Arts & Culture » Art Sidebar

Surface Tension



Tom Bamberger: Views

at Carol Ehlers, through June 6

Stanley Greenberg

at the Graham Foundation,

through June 4

By Fred Camper

One of photography's oldest questions, which comes up every time a photographer achieves a distinctive look, is how there can be such amazing consistency from one image to another, whether of city or suburb, desert or farmland, prairie or hills. True, Tom Bamberger used the same format for all 20 untitled landscape photographs at Carol Ehlers--8-by-10 enlargements of 35-millimeter negatives, printed in the center of 20-by-24-inch paper. But the images resemble one another most on a visceral, tactile level.

Bamberger uses ultrasharp special-order film with an ASA of 0.16, requiring second-long exposure times, to create incredibly detailed compositions vibrating with grays and blacks and whites, shades that repeat organically. Clumps of desert soil in one photo echo each other in the same way that a cornfield's speckled, furry surface in another pulses with a consistent but never monotonous rhythm. Bamberger's choice of distant, often elevated perspectives lays the land out before us like a tapestry. Every area of his scenes seems to be congealing, collapsing into itself and pressing against its surroundings with a quiet force.

These prints are so rich it seems there's more detail in each millimeter than the naked eye can see. The pumpkins in one photo lie in clusters in the field, their globular forms bumping up against each other. In the desert of another, cacti and desert brushes create repeating designs against the lighter, sun-blanched soil; low-lying houses in the background also seem to echo one another. The fissures in the flat and almost lifeless desert of another landscape seem locked in a kind of tension. Without seeming the least bit mystical, these photos suggest that landscape patterns are hardly random--that each scene is the manifestation of unseen forces. The Wisconsin landscape in a fourth photo--empty fields dotted with clumps of trees and a few houses--distantly recalls the Hudson River school: human construction is dwarfed by nature. Houses, trees, and fields don't appear to be arranged according to any particular plan, yet the trees seem to caress the houses, pressing in on them; the trees hem in and demarcate the fields; and the fields themselves, alive with texture, seem almost sentient.

Lots of bad artists are able to achieve a consistent look, offering repetitive, self-enclosed worlds. But the visual tensions Bamberger creates within each picture are echoed by a larger tension between his photos--between the look common to each and the diverse landscapes. He gives us a version of a classic paradox: does the "world out there" have any existence separate from our subjective impressions of it? Bamberger's coalescing surfaces suggest that a single force unites them, yet the visual differences between the images remain strong: the work is animated by a conflict between his inner vision and the outward reality of the scenes he captures.

The idea of difference is especially strong in one photo, showing a flat landfill streaked with tire tracks, its far borders demarcated by an elevated road. The site itself is a typically chaotic field of dirt, but some pristine new commercial buildings in the background provide a striking contrast in land use. A lone figure stands at the rear of this large space, which presents an unappetizing prospect for strolls. Against the dirt and tracks, forming dense patterns of grays, the figure is anomalous--a suggestion, perhaps, that there are aspects of reality not easily assimilable by Bamberger's abstracting vision.

Though Bamberger isn't interested in using photography simply to "illustrate ideas," he is conscious of the issues his photos set me thinking about. Born in Milwaukee in 1948, he describes a typically adrift 60s and 70s youth--he studied philosophy and the philosophy of science and was "a semiprofessional poker player," among other things--which ended with the chance gift of a 35-millimeter camera around 1978. Attracted to photography in part because of its scientific aspect, he finds it "very much like philosophy," he told me. "More than any other medium, it's a meditation on truth." Because a photograph is a mechanical imprint of the scene it renders, it speaks to an "ancient area of inquiry: are you looking at a mirror or through a window, and how would you know?" Though some of his first pictures were views of sidewalks, mostly he did portraits; he describes his long transition to landscape photography by saying, "Imagine my camera six inches from a face--all I've done is move back. Finally I became less interested in my self and in human psychology, which seemed rather contingent and arbitrary. I think that landscape is something other than your self."

