Michael Ableman: From the Good Earth

at the Field Museum, through

October 13

Stephen Szoradi: Foundations

at Graham, Anderson, Probst & White, through August 30

By Fred Camper

Michael Ableman is not your average art photographer, as I learned when I tried to interview him by phone. “Could you call me back in 20 minutes?” he asked. “I have to milk the goats.” Though the Field Museum is showing 60 of his photographs documenting the growing, processing, and marketing of food, Ableman spends most of his time operating Fairview Gardens, a 12-acre organic farm in Goleta, California, now surrounded by suburban development. Calling it “one of the models in this country for the small-scale urban farm,” he says it “produces a hundred different fruits and vegetables, employs 15 people on 12 acres, and feeds 300 to 500 families.”

Ableman’s exhibit reflects his dissatisfaction with the conventions of art photography: “It is not enough to create pretty pictures on the wall. We have to tell a story with them. I feel strongly about certain issues–I see that our future is in question for our children and our grandchildren in terms of the water we drink, the air we breathe, the food we eat, and the soil we depend on. I don’t necessarily look at myself as an artist but a storyteller.” When the Santa Barbara Museum of Art was organizing this traveling show, Ableman had a disagreement with the curator, who didn’t want to have any wall labels. She felt that the images should speak for themselves, but Ableman “was solely interested in the story the show told.” He believes that the labels, which he wrote himself, are crucial: they put the images in context. In fact when I first saw the exhibit–as it was being installed, without all the labels up–I felt a bit annoyed by the National Geographic pictorialism of some of the shots. Technically fine, they seemed like mere illustrations, but of what? Seeing the show with all the labels and in the correct order, however, one realizes that Ableman’s work presents his theme effectively–and often affectingly.

These are not deeply original expressive images, and my experience of the exhibit wasn’t particularly “aesthetic.” But the imagery has an impact in terms of Ableman’s story. Organized into four sections (following those of Ableman’s 1993 book From the Good Earth, in which many of these images can also be found), the exhibit moves from agricultural practices of preindustrial cultures to the destructive “factory” agriculture of the present to the reintroduction of sound, small-scale farming and marketing.

Ableman’s first section depicts ancient cultures still living in harmony with the land. An aerial view, Landscape, Huasac, Peru, shows an irregular cluster of homes in a village surrounded by small fields. Separated by roads or hedges and dotted with trees, the fields make a sort of quilt whose patchwork not only echoes the pattern of the roofs but seems gently woven into the land’s hilly contour. Ableman’s label for Ruges, Ijenda, Burundi describes the round-roofed homes as seeming to “burst forth from the landscape like mushrooms”; around them is land in various stages of cultivation, again showing people living side by side with the food they grow. In Mustard Harvest, Chincheros, Peru, a farmer stands in a road with a huge clump of mustard plants tied up in a cloth on his back; the way they’re bound to him suggests a kind of intimacy. A central theme of this exhibit, in fact, is physical contact between growers and food. We see hands processing and sorting food, hands holding it, hands presenting it for sale. There are no shots of the huge factories that process most of the food we Americans eat, however; Ableman’s favored model of processing seems to be the winnowing of beans by the Hopi (in Arizona) and the Karen (in Thailand).

Two powerfully contrasting photographs–one ending the first section, “Into the Past,” and the other opening the second, “Predictions of Fire”–clearly present Ableman’s point of view. A line of figures at the bottom of the overhead shot Burmese Farmers Going to Harvest, Pagan, Burma is dwarfed by the surrounding land: fields and trees recede into the distant background, which reveals a veritable forest of round-topped Buddhist temples, their shapes echoing the trees emerging from the mist. People, land, culture, and air are all part of an interdependent whole filled with mystery. Right next to it is a vivid image of monoculture farming: Vulnerable Perfection, Coachella Valley, California shows identical green vegetables sprouting in a massive array of long parallel rows stretching toward a distant vanishing point. This mechanical, barren image almost frighteningly depicts the aggressive way that repetitive cultivation has reshaped the land; Ableman makes palpable the imperial quality of industrial thinking. Where “Into the Past” shows dwellings, people, and cultivated and uncultivated land in a kind of symbiosis, cultivated land fills most of the photographs in “Predictions of Fire.” The totalizing quality of land use in Ableman’s second section reminded me of drift-net fishing, in which boats sweep the ocean “clean,” catching all beings, whether edible or not, in their miles-wide jaws.

Ableman, 41, spent much time at his grandparents’ Delaware farm as a child; he also took up photography then. “Initially there wasn’t a whole lot of direction,” he says, but his contact with a photojournalist in high school led to studies with two former students of Minor White, whose formalism was reflected in Ableman’s own early black-and-white work. Now, he adds, it “never comes out of the closet.” Though he acknowledges that this approach helped him “find who I am,” eventually he rejected modernist photography. While still in his late teens he became dissatisfied with the fine art world: “I felt it was elitist. One thing that photography does really well for people who apply it well is it teaches you how to observe your world. My observations were telling me that I didn’t like what I was seeing. I quit photographing and moved to British Columbia–I helped a friend homestead and ran a small sheep operation. I didn’t even have a camera anymore. It took me a number of years in agriculture to come up with a worldview, something I felt I had to say. Then the photography was able to blossom.” For the past 12 years Ableman has traveled the world in the winter, studying and photographing a variety of agricultural traditions.

