Feeling History: “The Poetry of Place” at the Cincinnati Art Museum, December 10, 2016-June 11, 2017

February 10th, 2017  |  Published in *, January/February 2017

The Poetry of Place” is a small show at the Cincinnati Art Museum, with only 18 photographs by only three artists, William Clift, Michael Kenna, and Linda Connor, the works all selected from the Museum’s permanent collection and organized by Curatorial Assistant of Photography Emily Bauman. In recent years, there have been some outstanding museum surveys of new directions in landscape photography, but this is not intended to be anything of the sort. The curator’s statement on the wall suggests that these works depicting places as small as a bookshelf or a window and as large as a grand vista of the southwest are “lyrical interpretations, more translations of reality than documentary fragments.” More un-documents! I am coming around to thinking that the truly rebellious and daring and groundbreaking exhibition would be one that showed what it would take to actually document a thing these days.

But that will have to wait. This show, the Curator continues, focuses on “themes of memory and time.” It is certainly fair to say that the works suggest an interesting range of ways that human absence can be called to mind. Humans are everywhere suggested but never realized. They have created cityscapes—they have even helped create landscapes—and they once inhabited interior spaces, but are now reduced to the marks made by their long-departed presence or neglect. The sensibilities that have made these photographs are both private (that un-documentary attitude) and yet impersonal, complicating our way of seeing how humans make the world around them their own.

It seemed to me that the show was unified by its interests in the ways that history could be felt. This is not just the ways that the past can still be felt in places in our present. The show also exposes us to the history of how we have come to see such things over the course of photography’s century and a half of shaping our perceptions. The works in the show seem to be variously in conversation with the vision of the Pictorialists, the great western topographers, the extravagant casualness of picture postcards and the stiff vernacular imagery of tintypes, the WPA artists who documented the human situation by anthologizing what people in situations other than our own have looked at and touched.

I was first aware of William Clift from his series of monumental pictures around Shiprock in New Mexico. “Desert Form #1, New Mexico” (1984) is a good introduction to the bleak grandeur of those works. The sky is whited out in order to preserve as much tone as possible from the expanse of sand we see from somewhere above it, while an immense stretch of ridges rises above the desert floor into the distance. Perhaps there is a road meandering through all this. This is the way the region’s first photographers saw such places, in awe of how much a human feels out of scale in such a place. As numerous curators have pointed out, Clift seems drawn to monoliths, some natural and some of human origin. Clift’s pictures of Mont St. Michel, Normandy’s ninth-century magical kingdom, suggest a world with a much more comforting scale, though in the works at the CAM, he tends to favor pictures that show a shallow line of rooftops in the foreground while the abbey casts a huge shadow over the sand out to where the water becomes mists below and clouds above. Materiality and immateriality seem to be involved in a close dance with each other. This, the photograph seems to imply, is the evanescent (rather than monumental) mark of history.

William Clift, Desert Form #1, New Mexico, 1984,
gelatin silver print, 7 11/16 x 9 5/8 in. (19.5 x 24.4 cm),
Cincinnati Art Museum; Museum Purchase with funds provided
by Richard L. Shenk,1986.815. © and courtesy William Clift

 But I was especially struck with two Clift photographs of a far more intimate scale. Clift was one of two dozen photographers commissioned by Joseph Seagram and Sons around the time of the bicentennial to take pictures of some 1100 county courthouses across America. “Staircase, Miami County Court House, Troy, Ohio” (1975) turns its back on all the grandiosity of his more familiar landscapes to capture three levels of Troy’s 1885 court, perhaps the city’s largest civic space. It could be something found in the newspaper files, a 19th century photograph of a 19th century hallway. There is a great deal of carved oak and it’s all been very well kept up. It is not a grand space designed to pay homage to the majesty of the law, but a place through people might pass to conduct their business and feel some pride. It could be part of a schoolhouse or even a department store. The picture seems interested in what Americans value in their public spaces. “Law Books, Hinsdale County Court House, Colorado” (1975) may, at first look, tell us even less about the majesty of the law. (The wooden frame building was the site of the 1883 trial of Alfred Packer for cannibalism. He was found guilty and sentenced to be hanged until he was “dead, dead, dead.”) White-bound books sit, a little tumbled around, on a white painted shelf against a white wall. There is a WPA feel to this, an assurance that due deference is being paid to our civic lives. The bindings tell us that these are collections of the statutes passed by Colorado legislatures from 1885 (less than a decade after achieving statehood) till 1943. They have been well-thumbed, marked by contact with decades of readers, reminding us of the ways people leave things behind on their ways through time.

