daily News, which continues to be the important local newspaper, but which has long since abandoned that building in favor of a remote printing site. The buildings across the side street, Snow and others told me, have not been razed, but exist beneath the unifying facade overlaid mid-twentieth century. I couldn't help but notice that this downtown scene was barely more populated than any of the flood scenes were. It was easier to imagine the bustle of the recovered 1913 street than to foresee a better day in 2013.
Andy Snow, Watershed #18, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

But herein lies the ultimate fascination of this show for me, and it's not what pulled me in to begin with. For me, the moral of the story is, "What you see here is what was and what is here."

Gornik's Storm seems to ask, "If storms occur and no one sees them, do they still affect us?" But we are necessarily painted in to look on, and we experience all the emotion that the painter has put there for us to reflect.

The documentary photographers ask no such question. The 1913 pictures are specific to Dayton, as the comparative photos highlight. "See that building still there? It's our town, not another."

Images of weather disasters appear today with almost overwhelming frequency. Yet as usual as they become on the one hand, running together in our minds, they document specific reality for individual people and places. 

The 1913 flood was a definitive event for Dayton. Snow's photographs of dry (even drought-parched) present-day Dayton are central to the commemoration of the flood because they emphasize the particular landmarks and identity of the city. 

1913 photograph #24, Watershed. Courtesy of the
Dayton Art Institute.
Still, independent of their century-old referents, Snow's images can be sorted, combined, and used for any number of stories: Documentary photographs are vessels into which we pour our own narratives. Fiction writers and news directors alike use documents as the basis for their stories.

So this interesting show at the Dayton Art Institute gives us a fascinating way to talk about the weather—as the Horseman of the Apocalypse, and as the forger of community; as the ultimate mirror of human emotion, and as the social leveler. 

April Gornik's imagination and Andy Snow's documentation work side by side to make a story of how one city's identity was born  of calamitous weather, and how the city survived both the flood and its founding narrative. But how you interpret the story is, of course, up to you. Light shines for everyone out of a different sort of sky.
Andy Snow, Watershed # 24, 2012. Courtesy of the Dayton Art Institute.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Documentary Rhetoric: "More American Photographs"

America of the Depression era remains vivid in historical memory thanks to the ambitious scope of President Roosevelt's Farm Security Administration's (FSA's) documentary photographic project; thanks to the passion of the men and women behind the cameras. 

Dorothea Lange, Family between Dallas and Austin, Texas, 1936,
 Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington DC. 8" x 10."
2012 brought to the Columbus Museum of Art the stirring work of the 1930s New York Photo League documentarians, shown in The Radical Camera. Now, at the Wexner Center for the Arts, we have More American Photographs. This show reviews  famous FSA images that documented conditions among the "ill-housed, ill-clad, ill-nourished" across rural and small town America. The selection of photographs by Walker Evans, Gordon Parks, Dorothea Lange and their nine colleagues are displayed among the work of twelve contemporary photographers, who include Larry Clark, Catherine Opie, and Hank Willis Thomas. Today's twelve were charged in 2010 with their similar mission by Jens Hoffman, curator of the CCA Wattis Institute for Contemporary Art in San Francisco. 

In a document that leads into the show, dramatically headed, "To All Photographers: Assignment," Hoffman declares, "I would like to send you into America to take photographs.  

Larry Clark, Adam, Marfa, TX, 2011. 
Archival  inkjet print.Courtesy the artist 
and Luhring Augustine, New York.
 24 x 17.3."
"This is an invitation to go out into the city or the country and to survey this land with all its blessings and all its shortcomings. I have selected you from among your peers as I see in your work a curiosity and determination to get to the heart of your subject and evoke feelings that can be universally comprehended. I know that you can tell a story, make pictures that are genuine, and recognize the pertinent things in a particular situation, whether an element of geography or a human being. In your photographs, I perceive a sincere, passionate love of people and respect for people."

The guiding idea for More American Photographs was to reexamine the legacy of the FSA photography during America's deepest economic downturn since the Great Depression. Hoffman's Assignment is an invitation to documentation as an act of rhetoric as highly colored as propaganda. His slightly archaic syntax ("this land with all its blessings and all its shortcomings") would seem to mimic the historical body of FSA work itself, by now grown slightly sentimental. Contemporary artists do not speak of "blessings and shortcomings" when they engage with issues of economic and social conditions. 

Walker Evans, Floyd Burroughs, cotton sharecropper.
Hale County, Alabama, 1935 or 1936, 
Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, 
Washington DC. 10" x 8."
Displayed at the head of More American Photographs, alongside Hoffman’s mission statement, are directions prepared by Roy Stryker for the use of his photographers in the ‘30s. These lists are not rhetorical per se. But implicit in the guidelines is a rhetoric Stryker expects to appear in the images that respond to his prompts.

