Umbra Series

Shadows of Kentucky

The series of photographs made by Grey Crawford in the 1970s originally titled Kentucky and now presented in book form under the more redolent Umbra were not made in Kentucky. Nor were they intended to evoke such a place. So there’s no confusing their intentions with a project like Nancy Rexroth’s Iowa, of a similar vintage, which was, nevertheless, shot in Ohio. In the 1970s, photographers played many different games of hide and seek. Crawford’s series was made in southern California, in a light that casts everything in sharp contrast – bright glare and deep shadow – a light that can play tricks on your eyes. If that misleading early title declared anything, it was a warning: What you see is not what you are getting. Perception is always a question. Especially in photography, where nothing can be taken at face value.

Crawford’s Kentucky photographs and other series he made in the Mojave desert during the 1970s have not been exhibited for decades, but they make a compelling claim on our attention now, as we will see. They embody a transformation that took place in art photography between the late 1960s and the early 1980s, motivated, in almost every case and in every place, by the impulse to question and exploit the essential documentary character of the medium. Just as important, Crawford’s photography epitomizes a creative milieu whose importance has not been sufficiently explored or appreciated, and certainly not for photography. The new history of American photography must be written from the points of view of Claremont, Pasadena, and Los Angeles, as well as San Francisco, Rochester, Boston, Albuquerque, Chicago, Tucson and many other locations. Crawford had contact with several of these creative nodes and the artists who worked and taught there. His work can help revise the emphasis placed on New York as the center of artistic ideas and the modernist ethos it promoted in photography. It is probably worth pointing out that there are no deserts on the east coast and the light is very different, although the same sun shines on both.

In a crucial sense, then, this essay is about other places, about the desert but also about cities where artists reimagined photography. Throughout the decade of the 1970s, not only in the United States but in locations around the world, a host of conceptual and performance-based artists (the distinction is often artificial) used photography to document their procedures. In many cases, photographs were the only lasting manifestation of the works. Yet it is misleading to regard the use of photography as transparent in these cases. The artists’ relation to photography was often investigative, especially in the recording of time. As a corollary, they explored narrative strategies that deliberately altered the relation of subject and camera. It is equally clear that in many cases the characteristics of photography (framing, temporal discontinuity, repetitiveness, unifocal point of view, among others) structured the original performance. As with Crawford’s shadow plays, which make up Umbra, the works in question were created not only with but for the camera, and explicating that relation is crucial to understanding not only the development of conceptual art but also the malleable character of so-called documentary photography. The unorthodox uses of the such strategies most frequently had two targets. One was the fine art ambition of photographers and publishers, from Stieglitz, Steichen and Camera Work to Minor White, Aperture and beyond, who treated the photograph as an expressive, even visionary iteration. The other was the tradition of documentary photography itself, with its socially concerned focus and its often thinly veiled voyeurism. Lest we think, however, that the various revolutions of photography were provoked exclusively by outsiders, Pop and conceptual artists with little interest in the history, aesthetics or techniques of darkroom practice, many of the most active provocateurs were so-called straight photographers, trained the in the old fashion way.

Two examples can help set the changing scene for photography in the United States, and both illuminate Crawford’s experiments. In 1966 American conceptual artist Mel Bochner was attempting to document open-lattice sculptures in his studio, similar to those constructed by the American artist Sol Lewitt. He quickly discovered that the lens-based system of description yielded so many artifacts and peculiarities that these required investigation in their own right. For the next four years, Bochner explored the medium with the intention of taking nothing for granted about it, from the function of the apparatus to the construction of meaning by the viewer. He made photographs of everything from shadows on paper to shaving cream in close-up. Of course, practicing photographers already knew all of what he discovered, but where they saw problems to be overcome or aspects to be exploited, Bochner sought to reopen fundamental questions. The result of these investigations was Misunderstandings (A Theory of Photography), a series of quotations relating to photography written on index cards. Among the most provocative is one taken from the Encyclopedia Britannica of the period: “Photography cannot record abstract ideas.” Of course not, since, technically speaking, photography traffics in appearances. But for Bochner and so many others at the time, “abstract ideas” were precisely what motivated their photography.

