The judge’s bench and Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm

[posted by Greg]

Now back in Tucson, we recently attended a photography exhibit, a couple of works from which manifested the irreal in an interesting way. The exhibit, “Made in Arizona: Photographs from the Collection,” was at the Center for Creative Photography and drew upon its world-class collection (they are the repository for the collections of such photographers as Edward Weston and W. Eugene Smith) to feature works such as Ansel Adam’s formal compositions of Arizona landscapes, Aaron Siskind’s highly textured, abstract close-ups, as well as many realist, genre photos of ranchers, urban barrios and the ever ubiquitous post-WWII ranch style housing that makes up so much of the suburban sprawl here.

The first of the pictures that stood out from this mix for its irreal qualities was a picture by William Clift, titled “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ (1979)”. This picture caught my eye because of the the way the judge’s bench seems to surge forward into the completely empty and (one presumes) still courtroom, which gives one the fleeting impression, much as the photographic work of Jindřich Styrsky or Eugene Atget does, that the inanimate is animate. But it does so in an opposite manner from Styrsky or Atget, who photographed objects (e.g., a storefront mannequin, a life-size poster of a circus performer) in such a way that we first think of it as being animate and only then do we realize that it is inanimate. By this method, Styrsky forces us, as Alice Whittenburg wrote in her essay on him in irreal (re)views, to “dehumanize the object and force us to confront it in its own right, as brute existence, rather than as a tamed and domesticated bit of human culture.” But “Judge’s Bench, Old Cochise County Courthouse, AZ” achieves, I think, the same effect but the other way around. At first glance it is clear that this is a picture of an empty, older courtroom. But then, continuing to look on the picture in all of its evident stillness, the judge’s bench takes on a biomorphic quality–perhaps a result of its rounded edges contrasting with the rectangular doors behind it or the jury box to its side, the way it seems to be almost moving toward the camera as though it had been spilled onto the floor and was now following the floor’s slope, and the fact it is entirely and conspicuously made from a form of biomass, wood-humanizing it for a brief while until that impression is overcome by the very stillness from which it came in the first place and we once again find ourselves confronted by the fact that, biomorphic or not, the matter that is the judge’s bench is not living and there is not anything living in that courtroom (a fact that we might now, perhaps, even take as being made ironic by the pictures of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln hanging behind the judge’s bench). Here, then, the animate-inanimate dichotomy is revealed to us by our fleetingly bringing life to matter before having to dispense with it, as opposed to a picture by Styrsky in which we are “tricked” by the artist into thinking that the object is animate, has life, and then upon closer examination are forced by the realization of what it actually is to have to strip it of that life.

But if the “Judge’s Bench” remind us of the irreality of some of Magritte’s biomorphic paintings, such as Le séducteur, then the other photograph in the exhibit notable for its irreality reminds of those works of Magritte in which he gives us a canvas or a window that looks out on a different scene from the one it seems we should be looking out on, an example of which might be Le beau monde (The beautiful world): This photograph, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years (1911, 2007, and 2009),” is one of an ongoing series by Mark Klett and Byron Wolfe, in which they find old photographs of the Grand Canyon and then go back to the spot where these photographs were originally taken and retake the photograph, and then, on the new photograph, re-impose parts of the original photograph. In this case, two segments of the original photograph, taken by Alvin Langdon Coburn in 1911 and showing a storm passing through the canyon, were imposed upon the newer views of the panorama (with one half of the panorama composed of a picture taken in 2007, and the other half composed of a photograph from 2009, which is more or less explained in the title, “Alvin Langdon Coburn’s storm passing through three seasons and ninety-eight years [1911, 2007, and 2009]).”

Described in this way, the whole enterprise sounds like it could be a gimmick, even evoking aspects of 19th century trick photography, in which supposed spirits were superimposed on photographs to give the viewer the sense of seeing the supernatural. But the actual effect of what Klett and Wolfe are doing in this (and their other photographs of the Grand Canyon) is far more interesting than this, as they evoke the past, but do so in an absolutely neutral manner. To see, among the unchanging (in the human timeframe, “eternal”) rocks of the Grand Canyon, that a storm passed through in 1911 is hardly a revelation. Of course it did, and so no doubt did many other storms, clouds and fogs. And yet we are intrigued by these ephemeral clouds set against those unchanged rocks, caught in one, not very consequential moment a hundred years ago. More than just intriguing, the juxtaposition of the two time frames brings us into contact with the irreal in that what we are seeing is, in the world of the real, quite impossible, and yet not only are we are seeing it in this potentially most realistic of artistic mediums, there is even a logic to our seeing this impossible as it is the exact same thing that is being shown. We are, however, looking out on a very different time, and the knowledge that we are makes the world created by the photograph topsy-turvy in the photograph, and thereby evokes Magritte and the irreal (it is especially interesting to note here the unique effect that the fact that it is a photograph and not a painting has on the viewer–if one attempted this by way of painting, one expects that the effect would fall flat).

Thus Neal Shrouder’s apt description of Magritte’s work can also be said to well describe this aspect of Klett and Wolfe’s work, but utilizing the photographically unique quality of lapsed time: “Magritte was fond of illusions and problems of visual perception. How do you see things, and can you trust what you see? He used the symbols of windows, eyes, curtains, and pictures within pictures to explore these questions. Whereas his contemporary Salvador Dali painted hallucinatory dreamscapes of the mind, Magritte was content to stay within the reality of the visibly world. He places before us ordinary objects from our everyday lives and gave them new meaning — he forces us look at them from a new, slightly tilted, perspective. Magritte altered the viewer to the process of seeing.”