 "To: All photographers" provides Stryker's "General Notes for pictures needed for files." Under the category, SPRING he lists, "New-plowed earth (early-morning or late-afternoon). Show 'texture.' Get the feel of 'good earth' into the picture.'" In the category, HIGHWAY, Stryker requests, "Pictures which emphasize the fact that the American highway is very often a more attractive place that the places Americans live." He asks for shots of "Horse and buggy...Back view—country road." Stryker has clearly written the story; his photographers are asked to illustrate it convincingly.

Ben Shahn, One of the few remaining inhabitants of Zinc,
 Arkansas1935, Inkjet Print. Courtesy the Library of
 Congress, Washington DC 
Hoffman, however, doesn't suggest any details, let alone the narrative to his twenty-first century crew, despite his antiquated the tone, vocabulary, and syntax. 

The missions of Stryker and Hoffman, are as different as the results obtained though. The Depression era photographers   demonstrated in the selection of work presented here an unmistakable unity of purpose and means. Notably, all of the older work is black and white and presented in 8" x 10" format. There is a visual coherence on the simplest level that enables the viewer to enjoy the sense of traveling within a unified, well-defined world. 

While it's not hard to notice that the subjects and tactics of Ben Shahn (above) and John Vachon (below) are dissimilar, my eye accepts that they could have passed one another in the act of taking the pictures they did. They could have set eyes on the same things. I accept this in part because of the inner relationships created by the uniform presentation of the works.

John Vachon, National Association of Manufacturers sign, Dubuque, Iowa, 1940, Inkjet Print, Courtesy the Library of Congress, Washington DC.
The FSA photographs appear, too, to have devised their own consistent visual rhetoric. For instance, irony is almost never deployed by the contemporary photographers. John Vachon's photo of an indigent contemplating a billboard sponsored by the National Association of Manufacturers drips irony. In this show, as in The Radical Camera, optimistic consumer (and government) advertising of the '30s was often exploited to heighten the poignancy that turns documentary into social commentary. Simple techniques were commonly used too, to turn the poor into heroes or the disadvantaged into the brave. Photographers angling up into their faces from below their chins, or focus squarely on their deep, direct gazes.

Gordon Parks, Washington, D.C. Government charwoman
1942. Inkjet Print. Courtesy the Library of Congress, 
Washington DC

Farm Security Administration photographers certainly found empathy in themselves, but  they knew that they needed to produce it in their viewers. The images they produced were of the threshold of an America never before seen by most of its citizens. These were images of a foreign country that we needed not to fear but to comprehend and develop compassion for.

For today's photographers, the assignment, while superficially similar, arises in very different circumstances. For one thing, their Depression era forbears were entirely successful in exposing the existence of the hungry and ill-housed underbelly of America. Now, the poor and the victims of economic injustice have emerged in every quarter and every sphere of life. Poverty and its social consequences are ubiquitous. They have indeed become normal subjects for art—not only for journalism.

Of the FSA's original twelve photographers, most came from or remained in journalism, and many were connected for the short or long term with Life or Look magazines. Ben Shahn is remembered primarily as an artist—a painter and printmaker. Gordon Parks branched into filmmaking (he directed the original Shaft). Most of the others—John Vachon, Carl Mydans, Dorothea Lange, Esther Busbey—remained in photojournalism and are best known for that work.

The current work in More American Photography is all presented by the courtesy not of newspapers or magazines, but of artists and their galleries. These photographers are not journalists, but fine artists. That their subjects explore the territory of social realism or document economic circumstances does not detract from their central artistic concerns. 

William E. Jones, Restaurant, Canton, Ohio, 2011. Hand coated
 pigment print. Courtesy the artist and David Kordansky 
Gallery, Los Angeles. 9 x 13.5."

Neither did these artists have to buy bus tickets to go out on assignment. Their material tended to be close to home. William E. Jones examined the abandoned storefronts of his hometown, Canton, Ohio. Roe Ethridge returned to his parents' small town home of Belle Glade, Florida (where Marion Wolcott, one of the FSA photographers, shot for the Office of War Information in the 1940s). Catherine Opie documented her Los Angeles neighborhood. This story of familiarity is the norm. For all of these artists, poverty and hard times are personal. Neighborly. Struggle is not a foreign place to which one travels, but the place we live in or next to. 

Catherine Opie, Bravo (Plumbing), 2011. 15 x 20."
Cibachrome print, Courtesy the artist and Regen Projects, Los Angeles
And unlike journalists, fine artists don't report to editors. Artists define their own content and points of view; curators make stories from the images, not before they exist—hence the vagueness of Hoffman's rhetoric compared to Stryker's blunt specificity. 

