Accelerated Landscape

by David Levi Strauss

One of the things I miss most about living on the plains is the way that landscape looks at high speed. Landscape and driving fast came to me together, as a package. What surrounded me growing up in Chapman, Kansas was land-measured by the acre, section, and man-hour — but not landscape. For that we had to get out on Old Highway 40 or Interstate 70 and drive. Dwight Eisenhower thought he was building the Interstate for wartime mobility, but everyone used it to get to a view. Thousands of pilgrims drove past Chapman every summer on their way to a view of the Rocky Mountains. Kansas itself was considered viewless — a vast monotony one had to endure on the way to a clarifying, uplifting view in Colorado and points West. Before it became fly-over country, Kansas was drive-through land, and the landscape one saw at 70 miles an hour was transitional, peripheral, and as ephemeral as a heat wave.

So what does one see in passing? Colors, stretched to their limits and blended; an undulating horizon; trees and telephone poles in rhythmic punctuation; the inarticulate sensuous presence of shapes in space. These are the actual effects of landscape in the fluidity of human vision. But in the history of photography, speed and landscape have generally been posed as antagonists. The impression of duration is defeated by photographic instantaneity, and that has tended to be the point. Photographic landscape is supposed to be timeless.

Of course, the visual/mental convention that says photographs are more real than paintings or drawings ignores the fact that in reality time does not stand still. We don’t see landscapes the way they look in Ansel Adams’ photographs, but neither do we see arrested blur. The blur in a photograph is not movement, but the representation of movement, the visual equivalent of an allusion to the way we see things in passing. And the illusion of movement, really of acceleration, is arguably the defining sensation of our time. Though we have precious little clarity about where we are headed, we all know we are rushing faster and faster on, and this precipitation determines what we see and how.

Gunnar Plake’s landscapes make indirect reference to the experience of seeing things in passing. Camera-shake alludes to the movement of head and body, making the visual effects in these images familiar to our eyes, even when they also allude to patterns of flow we don’t ordinarily see. Without fixing the attention of the beholder on any one point in particular, a rush of color and light is conveyed. This is an anti-focal art of diffusion and diffraction. A certain sublimity arises from being able to regard these effects over time, in this arrested state. The textures of frosted branches in a Yosemite copse or the salmon strokes into an azure Lake Powell are not visually foreign, but seeing them this way is. Those blended bands of blue sky and sea, purple and peach striated hills, and opaque jade green earth in Drake’s Bay are recognizable distillations, while the light lambent on Hidden Cliffs describes a temporal geology we are surprised to see fixed. At their best, these images trace the transformations light in motion makes on spatial volumes with a light touch, from those feathered white cliffs in Kodachrome Basin to the inscrutable mass and aura of Potato Ridge, and manage to avoid a predictable impressionism.

Plake’s images are less about Nature than about the nature of images. In this they resemble the photographs of Gerhard Richter. No contemporary artist has plumbed the relation between photography and painting as deeply as Richter has. For some time now he has described his paintings as “photographs which have simply been produced using a different means.”

In response to a question about his motivations, Richter said “I had nothing against describing my perception of landscape as nostalgia. Yet that is an imprecise term; it means a yearning reaching into the past for what has been lost, and that makes no sense. Why should I reach backwards if something is present in the Here and Now. …” When he began in the 1960s to make paintings based on his landscape photographs, he avoided the terms of photo-realism through lack of focus and blur caused by camera-shake.

This blurring of detail, which is usually described as “painterly,” is in fact purely photographic. The photograph, that more or less permanent image formed by the action of light falling on a sensitive surface, is utterly changed when the sensitive surface moves during the exposure, causing an interruption of the image. This break seems timely. There was a time when we saw things more clearly, but now we are in a hurry. Vision has become peripheral, at best, and a lot of what we see is blurred. The actual horizon recedes as virtual images proliferate. Certainly Plake’s indecisive moments are more appropriate to our present alienation from nature than any f64 sharp-at-the-corners image. In The World Viewed, the philosopher Stanley Cavell wrote: “Perhaps what we must be faithful to is our knowledge that distance from nature is no longer represented by perspective, which places us in relation to it, places nature before or away from us, and falsifies our knowledge that we are lost to nature, are absent from it, cannot face it. Then, upon such unpromising ground, an art that reveals without representation may give us perspective.” Beauty is no more temporary than the world is, but it may occur (and be apprehended) at different speeds.

David Levi Strauss is a writer and critic in New York. His recent books include monographs on photographers Miguel Rio Branco, from Aperture, and Francesca Woodman, from Scalo, a book on the Rwanda projects of Alfredo Jaar, Let There Be Light, from Actar in Barcelona, and Broken Wings: The Legacy of Landmines, a collaboration with the photographer Bobby Neel Adams.

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