Some of Bamberger's scenes in fact inspire speculation about the social and natural forces that created them; I wasn't surprised to learn that he admires the photography of Robert Adams, who gently documents our impact on the land. Bamberger's view of a suburban part of Los Angeles, showing homes nestled among trees and against hills, leads the eye through layers of atmospheric haze or smog to a distant area with office towers, to which some of these residents likely commute. The vegetation on a farm in another shot is mostly potted, with the pots arranged in rows, encouraging meditation on the ways in which humans order nature.

The extreme sharpness of Bamberger's prints is the result of careful calculation: he uses a Leica and a point light-source enlarger; the special film requires him to do his own photochemistry. Dodging and bleaching bring out the details and whiten the skies, one of his work's most striking features: just above the horizon, the land seems to disappear into the larger area of white surrounding it. Bamberger's scenes float in an ambiguous field, white at the sides as well, recalling both skylight and unexposed photographic paper--the illuminating twin lights of photography and nature.

Bamberger presents a basic modernist paradox first articulated by Cezanne: how can the work we see be simultaneously of the world and a product of the artist's materials and mind? Stanley Greenberg's 20 prints at the Graham Foundation--photographs from his upcoming book, Invisible New York: The Hidden Infrastructure of the City--are mostly "of the world," however. Looking with the wide-eyed wonder of a child at twisted, ruined piers, huge dry docks, and giant turbines, he effaces the modernist distance between the viewer and the world, suggesting instead the potential in one of photography's earliest uses: showing us things we haven't really seen before. Centering his objects within the frame, using only the available light, and eschewing extensive darkroom manipulation, Greenberg hopes "just to bring out what's really there," reintroducing the idea of looking as discovery. His compositions are always tight enough to make his subjects dynamically large, as if a little too big to be contained by the frame: he redirects the viewer's attention to the world by way of these singular objects and places. Wall labels tell their stories--explaining, for example, that the huge vaulted room under the Brooklyn Bridge was once a wine cellar. But what amazed me about the same image was the way the irregular ceiling bricks crowd together, as if one could see the pressure that both threatens the room and makes it possible. Greenberg's pictures help you connect what you see to their causes as well as their effects.

Greenberg was born in Brooklyn in 1956 and lives there still. His father, a public school art teacher, introduced him to photography, and he recalls a childhood fascination with the subway not uncommon among New York boys. "I always liked to ride the front car on the way to school, looking at the tracks," he told me; once his train went over the wrong bridge and he heard the motorman say, "I don't know where we are." He was introduced to the work of Hans Haacke (who often uses photographs and captions to make connections between cause and effect--between a slum building and its owner, for example) while studying art history with Lawrence Alloway. And part of what Greenberg does in his photos is show how key parts of the city work, reducing the alienation that comes from a lack of knowledge. "You turn on a switch and the light goes on," he says. "You dump your stuff in the garbage and it gets taken away. No one's really connected to where all this stuff goes."

Once a city employee, Greenberg started to wonder about the unequal distribution of services, "why parks in the rich neighborhoods are funded and parks in the poor ones are not." And though his images are rarely explicitly political, they always work together with the labels to connect his subjects to their purposes. A view of the Manhattan Bridge shows one terminus of its gigantic suspension cables; the composition leads the eye up from them to imagine the bridge above. Viewing Greenberg's photos is most pleasurable when one has seen the structures he depicts (we need a Chicago version of this show): then his photos add to familiar images. I've been to the sprawling Romanesque-Gothic Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York more than once, but I hadn't known before seeing Greenberg's photograph that it's held up, in a most unmedieval manner, by steel beams under the roof. Three photos of the city's Third Water Tunnel, an enormous project under construction for decades, are hung alongside one another, allowing one to connect a roomful of giant valves with the railroad that carries those valves in and out.

Looking at a gigantic steam turbine electrical generator disassembled for repair, one tries to figure out how it works. And that's the point of Greenberg's images: to deflect attention from the photograph to the world it depicts.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Photo by Tom Bamberter/ Former Wine Cellar, Brooklyn Bridge, by Stanley Greenberg.

Add a comment