As a result of the individual-driven interpretation of mission, one gets the show we have here, the result of a variety of very particular, personal visions unified by neither size, topic, nor format. All the new work is in color, and more of it has to do with the city; there was no farm agency calling attention to rural (or any other) settings. Let this be my observation and not a criticism. It's a point about the gulf between the missions and world of the Depression and the Recession.

Sharon Lockhart,Visalia Livestock Market, Visalia, California, 2011. 49.5 x 73.5"
Chromogenic print, Courtesy the artist and Blum & Poe, Los Angeles
In the contemporary photography there is little internal editorializing, for the common point of view is straight-ahead and four-square, with few arrangements to imply heroism, pathos, or drama. Light and shadow; richness of detail; large size, disposition of large forms; saturated color—formal aspects rather than composition of the subjects carry the emotional weight. These photographs require more subtle interpretation from the viewer, for the artists don't signal what we might feel merely by a lifted chin or the placement of a figure in relationship to a closed door or the vanishing point. 

Sharon Lockhart's Visalia Livestock Market is a remarkable work: Its great size virtually places the viewer in the space that is photographed in impressive detail. It's a photograph to spend hours and days in. It strikes me as a remarkable documentation of accreted personal and cultural time, which have conspired into this quiet moment. It's not a picture we take as expose or rhetorical stand.

Katy Grannan, Untitled, Bakersfield, CA, 2011.
Archival pigment prints, Courtesy the artist and 
Fraenkel Gallery, San Francisco
35.5 x26" 
I particularly admire works by Katy Grannan and Collier Schorr because each of their photographs suggests that an important part of the picture—and story—lies outside of the frame. In Grannan's dual portrait of the father and daughter, she employs the traditional, effective device of placing us below the pair, who are naturally ennobled by their position above us, gazing into space that we cannot see. The empty background suggests that they are looking into a great distance of time, of vision or experience. In this image I feel continuity with the goals and achievements of the FSA portraits. Poor people and hard times; grit and determination. It's a clear image in every sense, down to way the hair flying across her face imitates the effect of the wrinkles on his, and how the down on her arm contrasts with the rough texture and hair on his. I like it that there's a point of view suggested; no apologies for the rhetorical flourishes.

Schorr's portrait of a young cowboy is strengthened by its position in a context that offers an alternative reality. The young man is constrained and appears in black and white: He is limited, whatever his potential. Yet he looks like someone of an age to be both coming into his powers and questioning them at the same time. He looks up at us with a question: Is he allowed to assert his claim? His story is superimposed on a world in color, in which elderly black men stand isolated, fragmented, and bundled against the cold in ripped clothing, on vacant lots. 

What's the relationship between the emerging manhood of the white youth and the decrepit manhood of the old, black men? Schorr doesn't picture only the effect of poor conditions on an individual, but complicates the story by acknowledging how inescapably we are implicated in one another's success or failure, willingly or not.

Coliier Schorr, AMERICANS #1, 2011. 45 x 37.5."
Archival pigment ink prints, Courtesy the artist and 303 Gallery, New York

However we look at documentary photography, however, it's usually the case that one group is looking from the outside at another group and trying to present it through a lens—nobly, pathetically, with dignity—that doesn't require intimate knowledge of the subject. FSA photographers were given a script. Hoffman gave his photographers only their awareness of the historical oeuvre and his belief in their humane eyes and intentions.

I would like to see more documentary photography and film in which the subjects document themselves and so choose the attitudes and lenses through which we see them. Because opportunities for poor people (like the subjects here) to use the equipment of documentarians come only through the auspices of institutions like medicine, education, or social services, our chances of public engagement with their own points of view are few. 

I have great respect for institutions like Media Action, with the mission of enabling populations to produce their own images and voices. Media Action is currently conducting a project teaching film-making to people in Uganda. The videographers have worked before in small-town Alaska. Four films made by Alaskan schoolchildren about life in their native towns made their ways into the 2011 Anchorage International Film Festival. 

Documentary forms always bring doubt as well as information. But when we know that the photographers are from the community they are documenting, even what doubts they cause through their rhetoric will come as revelations about the subjects.
The twelve photographers of the Roy Stryker's Farm Security Administration project, 1935, were: Ester Bubley, Marjory Collins, Jack Delano, Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange, Russell Lee, Carl Mydans, Gordon Parks, Arthur Rothstein, Ben Shahn, John Vachon, and Marion Post Wolcott.

The twelve photographers chosen in 2010 by Jens Hoffman are: Walead Beshty, Larry Clark, Roe Ethridge, Katy Grannan, William E. Jones, Sharon Lockhart, Catherine Opie, Martha Rosler, Collier Schorr, Stephen Shore, Alec Soth, and Hank Willis Thomas.

Visit the STARR REVIEW FACEBOOK page for a link to unusual color photographs done by the FSA photographers as part of their project.