William Clift,
Law Books, Hinsdale County Court House, Colorado,1975,
gelatin silver print, 7 1/2 x 9 7/16 in. (19.1 x 24 cm),
Cincinnati Art Museum; Gift of Elaine and Arnold Dunkelman,
1991.495. © and courtesy William Clift

Michael Kenna is an international photographer whose work (with the possible exception of Monique’s Kindergarten) is rarely intimate. Among his many subjects, he has done a series of the Rouge auto factory near Detroit—no one does dark Satanic mills better than Kenna—and of British power plants, one of which is represented in the CAM show. But this show is more interested in his photographs that touch on the hulks left behind by 19th century industry. “Bill Brandt’s Chimney, Halifax, Yorkshire, England” (1983) revisits a 1937 image by the British photographer Bill Brandt of a factory scene with an immensely tall chimney pouring out smoke while a handful of children are playing by empty railroad tracks, capturing a view of a brick and steel environment where industry is alive but not robust. In Kenna’s picture, the old chimney is no longer in use and appears only in the background behind a cobbled road that now feels quaint. It is fair to wonder what exactly is the purpose of a picture that recalls industry but is unable to show it, or the lives of the people who worked in the factory, or the ways the things that identify our culture were made.

By contrast, Kenna’s “Broughton Castle, England” (1977) acknowledges that the older forms of economic organization have been reduced to tourist attractions. The castle itself is off in the distance, obscured by the morning fog, which is just being burnt off. In the foreground is a startlingly still pond with a beautiful display of reeds woven together by the strands of a spider’s web. This is a heron’s-eye view of the castle. Perhaps it’s not quite open to the public yet. The picture owes a good deal to the aesthetics of the picturesque—a landscape, typically, featuring a balance between the clearly separated foreground, middle ground, and background. The photograph is also a reminder of our relationship to “sights” in a post-romantic world: we may have intended to see the castle, but the reeds may turn out to be the more important distraction.

Michael Kenna,
Broughton Castle, England, 1977,
sepia- and selenium-toned silver print, 6 x 9 1/2 in. (15.2 x 24.1 cm),
Cincinnati Art Museum; Irwin and Judith Hanenson Collection,
09/10.40:20. © and courtesy Michael Kenna

Broughton Castle” is also a superbly printed image; one subtext of this show may be to let us view a sort of workshop by three superior masters of the photographic production, a traditional and now rather a craft industry in the digital age. Clift and Kenna produce startlingly dazzling images in the darkroom, while Linda Connor’s work is done on printing-out paper, which is essentially a contact print exposed to sunlight only, which make several of her images look even more wedded to the past than the imagery suggests. “Christina’s Hobby Horse” (2006)—like all of Connor’s pictures for this show—is from a series commissioned by the CAM to accompany its 2006 Andrew Wyeth exhibition. She was invited to capture the Olson farm where Wyeth found many of his subjects for about 30 years of his painting career. The core of the Olson building is an 18th century farmhouse on a hill made famous by Wyeth’s “Christina’s World.” Connor’s hobby horse is cheerful and capacious (it looks a little like a carousel animal) pushed back against a wall whose wallpaper has peeled enough to reveal three layers of occupation. The brilliance of Connor’s image is that it captures both the cheerfulness of the horse’s decoration and the gothic environment of a house that is not winning its war with time.

Hints of the gothic are everywhere. “Cobwebs and Rain” (2006) looks out a multi-paned window on a rainy day and celebrates the magic of wet glass. We can see very little detail either in the room where we are situated or on the other side of the window, but shapes are always being suggested. And nestled in almost every pane of the window is a sinewy cobweb nest, adding curves and softness to the picture’s austere geometry. “The South Side (After Walker Evans)” (2006) makes the Olson farm something between the house that might have been self-documented by an amateur’s tintype and a quick shot you might have taken as a child of a neighbor’s place that you were sure was strange, if not haunted. One of its windows is very dark; others are brightly splashed by their reflection of the sun. A glorious assemblage of middle tones, the picture suggests what houses used to look like to us as they were first coming to be routinely recorded in photographs.

Linda Connor,
North Star and Meteor, 2006, gold-toned printing-out paper,
9 15/16 x 7 7/8 in. (25.2 x 20 cm),
Cincinnati Art Museum; Museum Purchase, 2006.168. © and courtesy Linda Connor

Autumn Apple Tree” (2006) gets us outside for a welcome breath of fresh air, where we see the edge of useful plantings on the verge of being completely overtaken by weeds. There is history in horticulture as well as in architecture, as we might have seen as well in Kenna’s “Broughton Castle.” But the triumph of the show, in terms of capturing the rich complexity of our relationship to the history we see in places, is Connor’s “North Star and Meteor” (2006). An extended night exposure, we see a skyful of stars circling around the immovable North star. Through their concentric circles slashes a single shooting star. The title tells it all: a few things are stable while most others are not. Meanwhile, the house blazes with lights; it looks as if there was a reception going on there to which we were not invited. The dark and brooding house now bristles with warmth. From the inside, the house seemed about to fall into decay, but here it seethes with usefulness—but only at the cost of our not being able to experience it from inside. It is both exhilarating and moody. I think it captures the spirit of the exhibition altogether. History leaves marks on everything it touches. Those marks become, as the curator seems to be arguing, the poetry of the place. But that poetry may also be the story of people we can never touch, of events as exclusionary as they are community-building, and that we may be as likely to find in them a procession of ghosts as we are to see reflections of who we are.

–Jonathan Kamholtz

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