Jack Spencer: Silent Dramas

at Catherine Edelman, through July 11

David Plowden

at the Museum of Contemporary Photography, through August 1

By Fred Camper

Japanese film director Shohei Imamura once wrote that he used a lot of close-ups because his main interest was people. This perhaps intentionally naive statement not only slights the complexity of his own humanistic art, it also ignores a great tradition in cinema, particularly Japanese cinema: mostly long-shot films that express profound human truths. In photography as well, pictures don’t need to show faces to be about people.

Jack Spencer’s 34 moody, brooding photographs at Catherine Edelman, taken in the south, may show faces, hands, the backs of heads, or scenes devoid of people, yet all offer a sense of humans as spirit beings. Varied light patterns, rising smoke, and the application of brown toner during processing give his photos an enchanted, almost exotic feel. Tire Swings, St. Landry, Parish, LA shows two tires swinging by ropes from a tree as if just set in motion, though no people are visible. The scene has an aura of mystery partly because of its contrasting lights and darks: the tires are silhouetted against a bright background, patches of sunlight punctuating the foreground shade, oddly accenting nearby plants. Hand on a Screen Door, Coila, MS shows the back of a very wrinkled hand with part of the index finger missing–a magnificently detailed image that powerfully evokes the sense of an individual life, the skin a landscape of life’s labor.

When Spencer does show faces, he often avoids the dead-on view in which the photographer “unmasks” his subject. The man in Eugene, Greenville, MS shades his eyes with his hand, intensifying their appearance by framing and darkening them, allowing him to look out while “shielding” himself. Cooter With Glass, Coila, MS shows us the man whose hand was on the screen door, now looking through a piece of plate glass. Distorting his face slightly, this image leaves us with the intensity of his stare, his essence at that moment. The face of the dark-skinned woman in Gussie’s Magnolia, LaGrange, TN is blurred because Spencer has focused on the white magnolia she holds before her, its whiteness a stunning contrast with her skin, its sharp edges distinct against the fuzzy outlines of her face.

Most of Spencer’s subjects are African-American. Born in Mississippi in 1951 and raised in Mississippi and Louisiana, Spencer is white and grew up in a very poor family, he told me, and in a redneck, explicitly racist culture. Entering college in the late 60s he found “more liberal” friends and began to reject his redneck past. Now living in Nashville, he focuses on black people because they “pretty much define southern culture”; photography has helped him get past the milieu in which he was raised. He manipulates his photos in the printing, “trying to find out what a negative is saying to me”; through trial and error, the photograph “at some point finds its own voice.” But he has preferences: “I like smoke and fog, things that blur the photograph in some way–I don’t know why.”

Spencer flirts with a dangerous exoticism, seeming to depict his subjects as otherworldly creatures. Some of the flowers that fill the background in Girl and Sunflowers, Como, MS are almost as large as the girl’s head, making her seem like yet another fabulous plant. But Spencer’s images are ingenuous enough, and his use of light is evocative enough, for him to forge a convincing link between his subjects and the natural world. He makes one believe not only that Gussie loves magnolias but that they evoke her spirit; in the same way the wonderful old car that fills the background of M.L. and Mr. Henry’s Buick, Batesville, MS is as convincingly human as the man in front of it.

There seems a kind of animism at work in Spencer’s photos, as if he’d somehow absorbed remnant beliefs of the African diaspora: plants and objects and smoke all seem spiritually alive. In Field Burning #2, Russelville, AL a silhouetted man watches a field burn at night; hung alongside is Field Burning #1, Russelville, AL, which shows the same field without any people. But the juxtaposition makes clear that “without people” does not mean without human presence: the silhouetted man is so much a creature of smoke and the night that he seems present in the empty photo too, which captures something as prosaic as the annual burning of a hayfield yet also suggests a strange ritual presided over by spirits. Another spirit seems at play in the extraordinary Boy With Ball, Como, MS, which shows a boy in profile bouncing an out-of-focus ball–a dark, apparently quiet image that on second look is alive with movement. The almost pervasive darkness is broken by a patch of light just above the boy’s eye, focusing the viewer on his intense gaze, while a similar patch of light on the ball suggests it’s almost as alive as he is.

David Plowden’s retrospective at the Museum of Contemporary Photography–84 photographs taken over four decades–concentrates on the American landscape: fields, farms, roads, bridges, steel mills, dying Midwestern farm towns. But Plowden’s real subject is the way our civilization is revealed in our alterations to the landscape. Even though his images have the look of straight documentary photography, and he told me that in the darkroom he tries to bring out the image he originally saw, in a way his photographs are as manipulated as Spencer’s, framing and lighting the products of industrial civilization to make them seem both admirable and troubling, seductive and destructive.