Crawford never met Bochner, although he would encounter some important artists in the art scene of Los Angeles, but he did meet Betty Hahn, the other exemplar of photographic revisioning. An American photographer whose own darkroom-based approach to the medium was distinctly irreverent, Hahn was one of Crawford’s teachers at the Rochester Institute of Technology, where he came to study photography in 1972. At that time, Rochester, New York, could claim to be the center of the information industry, home to Eastman Kodak, Xerox, Bausch and Lomb and the George Eastman House Museum of Photography. It was here, too, that photographer Nathan Lyons founded the Visual Studies Workshop, an independent program to promote alternative approaches to photographic art. Many photographers would pass through the Workshop, moving from coast to coast, and California was often the beneficiary. Crawford had close contact with a range of artists and photographers, few of whom were practicing what might be called straight photography, including Lyons, Hahn, Michael Bishop and Les Krims, as well as younger contemporaries such as Allison

Rossiter and Stuart Rome.

In this kitchen of ideas and practices, Betty Hahn was one of the most adventurous cooks. An advocate of alternative photographic processes, especially gum bichromate printing, she offended some of her male colleagues by introducing “domestic” materials and activities into the darkroom. She made a practice of stitching her prints at a time when even the most unorthodox photographers felt unsettled by the idea of violating the foundation of the image. As she wrote, “I began to feel that photographic images were highly charged documentary and plastic materials. As long as they retained enough information and detail, photographs could be very malleable.” In this environment, Crawford’s vision of photography was transformed. As he remarked in an interview, he had come to Rochester with the idea of photography as a practical path, a skill that could be professionally employed. He left – years later – to return to Claremont with the belief that it could be the means of making art. He said of Hahn, “She brought a mixed media try anything approach that ranged way outside the box.”

The Claremont he returned to as a graduate student in 1975 was as rich as the one he had left, but with an important difference. Crawford was used to an artistic milieu, but with photography he had a new entry point and more a direct interest. Some stage setting is necessary here. The city of Claremont is home to six distinct academic institutions – Claremont McKenna College, Pomona College, Harvey Mudd College, Scripps College (for women), and Pitzer College – as well as various graduate programs, especially the Claremont Graduate School. The graduate program in fine arts was studio based, and included a range of practices from ceramics to photography. It was the brain child of the distinguished artist Millard Sheets, a Scripps professor whose public mosaics were prominent in southern California. By the time Crawford returned to Claremont, photographer Lewis Baltz had just departed the faculty, but the influence of his rigorous, repetitive photography was still in the air, especially through his publication of New Industrial Parks Near Irvine California, which Crawford saw after he began his desert series El Mirage. “He showed us the world we were making,” as Crawford put it. Baltz’s serial attitude mingled with other distinctive approaches on the campus. John McLaughlin was linked to the campus through his friendship with faculty member Karl Benjamin, an abstract painter. McLaughlin had established a visual language in painting that reflected his own version of minimalism, a blend of Zen Buddhist ideas and the chromatic geometry of Mondrian. The austerity of his work in the face of the upheavals of postwar expressionism and the Pop art of the 1960s was like a beacon to younger California artists, including James Turrell, Ed Ruscha and Bruce Nauman, and Crawford studied his work intently, seeking to understand how such a contemplative attitude might apply to photography. “I was trying to get at the glory of god by looking at his work. It was like being a monk,” he remarked.

