Book Review: My Own Wilderness

My Own Wilderness, edited by Christopher H. Paquette

Christopher Paquette quickly establishes the range of My Own Wilderness, in which he curates the work of 44 photographers. He opens the book with a picture of a scrubby desert landscape — a literal wilderness. Then he moves to an image of a factory interior in Russia, where lockers are painted with a wilderness scene of a man fishing. Paquette then presents a Photoshopped collage of a young man and old woman in a boat, coasting across a lake. A digital reconstruction of a mountain hillside follows, where the artist makes it appear that two large mirrors are suspended above a meadow. The images gain strength from Paquette’s sequencing, much as a poem gains strength from the combinations of individual words.

Paquette has a very generous conception of wilderness. He includes images that literally represent the wild, along with portraits that hint at an interior wilderness. There were many artists whose work I was not familiar with — some from Russia. A few artists were known to me, as I’ve featured their work here. (And I need to disclose that my own work is also part of the book).

Paquette gathered the images in a contest he held at PHOTO/arts Magazine, which he publishes online. The book is printed by Blurb and is offered for sale without a markup. The reproductions in the copy I bought were printed well, with accurate colors and a rich palette.

— Willson Cummer

Sergey Novikov

This story, bordered by river banks, is about the places and people beside the longest European river, the Volga. I looked at everything through the prism of soccer — a common passion here in Russia and particularly in those tiny towns on the Volga. I travelled along the river and visited the games of nine teams who took their names from the river. They are all called FC Volga, but from different Russian regions.

— Sergey Novikov, Moscow, Russia

Robert Schlaug

The houses in which people live all over the world are very different. In Germany, you used to be able to tell from the way a house was built in which region it was situated. Nowadays this is less and less the case. The availability of all possible construction materials has led to a standardization and uniformity of residential architecture. Each house can be found in any place in Germany. As everything is technically feasible, more and more anonymous, more-complicated and bizarre houses have been built. Simple designs have become a rarity.

Uniformity and banality on the one hand, and uniqueness and weirdness on the other hand, are of course a big attraction for the photographer. Therefore, these homes have been one my favorite subjects for many years.

What excites me about these houses can be well explained by the example picture:

At first glance, the viewer sees an unspectacular multi-family house that is very common for Germany, with a simple aesthetic. Utilitarian architecture without any artistic or creative value. However, if we take the time to have a closer look, a three-dimensional residential building with garages, a paved courtyard and a grass strip becomes a two-dimensional structure.

Upon closer examination, the realistic depiction of the house becomes more and more abstract, a picture composed of vertical and horizontal lines, colors and surfaces, of rhythmic subdivisions and geometric structures that make the real individual objects almost disappear. Instead, the forms and colors develop their own aesthetic quality. In fact, the photographic reality increasingly questions reality as we generally see it. The mundane and banal become something special.

The three-dimensionality only returns when the viewer’s gaze focuses on the trees in the background on the left or the bush on the right. Only these minor details are actually capable of dissolving the level of abstraction the photography has attained and of again restoring a sense of reality.

— Robert Schlaug, Nueremberg, Germany

Tyler Haughey

My current work centers on the industrial landscape, consisting of built environments found along the urban fringe of both cities and suburbia. By paying close attention to the formal aspects of the image, my work attempts to take everyday, mundane subject matter and heighten it through composition, color relationships, lighting and framing.

By photographing these odd industrial places with a 4×5 large-format camera I am able to capture the most minute details within a scene, allowing the image to convert ordinary subjects which are familiar to the viewer into strange, hyperrealistic environments.

— Tyler Haughey, Asbury Park, New Jersey, USA

Gary Warren Hubbs

The central focus of the photographs in Billboards is a specific variety of mechanical billboard which, utilizing a prismatic design and timed motors, scrolls through three different advertisements sequentially and continually. By photographing these signs with an exposure long enough to record all three ads on one single negative, an in-camera intervention of sorts takes place. The necessary clarity of the original images is obliterated by the combination of time and mechanical movement – effectively robbed of their intent, they become layers of and contributors to a new, incidental image. If the Bechers were looking for “anonymous sculpture” in the industrial forms of their subjects, then I have stumbled upon a form of “anonymous collage,” one that cannot be perceived with the naked eye in real time.