Roads, for example, give us unprecedented mobility while slicing up the land. In East of Las Vegas, New Mexico, 1971, a two-lane road heads into the background, where it becomes a tiny portion of the image at the horizon. The road seems to invite us to follow its receding ribbon, but then we see that fences enclose it on both sides, underlining its role as an intruder on the land.

The borders of Plowden’s pictures seem metaphors for our rectilinear culture. Shopping Mall, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, 1981 shows an empty parking lot, a lone white arrow on the pavement pointing into the image, toward a large brick wall punctuated by a blank door to the left and two lone shopping carts to the right–a labyrinth of right angles. The empty lot recalls the cars it was built for, just as the carts remind us of the shoppers we don’t see. But the detail and relatively small size of the carts also contrast with the stark, massive coldness of the rest of the scene; strangely anomalous, they suggest individuals made tiny by this depersonalized mallscape.

This oddness is key to much of Plowden’s work: despite his ordinary subjects, almost everything he shoots becomes a bit peculiar. Even when the perspective is head-on, his views seem unbalanced, skewed. They invite movement–often an imagined entry into them–to complete them, and yet that mind’s-eye journey is often troubled or ambivalent. Human signs are at once evocative and strangely out of place, as if Plowden realized that even the most solid constructions won’t last forever. We often see bridges as if from midair. In Tyrone Bridge, Kentucky River, Tyrone, Kentucky, 1968 the camera is slightly below the bridge; perched high above the river, it appears a precarious, temporary web spun across emptiness, the water and sky. In one of his 19 books, The Hand of Man on America, Plowden quotes Willa Cather: while the white man “assert[s] himself in any landscape,” she wrote, the Indian tended to “vanish” into it. Plowden makes the signs of civilization–even signs as modest as shopping carts–stand out like sore thumbs, as if nothing we make quite belongs.

Born in Boston in 1932, raised in New York City and Vermont, Plowden remembers that from his bedroom window in New York he could see ships on the East River and three bridges. “I used to sit watching the boats go by, watching the lights come on in the city–I didn’t get much sleep,” he told me. Soon he became fascinated with steam locomotives; he even devoted the first decade of his career to trains, ending with the demise of the steam engine in 1960. “I very early on realized that the steam engine was disappearing,” he says. “The fact that it was endangered when I photographed it led me to photograph other things that would disappear”–Great Lakes steamers, old bridges, farm towns. He worked briefly as an assistant to O. Winston Link, the night photographer of steam trains, in 1959, then in 1960 met Walker Evans, from whom he learned to look at light. “The architecture of light, the effect of light on a subject, is an integral part of the subject itself. I used to stand with Walker on the 18th floor of the Time-Life Building and look out on the light of the city.” Later, extensive studies with Minor White taught him “how to transform what I saw into photographs.” Like Spencer, Plowden was changed by the 60s, which helped make him an “ardent environmentalist”: looking critically at the products of industry has created a complex, divided attitude toward technology that makes his work dynamic.

Photography historian Alan Trachtenberg writes in his introduction to Plowden’s latest book, Imprints: “The image of the train slowing to a stop, with Plowden’s eyes glued to the window until a fixed perspective appears, serves as a metaphor for his entire work.” And indeed Plowden’s compositions often have a picture-window quality: he seems to consciously delimit the landscape even as he invites us to traverse it. Implicitly acknowledging photography’s place in the industrial system, he links our straight-edged constructions to the borders of his own compositions. A black-and-white striped barn almost fills the frame in Barn, Near Guilford, Vermont, 1965, its stripes running parallel to the picture borders, its three windows additional metaphors for the photograph itself.

Perhaps as a result of working with Evans, Plowden also offers a subtle poetry of light, which gives all his subjects–from unplowed fields to steel mills–an almost palpable glow. The television, windows, and desk clerk’s counter in Hotel Lobby, Columbus Junction, Iowa, 1984 all offer rectangles that contrast with a curved lampshade and the floral wallpaper. Meanwhile a little bright, glowing area on the wallpaper near the window, where one might expect to see a clerk’s head, gives the scene a spiritual presence.

The way Plowden’s images are poised between humanity and its demise, loving those things that destroy nature even as they are themselves being destroyed, is perhaps clearest in “Main Street,” New Richland, MN, 1991. An empty, carless street is traversed by cracks that point inward toward an abandoned building at the left and a store at the center; through its window can be seen farm machinery. Like the shopping carts and Spencer’s tires, these manufactured things signal the creativity of the human beings who make and use them even as the cracks suggest the ultimate fate of everything we make, and are.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Tire Swings, St. Landry Parish, LA” by Jack Spencer/ “Shopping Mall, Beaver Dam, Wisconsin, 1981” by David Plowden.