Saturday, November 23, 2013

Passing Through

There is an idea of movement in both Alec Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi  and Joel Sternfeld’s Oxbow Archive that I find compelling . Sleeping by the Mississippi  references this majestic body of water deep with historical references and literary narrative winding its way through the Midwest. The feeling  of power and visceral movement which sweeps with it through Soth’s home town proved an allure too difficult to resist. We rarely see the river in the body of work, however the feeling of transience and transition is tangible in the images; as the river moves, we move. The youthful endeavour of Alec Soth - characterized in the Hucklberry Finn tale of boyhood wandering - to follow this boisterous river and photograph the places and people that inhabit its shores is easily juxtaposed against the maturity and restraint of Sternfeld’s Oxbow Archive.

It is useful to think of the river in a metaphorical sense - Soth’s  Mississippi  flowing with purpose and intent, eager to move on versus the idea of the ox bow lake - a result of a settling of sediment and erosion over time, that turns inward on itself, detaching itself from the feverent flow of the river. Sternfeld embodies this sense of process and passage of time in this mature body of work. A master of social document through wandering himself - the sense of movement in the images is innate. The passing of seasons and the changes it brings are frozen in time to produce a social document of a different kind.  

With both Sleeping by the Mississippi and Oxbow Archive exhibiting an idea of movement, it is interesting to explore the role the 8x10 view camera plays in this. The use of an unwieldy view camera feels decidely counter-intuitive to the idea of capturing images while roaming the landscape. Soth claims the 8x10 made the process of wandering and meeting people less ‘predatory’ as he often left the view camera in his car and sets off with an open mind. In this way the limits of the view camera, in that it is cumbersome, pedantic and labour intensive to set up, releases something in the photographer. To limit one freedom is to release another. Liberated from the urge to capture a feverent twenty frames per minute it allows the photographer to look, and to really see.

One can imagine the rigorous process of ‘setting up’ the view camera as a ritual of sorts – a solemn ceremony consisting of a series of actions performed according to a prescribed order. Patience and diligence exhibited in the process of manually setting up the camera are again shown in the process of setting up the image. To undertake this lengthy process also displays a personal confidence in the image they are about to capture - a worthiness. The view camera with all its intricacies and limitations, and the notoriously complex focusing process, serves to slow down the photographer to really evaluate the image they are about to capture. Seeing the image slowly registering on the ground glass - albeit upside down and back to front -seems to me another ritual which couldn't but help to sustain a photographers affection for the medium. When Soth speaks about the view camera, with all its quirks and limitations, there is an overwhelming sense of respect and affection. His description of the image appearing on the ground glass as ‘jewel-like’ that is sometimes so beautiful he almost refrains from capturing the frame betrays a novelty and a fascination that the view camera would bring to every exposure. 

Soth claims that he is not the kind of photographer that waits around for the optimal lighting for a shot– and there is something about the necessity to keep moving which underpins Sleeping by the Mississippi that makes me believe this. But there is also an underlying sense of patience and tranquillity rooted in Sleeping by the Mississippi that conveys a sense of care and craft which the view camera demands. This idea of time or indeed urgency and the knowing of how long it takes to expose these images add to the depth of the photographs. The astounding depth of field in both Sternfeld’s Oxbow Archive and Soth’s Sleeping by the Mississippi is the obvious draw of the view camera but I also find the idea of time and compression of time into one image fascinating. In Sternfeld’s Oxbow  Archive - the culmination of an almost hermitic plight over  eighteen months - it is the clarity and detail of the images that captures our attention at first. But as one becomes drawn into the book it is the compression of time evident in his images that sustains us. The passage of time and the impact of the seasons on this unremarkable potato field is clearly an interest that sustained Sternfeld. It is interesting to view Sternfeld as the farmer of this field, gaining his sustenance from the working of the land. He came to know the land intimately - as meticulously in tune with the processes of the land and the weather as he was about the processes associated with the view camera. Capturing the changes of seasonality was driven by a sense of urgency, a sense of the expiration of the image. This is the last time we will see the landscapes quite like this. This, the inevitable ending of things, captured with a quiet dignity and restraint. Sternfeld visited this site on his previous wanderings for American Prospects, but his return marks a more mature piece work - the pace is different.  The inclusion of the map at the end of the book signals that he wants us to relate, to imagine that we too could return to these places captures in his photographs, although always with a knowing that these exact images will never truly be seen again.

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