McLaughlin died a year after Crawford returned to school, but the photographer had been looking at his paintings for a decade while growing up in Claremont, as he had the work of Benjamin, who introduced him to McLaughlin, and at the ceramics of Paul Soldner and Harrison McIntosh, both faculty members. At the same time, he was able to take courses that fed his interests in philosophy, art history and mythology. Oddly enough, what brought all these influences together was humble, two-dimensional photography. Enough art was being made that Crawford found a modicum of employment photographing works in studios and in the campus art gallery. He shot work by George Herms, Bruce Connor and Betye Saar, among others – works whose collage imagery had a visceral impact. They would seem to be a universe away from the rigors of McLaughlin, but like so much art produced in California in the 1960s and 70s, they shared a desire to reach audiences at a level more fundamental and subjective than that of concept or language. Strictly in terms of photography, however, Crawford’s encounter with the work of pioneering sound artist Michael Brewster was equally decisive.

Brewster, who coined the term acoustic sculpture, created sound installations that typically involved a tone or combination of tones emitted into a space from a single loudspeaker. Crawford had the task of photographing Brewster’s installation at the Baxter Art Gallery of the California Institute of Technology for the exhibition catalogue. He confronted nothing more or less than an empty room. The art of the 1960s and 70s is replete with attempts to render nothing, that is, either experiential voids or aspects of experience that lie outside or beyond visual appearances. Ad Reinhardt’s so-called black paintings might be one example, Yoko Ono’s series Instructions for Paintings might be another. Recalling Mel Bochner’s appropriation of the Encyclopedia Britannica’s injunction that “photography cannot record abstract ideas,” we can see Crawford’s encounter with immateriality as a crystallizing moment for the photographs that would follow. Brewster’s sound pulsed as a wave, creating peaks and valleys as visitors moved through the gallery. Precise in its amplitude, it defined the space. Beyond some standard photos of the installation in process, Crawford’s signature image for the catalogue was a photograph of the artist in motion in the gallery. Blurred by the slow shutter speed, he seems to be in the process of disappearing into the sound. In Crawford’s words, “The entire experience was not visual but physical, and visitors made the piece. There was nothing there except…”

The paradox of “nothing there except…” animates Crawford’s photographic series. On the face of it they announce their kinship with McLaughlin’s minimalism, with Brewster’s sound pieces, and with a host of other investigations of sculpture, seriality, process and time, not to mention Fred Sandback’s string sculptures, which reopened a dialogue between drawing and architecture. A description of some of the images helps clarify just what Crawford had in mind, and it reveals that within discussions of photography, he had larger ambitions.

In the broadest terms, we could say that the artist wanted to rewrite the rules that specified the relationships between the photographic subject, the camera, the intervening artist-photographer, and the viewer’s own subjectivity. There is no natural photography, and these relationships are always to be negotiated, even if it means accepting conventions. With that in mind, Crawford happily turned photography into an epistemological labyrinth. Trouble – or rather call it enlightenment -- began with the choice of a subject.

The question of what qualified as a subject for art had been around the art world for a long time, not the least because of the soup cans that showed up on the wall of Ferus Gallery in Los Angeles in 1962, just when people had come around to the idea that a painting didn’t have to resemble anything. And because of the deadpan photographs of gas stations that appeared in pamphlet form a year later, even as the public was finally embracing the idea that photographs could inspire artlike feelings. The impact of work by Andy Warhol and Ed Ruscha had to do with the way the category of art was confirmed aesthetically and its objects consumed. Could such vernacular content be art? On the other hand, Crawford, a desert mythologist, was seeking insight about the nature of visual experience. He had the notion that a wall could be a subject. Not a beautiful, aged, weathered wall of an ancient barn, the sort that would have excited Ansel Adams, but an anonymous, concrete wall, of a nondescript industrial building, perhaps in the process of being demolished. This intuition betrays the metaphysics of Zen Buddhism, filtered most likely through McLaughlin and his search for geometrical perfection.

