Frank Gohlke


Paul Caponigro


Joseph Bartscherer

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography

Civilization, scholars tell us, began when mankind turned from hunting and gathering to agriculture; a study of man’s relations with the landscape can tell us much of his abilities and ambitions through the ages. The contemporary landscape photographs on display at Columbia College’s Museum of Contemporary Photography speak as much about the state of our civilization today as they do about the state of our landscape, for they illustrate the tense and ambiguous interplay that has been going on between mankind and nature since man began reshaping the natural world.

Frank Gohlke’s most dramatic photos are the ones that demonstrate the violence that often characterizes this interaction. After a tornado hit his home town of Wichita Falls, Texas, in April of 1979, killing 46 people and wiping out 2,600 homes, Gohlke rushed there to record the destruction. He returned a year later, set his camera up at the same sites, and photographed the rebuilt town. One block that was choked with house remnants, wrecked cars, and blasted trees is, a year later, a model–virtually a parody–of suburban American tidiness: there are neat ranch houses, perfectly trimmed lawns, clean sidewalks and curbs. In another pair of views, a One Way sign and light pole that were bent by the tornado are returned to their original positions. If the devastation of the earlier photos is awe-inspiring, then so is the determination of the town’s residents to rebuild: it is as if, having experienced the brute power of nature, they want to remember it as little as possible.

In a scene near Wichita Falls, part of a series featuring places that were significant to Gohlke as a child, a tiny storm cellar faces the vastness of the prairie, its corrugated metal door looking flimsy and inadequate as we remember the destruction of the tornado. There is a shot of a lawn rolling down to the foggy Minnesota shore of Lake Superior, with only a swing set, a badminton net, and a house trailer standing between us and the void.

But Gohlke will not let the viewer forget that the man-nature relationship cuts both ways: violence is also visited on the landscape by man. Some of his examples are banal: a meadow near Bakersfield, California, littered with discarded oil-drilling equipment; a cardboard box discarded in a Mississippi creek. In his study of Mount Saint Helens, the result of several visits to the volcano after its eruption in 1980, Gohlke compares damage caused by the eruption of the volcano with that of clear-cut logging in the nearby forests. We see that the results are pretty similar. These aerial views of downed trees are strikingly beautiful–one shot of lumber clogging a lake reminded me of a microscopic view of some delicate crystal; and an aerial view of brightly colored algal ponds dotting a lifeless basin filled with gray ash could be an abstract painting.

But conflict with the natural world is not inevitable, as Gohlke’s views of grain elevators remind us. Gohlke lived in Minneapolis–and traveled the plains states–for 16 years, and this show includes a number of photos of tiny midwestern towns lorded over by the huge elevators. The towns have names like Hooker, Oklahoma; Plainview, Texas; and Friend, Nebraska. More often than not they are just wide spots in the road, hamlets that owe their existence to the fertile prairies beyond the last ranch house. Le Corbusier said grain elevators were the midwest’s cathedrals, and Gohlke seems to agree that they have a purpose that is more than purely utilitarian: they also symbolize man’s reliance on the landscape. Photographically, they provide a bit of visual relief from the shattering flatness of the Great Plains. And it’s a funny thing: when man provides just a little help, in the form of a tall elevator or a church steeple, Gohlke’s landscapes become as compelling as more classically beautiful views of mountains and seascapes.

Even if lacking in grandeur, Gohlke’s landscapes are on a grand scale. Paul Caponigro, who taught Gohlke during the late 1960s and who is sharing the exhibition, tends to dwell on details. His main concern is with the texture of his subjects, rather than with their larger context. The result is gorgeous black-and-white prints of cliff faces, ancient abbeys, dried flowers. In Eroded Sand, Revere Beach, Massachusetts, for example, the marks of receding water on a small patch of wet sand are revealed to be as complex as the valley topography of a great river and its tributaries. His views of flowers and snow forms are as full of details that most of us overlook.

Caponigro uses the same well-honed eye to look at man-made structures; the ones he photographs are so old that they have become parts of the landscape: empty stone basilicas and abbeys, and the mysterious prehistoric rock formations of Britain and Ireland–Stonehenge and Avebury and something called the Devil’s Arrow, a great stone obelisk that rises out of a field in North Yorkshire. Caponigro never includes people in these photographs: both the natural and the man-made subjects seem independent, timeless, indifferent to human presence. There is none of the humor and poignancy present in Gohlke’s photographs; but these photos are lusher, more beautiful to look at.

The third set of photos in the current exhibition documents the growth of Mattawa, a new town in eastern Washington. The photos by Joseph Bartscherer and text by Bartscherer and Willard Wood depict the evolution of the town–or the surrounding countryside, really–from desert to irrigated farmland. As we go through the ranks of photos we see first arid hills and sagebrush flats, then newly laid irrigation pipe and its attendant giant pumps and reservoirs, then the first apple saplings. The text tells of the difficulties facing the Mattawans, modern-day pioneers: gophers, the parching sun, water contaminated from past agricultural use, wind that prevents fruit trees from growing straight; even immigration authorities, a hazard for the illegal Mexican laborers.

What is fascinating about Mattawa, at least for those who are not interested in the intricate agricultural details, is that the landscape is wholly subjugated to man. The photos do not dwell on the original landscape, and there is no discussion of any inherent beauty it might have. What matters is how well man can shape an inhospitable place to his needs–and that means a lot of headaches for the Mattawans. To pollinate the fruit blossoms, for example, bees are trucked in and released in a different orchard each night. To contend with the wind, the fruit trees must be staked just so. And the water, which is what the project is all about, must be carefully filtered to rid it of pollutants and plant diseases. The photos are documentary and matter-of-fact, but the human ambition they record–like that of the original pioneers who settled on Gohlke’s prairies–is remarkable.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Gohlke.