While rejecting the “exclusivity and self-indulgence” of much art for art’s sake, Ableman nonetheless says he farms like an artist. “The way the farm is laid out, it’s as if the land itself was kind of my empty canvas. I made decisions not solely on the basis of production levels but on how the various elements fit together visually.” The image of Fairview Gardens that begins the next section, “Stepping Stones to Renewal,” shows a few rows of celery leading toward a wooden home; between the rows are peach trees in bloom surrounded by greenery, which the label identifies as “beneficial weeds.” The visual variety of peach trees, weeds, and celery is in marked contrast to the monocultural sameness of the “Predictions of Fire” images. And, inferring that the house is the residence of farmers who eat what they grow, we see growing food and eating it as closely connected–the opposite of the way our industrial agriculture separates production and consumption.

“Stepping Stones to Renewal” also includes some striking images of urban farming in New York and Philadelphia. Garden of Eatin’, South Philadelphia, Pennsylvania shows a number of backyard plots behind some tenements with a variety of things growing in them: this humanized and humanizing jumble contrasts starkly with the cold, calculated steel-and-glass skyscrapers in the background. This picture in turn differs powerfully from a strong one in the fourth and final section, “Of Marketplaces and Cookpots.” Early Morning, Piazza Centrale, Siena, Italy also shows urban architecture in the background, but here boxes of fruit for sale in the foreground seem to reinforce rather than contrast with the lovingly detailed, centuries-old facades of this famous public square.

Unlike most modernist and postmodernist photography–and art–Ableman’s images don’t address the artist’s or viewer’s inner visions or rhythms or create paradoxes designed merely to raise intellectual questions. Ableman wants to connect his images with the physical stuff of the world, and he has some definite opinions on how we humans should make use of the planet. To see his show is to think about, and perhaps act on, issues outside of photography. “I don’t pretend that my exhibit will change the world,” Ableman says. But he’d be happy if it inspired people to “do something in small and subtle ways –to shop at a farmers’ market, or plant a window box.”

Stephen Szoradi’s small show at Graham, Anderson, Probst & White–11 black-and-white photographs, two sculptures, and some of his notebooks–might seem the height of political incorrectness to those in agreement with Ableman’s views: Szoradi documents, even glorifies the construction of a steel mill (owned by Steel Dynamics, Inc.) in Butler, Indiana. Smaller than the old mills, it does at least recycle scrap–but it’s no bean farm. In fact it was built on the site of a former farm, and the first two photos show the farm and the apparently happy-to-sell farmer. (Szoradi–who took more than 400 images documenting the mill’s construction from start to finish–calls this show only “a taste.”)

Szoradi’s project may not be correct to some people, but his wonderful photographs are apt reminders that art that avoids the self-entrapment of high modernism can reestablish a link between images and objects, use imagery to tell a story, and still give aesthetic pleasure. I loved the tactile quality of Szoradi’s prints–his surfaces come in every shade of gray and every degree of solidity. These effects are in large part planned; a four-by-five view camera’s large negatives result in razor-sharp prints, and Szoradi uses only available light, coordinating the exposure and development times of the negative to achieve the desired look. These untitled images of concrete and metal have the feel of concrete and metal. In one we’re looking into a windowless room–part of the mill’s support foundation some 40 feet underground, Szoradi told me. Temporary wooden railings and concrete beams cross the floor, leading the eye inward toward a huge concrete post in the center of the room, which stops the eye with its multitextured concrete surface.

Szoradi, 27, moved to Chicago from Washington, D.C., several years ago, attracted in part by the fact that it’s still a city where things are made. He loves Chicago’s industrial supply shops, recalling an early visit to “a place called Amazon Hose–all they sell is hose, fire hose, oxygen hose. Most of these places are geared toward heavy industry–what an artist might need 5 feet of, they sell in 500-foot lengths.” He contrasts Chicago with his native city, where “nothing’s made. You just have the final product. You don’t see what went into making it. You buy produce, but you don’t see where it came from.”

Several photos show construction crews at the mill. A shot of the men who poured the foundations is especially complex formally: light streams in from above, striking their hard hats, while lower areas are in shadow. The men stare into the camera unflinchingly, neither friendly nor hostile, revealing little. Szoradi’s composition connects their burly bodies with the structure they’re building: each stands in a different pose, connected to the part he might be working on. Adding to the image’s vitality are the frames going up to hold poured concrete and ladders, suggesting that the structure is rising. Another photograph is actually two shots of adjacent portions of a rounded chamber, mounted as a diptych. Szoradi’s approach suggests that the space is too large for a single photo, and in fact the photograph shows the huge furnace that melts the metal, giant bricks still being laid in its walls.

Szoradi dates his present direction to an undergraduate project at Bennington that included photographs of laborers retired from a local quarry. Now he sees his work as part of a long-term, open-ended, multipart project to “photograph the root industries that physically built the country.” If it’s no surprise to find a California artist interested in organic farming, Szoradi’s work seems characteristic of Chicago. We may have our share of organic gardens–and I hope we’ll have more–and California may have its heavy industry, but Szoradi’s ongoing project is a welcome addition to the art of the rust belt, uniting our industrial past and present with the hard-headed physicality and in-your-face bluntness of much Chicago art.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photograph of “Mustard Harvest, Chincheros, Peru” by Michael Ableman; Photograph by Stephen Szoradi (no title).