The walls were pictures of nothing in which, Crawford immediately noted, much happened. The sun drew shadows, time passed, surface patterns changed, definitions of objects shifted, a kind of theater unfolded. The voids created by windows and doorways became spaces to be filled or elements to be arranged. Architecture became a timepiece, and a stage for the creation of new geometries. The minimal, inscriptive character of the shadows on walls – nature drawing itself, to paraphrase the pioneer of photography William Henry Fox Talbot – suggested as well that the two-dimensionality of photographs, their restriction to a single plane, was a contradiction of vision that promoted perceptual complications and even confusion about what (and in what dimension) the eye saw. With that, Crawford appears to have decided to open up the photographic process, to intervene, in order to add both literal and metaphoric depth to his images and destabilize the very idea of a vantage point (and with it the bedrock of authorial subjectivity). He did this in ways that were both clever and perverse.

First, he altered the subject itself. He painted lines and planes on or in some of the structures he photographed, often multiplying elements already there, in order to increase the image’s visual complexity. He also added physical objects, wood two by fours for example, in order to create additional shadows. It was always possible to mask the source of the new shadows later, during printing. He photographed these interventions, these altered realities, with both color and black and white film. As so many photographers have recognized, the camera is witless, unable to make distinctions about those things upon which light falls in its field. It cannot tell if the thing in front of it is actually there or merely a representation. And the effect can be heightened depending on what lens is used. Being able to recognize whether something exists in two dimensions or three is fundamental to our ability to experience not only space but also time.

Taking a further step, Crawford then began to intervene with the negative itself, adding additional lines, extending thin shadow lines into complicated drawn patterns. Moreover, he inserted himself into the gap between negative and positive by projecting his negatives and blocking out rectangles of black and white, in order that the print would register additional forms, often directly contradicting the camera’s plane of vision. Crawford’s photographs became simultaneous appearing and disappearing acts.

Anyone familiar with the early history of positive/negative photography will recognize the impulse to change the way light hits the film. Photographers who didn’t like what they got on their paper negatives often went to work on them with a pencil to fill in what light and insensitive emulsions left out. This kinship between drawing and photography was not merely metaphoric. It originated in a recognition that light touched and chemically deposited a trace on a surface, an all-at-once drawing, and that both the draughtsman and the photographer were engaged in the production of a complex illusion. Crawford’s illusions, however, did not seek to achieve some standard of realism or aesthetic perfection or even expressive exactitude.

What goal, then? What territory or frontier was left to cross? If this were just a game played with Bauhausian ideals of geometric purity, or even a gleeful unmasking of photography’s role as the handmaiden of industrial architecture, it wouldn’t interest us much. But seen through the perspective of today’s digital, photoshopped reality, which Crawford anticipates, a more relevant goal emerges. Contemporary photographic artists have recognized that the camera imposes a dominant and ideologically limiting straightjacket on the viewing subject, that of single, mechanical perspective that has become analogous with reality. Subverting or unmasking that optical regime was a first step for Crawford.

If reality as visually experienced was more varied, shifting and ambiguous than our day-to-day, utilitarian requirements allowed, as Cezanne and other painters had long insisted, Crawford the artist sought to conduct his viewers into that labyrinth. In the labyrinth, they would confront the fear of being lost, of losing their way, of going blind – and on a deeper level, of losing themselves. Implicitly Crawford was challenging the limits of the perceiving self and its desire for stability, resolution and definition. To surrender fully to shifting perception and renounce the authority of self was to do exactly the opposite of what photography traditionally encouraged – no, insisted on: to assume control of reality from the fixed vantage point of the individual observer. In the spirit of Zen, however, one does not become enlightened by achieving control but by giving it up.

Around the same time as the Kentucky photographs, Crawford also made a series of black and white pictures in the desert near El Mirage, California. In these, the desert is the hero, the inspiration, the dominant force, generating light and heat, dwarfing the photographer with its scale, altering the viewer’s sense of time as the photographs play back and forth between events of an instant and a natural setting in which time scarcely registers. Although these desert cantos are stark and profound in their own right, we can perhaps see them as preparation for the complexities of Umbra. They may have prepared the photographer (and the viewer) to enter the labyrinth and feel at home, to comprehend that exploring the labyrinth brings us closer to some sense of ultimate purpose than trying to find a means of escape.

Lyle Rexer

Brooklyn, New York