While the billboards in the photographs themselves contain photographic elements of a commercial nature, they could hardly be described as rephotography; nor are they descendants of Pop Art or a guerrilla-type of anti-marketing. The sign in the real world remains unchanged — the intervention happens only in the camera and on the exposed film. I later recalled the work of Hiroshi Sugimoto and his Theaters, and it could be argued that the two series share visual similarities; however, where Sugimoto’s exposures left no trace of the original image on the screens of his theaters, elements of the original billboard advertisements remain in the new composite image – logos, images and copy overlapping – the visual equivalent of a corporate “mash-up.”

— Gary Warren Hubbs, Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada

Peter Calvin

I have been photographing the built environment in Texas and Mexico for the past few years. I have a particular interest in the space and resources we have set aside for the automobile, and the public spaces that begin where formal architecture ends, as well as the canopy of wires and cell towers we have built above our heads.

In the Middle Ages the introduction of a new harness for horses and oxen changed the way cities were designed, and in the 20th century the automobile, utility delivery and electronic communication defined the modern built environment.  

My interests include how the structures that society has built have changed, been adapted, reused or discarded. I collect things such as parking lot kiosks, intersections, athletic fields and repurposed gasoline stations. At times, it is a bit like doing archeology in the present. I have tried to photograph the natural landscape, but I always find myself searching for some sign of the human hand on the land, even if it is a barbed-wire fence. 

— Peter Calvin, Dallas, Texas, USA

Andy Sewell

These photographs, from a work still in progress, are taken in the English countryside. I choose a place, sometimes for a specific reason, but more often guided by the poetics of village names (Cold Christmas, Nasty, Little Gidding, Good Easter, etc.) and explore from there. Driving and walking I search for pictures that speak of this iconic yet hard-to-define thing “the countryside” and the interplay of the ideas and feelings evoked by it: tradition and modernity, nostalgia, our relationship with nature and to what we eat, the underlying cycle of seasons and festivals.

The finished project will be a journey from one winter to another formed of the encounters between the countryside of my imagination and contemporary rural England.

Andy Sewell, London, United Kingdom

Susan Lipper

It was only recently that I decided on a name for this series: Off Route 80. Before that the work done in Grapevine, West Virginia since 2006 was provisionally called New Landscapes. My reticence in giving the series a title stemmed from a desire to resist naming a specific place or region, in this case Appalachia — with its negative connotations dating back from before the Civil War. To do so would be declaring the work a documentary record –- which of course it is, albeit a highly-subjective one, belonging to a tradition where the artist admits to being part of the situation portrayed.

My 1994 monograph Grapevine is a visual diary of the first five years I spent in the community. Grapevine is a place I have revisited now for over twenty years, much like Eugene Atget’s parks. Central to the meaning here and in most of my work is that these photographs (and videos) share the vantage point of a liberal female artist from New York City who is contemplating the bigger fiction of America.

Perhaps Grapevine represents any American community outside the reach of urban life: a place in the imagination, an Eden, off-the-map, off-route as opposed to the notion of “getting one’s kicks on Route 66.”

The natural versus the urban world is the arching theme here. This series also draws upon the Romantic traditions of literature and painting which highlight our place in nature. In this seemingly-bucolic setting, the intimate, formal landscapes provide a sense of place but also hint at no return. While remaining in the here-and-now, possibly as a prisoner, one sees the lush, enveloping landscape in a new way.

Susan Lipper, New York City, USA

Miguel Vasconcelos

Autopista (Freeway) is an ongoing project, the result of travel by road networks of the Iberian Peninsula from 2009 to the present.
Images are captured while traveling, shooting from inside the car. There is some noise in the pictures — blurriness which is purposeful and provides a record of ephemera.
This is a series of images that leads us to reflect on the passage of time and the boundary between memory and oblivion, the rural and urban, moments and events, figures, objects and places.

