“I never want to see another picture of ________.” Industry veterans share their pet peeves on themes in contemporary photography. In this series they present their “rule” along with five photographs that break the rule in an effort to show that great work is the exception to the rule.
I generally keep it to myself, but most of my friends know that the “f64” styled landscape has no magic for me. "Trees and rocks, water optional" was a rather sardonic comment I made all too often about landscape photographs when I was in my 20s, and generally directed toward the Ansel Adams vein of imagery. That said, I’ve also always had a hard time articulating what it was that bothered me about these images… It wasn’t until I read Andy Grunberg's essay on A. Adams that it was finally defined. Grundberg is a hero of mine, for his keen observation and clear writing style, and in this case, he summed up my disinterest in one little word—“scenery.” Too perfect, too crisp, too still. For as majestic as many of the vistas, deserts and forests tend to be, they are, for me, arrested, rather than arresting.
Tree portraits also fall into this category, in that their rendering seems to lack life; inanimate, abstracted. The photographers who’ve made these portraits are invariably passionate and heartfelt, excited about the images they’ve made. And, of course, they should be! I’m the first to admit that I’m as frustrated as they are that I have little to say.
My colleague Peggy Sue Amison introduced me to the photographs of Caleb Charland this past spring. The images she showed me were from his series Back to Light, of floor lamps centered among fruit trees, or rows of beets. It was curious at first, if not strange, but it turns out that that’s their gift… From each lamp is a drapery of wires or strings of lights, with each one leading to a bulb of an apple or potato, at which point you realize, the energy powering the lamp is coming from the plants!! Fantastic! And like any great and gifted teacher, Charland has converted a complex concept into an incredibly simple image, and in a charming way, quirky as they may be.
The fundamental nature of photography is that it’s light sensitive. (Light is integral and electricity relevant.) Charland’s work, for me, connects back to Nadar, Etienne Trouvelot, Herman Schnauss and Harold Edgerton, among others, who experimented and played with electricity as related to their photographic practice. In addition, the artist has also managed to illustrate something known but unseen, educating us or, perhaps, reminding us, that vegetation—vegetatio(n-) from the medieval Latin—means power, the ‘power of growth’. Brilliant.