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Reasons to stop in at the Peabody Essex Museum are many, but here’s my favorite from my latest trip: “Imprints—Photographs by Mark Ruwedel.”
At first glance I assumed these 41 images were an Olafur Eliasson-inspired conceptual/installation piece on landscape. The photographs have a reduced tonality and a barren understatedness that could lead to that assumption. But once I took a step closer I was disabused of that idea, caught quickly and willingly in the dynamic silence of Ruwedel’s portraits of place—haunted and emptied of a previous existence during an ancient earth eon.
Mark Feeney’s review in the Boston Globe describes it well:
Mark Ruwedel[‘s}…West is riotously austere and beautifully desolate: a Beckett landscape so empty of human life that even Beckett’s lost souls would feel out of place there…As much archeology as art, his images explicitly remind us that the West has a past, one immensely longer in duration than the past of cowboys and Indians we see in westerns. “California is west of the West,’’ Theodore Roosevelt once said. The parts of Texas, Colorado, Utah, and California that Ruwedel photographs aren’t west of the West. They’re so desolate they almost seem underneath the West…
Time is an abstraction, of course, and these pictures have a stripped-down, abstract quality. Looking at them, one thinks not so much of other Western photographers as of Minimalist sculpture, Robert Smithson and earth art, or even Zen mysticism. Look closely, though, and notice how concrete the abstractions are.
Ruwedel lugged a large-format camera across a variety of these exquisitely remote Western terrains, and the payoff is a level of detail in these photographs that would be impossible to achieve without this cumbersome tool. The textures and depth of complexity are mesmerizing. Included in this show are images of the dinosaur tracks along the Purgatoire River in the Comanche National Grassland in Colorado, the ancient Indian trails that lace through the Chocolate Mountains of California, and other uncommonly traveled spots.
The show is up until January 1. I’ll definitely be back.
For more of a sense of Ruwedel and his approach to photography, here a great clip of him talking about a recent show at LACMA called “The New Topographics”: Mark Ruwedel
This is a late notice, but anyone in the Boston/Cambridge area with an interest in architecture, modernism, Los Angeles, photography, creativity and elegant filmmaking, you have until Thursday night to view the documentary Visual Acoustics at the Kendall Theater.
In the way of background, here is the description of the film from the Visual Acoustics site:
Narrated by Dustin Hoffman, VISUAL ACOUSTICS celebrates the life and career of Julius Shulman, the world’s greatest architectural photographer, whose images brought modern architecture to the American mainstream. Shulman, who passed away this year, captured the work of nearly every modern and progressive architect since the 1930s including Frank Lloyd Wright, Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Frank Gehry. His images epitomized the singular beauty of Southern California’s modernist movement and brought its iconic structures to the attention of the general public. This unique film is both a testament to the evolution of modern architecture and a joyful portrait of the magnetic, whip-smart gentleman who chronicled it with his unforgettable images.
Shulman’s eye is unerring. In that sense he reminds me of Herb Vogel (my paen to Herb can be read here). Both of them developed a unique and penetrating way of seeing that set them apart from everyone else looking at the same thing, be it a building or a piece of art. Both of them were essentially self taught, creating their expertise over time using their own experiences to fine tune their gift.
But there is one big difference between Herb Vogel and Julius Shulman: Herb never talks, and Shulman never stops. With opinions about everything that are freely shared, Shulman is a survellience camera with a running soundtrack. At one point in the film Shulman’s only daughter Judy tactfully describes her father as a “self-absorbed man.” He was not alone. Julius spent most of his professional life working with other self-absorbed geniuses like Richard Neutra, John Lautner and Rudolph Schindler.
But the footage of Shulman creating his photographs (later in life he worked with an assistant) is so fascinating. I could watch those segments over and over again, the detailed understanding of how light plays on the inside and outside of a structure, how the angle and depth of field is so critical, how he finds the perfect vantage point to make these legendary mid-century structures look even better than they ever did in real life. His daughter says he hauled his furniture around with him to every shoot, always eager to make a home look lived in rather than captured in its supremacist, stripped, minimalist form.
Thanks to my film buff friend Teresa for the heads up on this. A one week run just isn’t enough.
A few memorable images from Time Magazine–their Photo of the Week series…