— Miguel Vasconcelos, Fafe, Portugal

Favorite Five Books Found in 2011

I’m sharing five books that I came across in the past year that I found inspirational. I’ll review them in alphabetical order of the authors’s names.

Robert Adams, Tree Line
Photos of trees in eastern Oregon. Loose compositions that feel conversational in tone. Somehow in Adams’s hands an image of trees, a road and telephone wires becomes a lovely form that invites repeated viewings. Adams includes shots that were taken within minutes of each other at the same scene, thus creating what seem like still shots from a movie. Much of Adams’s work shows humankind’s destruction of nature, but this project often includes purely “natural” scenes. Adams writes that his images “recall a consolation always and everywhere the same: the promise inherent in nature’s beauty.” What follows from the recognition of that beauty is the great sadness at its loss, which Adams has eloquently explored in earlier projects.

William Eggleston, The Democratic Forest
Eggleston finds beauty in the most mundane scenes. His images include trees, fields, intersections, telephone poles, signs and decaying buildings, but his true subject is color and form. He appears to have used a 35mm camera (he’s holding one in the author photo), in an interesting change from the work of Stephen Shore, Joel Sternfeld and others who have used 8×10 cameras to photograph similar subjects. One of my favorite images is untitled (p. 59) and shows a parking area behind a few buildings. On the left is a dark green structure. To the center is a brick and cinderblock building and on the right is a blue car, dazzling in the direct sunlight. Starting at the bottom right and wending their way toward the upper left are sets of lime-green footsteps stenciled onto the blacktop. So mysterious and beautiful. Another memorable image is a photo of mud, a chain, and two mud-stained boots and jean legs — photographed at an oil rig. The yellow-orange of the mud spreads over the chain and clothing — as if the earth were swallowing up the person foolish enough to try to extract nature’s riches. The book includes an introduction by Eudora Welty and an afterword by Eggleston.

Andy Grundberg, Crisis of the Real
Intellectual criticism that makes sense and is fairly easy to follow. Grundberg presents an insightful discussion of postmodernism, comparing the meaning of that movement in various artistic genres. A chilling conclusion: “There is no place in the postmodern world for a belief in the authenticity of experience, in the sanctity of the individual artist’s vision, in genius, or originality.” (p. 18) That’s why I continue to struggle with postmodernism. Grundberg includes illuminating essays about the work of Walker Evans, Robert Adams, Joel Sternfeld, Richard Prince and Sophie Calle, among many others.

Ken Schles, Oculus
Part philosophical text, part photobook, Oculus is a tantalizing publication. Schles includes references to many sources, touching on Plato, Vladimir Nabokov, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and others. The book includes gorgeous images from three very different projects: portraiture of children sleeping, nighttime beach photography and a varied series of images gathered under the title “Mnemosyne,” for the Greek goddess of memory and the inventor of reason and language. Schles includes lengthy notes, which give the reader multiple access points to the book. His mysterious chapter titles, like “Seeing Is Not Knowing,” challenge the viewer to connect Schles’s philosophical musings to the images.

Dale Schreiner, Thereafter
Meditations after the shooting death of his father. Stunning tones, interesting subjects. Very well sequenced, with logical connections between all the shots. Schreiner opens the project with an image of a road and a four-sided sign that we see from behind. He photographed from a tangled scrub land off the road, with a short fence between him and road. The path toward the future, Schreiner seems to be saying, is not easily found or followed. Even road signs, placed there for guidance, may be worthless. Trees are a recurring element in Schreiner’s images, and they are at times bent in half, wrapped with small ropes or set behind fences. In one image a tree stands behind a ribbon that warns “danger.” The consolation that Robert Adams wrote about is simply not present in Schreiner’s work, though the subject matter is similar. Thereafter was published by Vela Noche Press in an edition of 20 books.

— Willson Cummer