In Plain Sight-THE IRONIC PERFECT PRINT
Donald Bartlett Doe
In the work of Douglas Busch, scale is (virtually) concealed. It is not the scale of his photographic prints that is so remarkable — though some are very large indeed — but the scale of his negatives.
Everyone is inured to immense blowups — we are surrounded by billboards, stadium television mega-screens, vast paintings executed from projected slides. Photographic images themselves — think of Robert Rauschenberg, or Andy Warhol, or James Rosenquist, or, (in a different fashion) Chuck Close, the vastly enlarged portraits of Thomas Ruff, the more-or-less cubist collages of David Hockney (the list begins to seem endless) — have been expanded far beyond the once ubiquitous photographic standard of 11 x 14, matted to fit equally standard 16 x 20 frames.
“I am interested, “ Busch once remarked in a 1987 interview, “in presenting reality more acutely than I can actually see it. On one level, my work is about a certain density of information. There is more to see than we actually see.” Indisputably, Busch’s work does seize upon the endlessness of visual information which, ordinarily, we edit out of daily experience.
Busch’s remark also recalls Ad Reinhardt’s famous aphorism: “Looking is harder than it looks.” In Busch’s work, for example, seeing a formal array of shapes, however carefully composed, is to get only part of the picture. In spite of the vast scale of the negatives, it is perhaps more useful to think of these works in terms of an extraordinary visual intensity.
Where Busch has chosen to look, in making his work, has varied considerably: from the canyon lands of the West to his own native territory: a relatively small region in northern Illinois rarely considered remarkably scenic, and studies of Denver, Atlanta, and Chicago. Gathering these images, in itself, is a daunting task. The cameras are nothing less than huge — an 8 x 10 view camera is an altogether handy device by comparison. The film used is very slow; exposure times are often measured in fractions of an hour, not fractions of a second.
Every photograph takes considerable advanced planning. Multiple exposures and slightly different shooting angles are usually out of the question, (the cost of film alone makes the staggering number of exposures of a Garry Winogrand entirely impossible). The self-imposed limitations Busch has adopted requite that the proposed subject be scrutinized, every photograph carefully planned. (It is small wonder that Busch generally works in sustained series.) These demands, perhaps inevitably, combine to add to the intensity of the work. Busch stated: “One must make the commitment to the subject for then and only then will its’ essence come forth.”
That same intensity is conveyed in the flow of images in this volume; the sequences are carefully imagined and orchestrated, the continuities multi-valent. Like the edge-to-edge scrutiny of any given image, the impact of sequences is cumulative; perhaps like a Joycean narrative, they work toward epiphanies.
Granted, physics can explain how and why a concave mirror collects the light from an object . . . then returns the rays in such a way that you see the object not within the mirror but outside it, ghostlike, upside down in mid-air, and if you shift even slightly, the image, evanescent, disappears.
Umberto Eco, Foucault’s Fendulum
In a sense, Busch’s photographs very often operate quite like the concave mirror. What is ghostlike — and perhaps upside down — is a reflection of aspects of traditions in photography, evanescent glimpses of works from the (not always very distant) past that disappear as you shift (even slightly) from associations summoned by the image to the work itself.
Take, for example, the cover photograph. A reflection of the 19th century railroad photographs of William Henry Jackson lingers for a moment. But this is not an image of the advance of American technology opening the West. Railroad lines do arrow into the distance, but in place of a distant mountain range is the skyline of Denver as a set of geometric shapes clumped at the horizon.
In the middle ground rise the skeletal shapes of refineries. They appear defunct, probably abandoned. The glistening water in the foreground, over which the trestles pass, is hardly some idyllic pond. Experience tells us it is bound to be lifeless, containing some deadly number of parts per million of petroleum distillates or chemical residue.
The railroad lines play the central role in this inversion: though the rails themselves are parallel lines that seem to meet in the distance, the railroads appear to converge at an unseen point just behind the camera. Perspectival laws are reversed.
Many photographic “laws,” central to the modernist aesthetic in photography, are by no means reversed. No image here is enlarged or cropped. The sheet film used requires huge cameras which Busch as designed and constructed. The film sizes are astonishing: 8 x 210”, 12 x 20”, 14 x 17”, 20 x 24”, and 40” x 60” (the world’s largest portable camera), the last more than 1000 times the size of a 35mm slide.
Because the images are not projected through the lens of an enlarger, but directly transferred to the photographic paper (contact printed), the grain of the film is invisible. Nothing blurs. No detail dissolves. Distant foliage, variations in the texture of rock or grasses, all sorts of minute are reproduced with a clarity beyond the capacity of the human eye.
The sharpness of Busch’s images conforms in nearly every technical way to the canon established by the f/64 group and promulgated most famously by Ansel Adams, Imogen Cunningham and Edward Weston. There are sweeping visions of canyons, poetic views of a grove of trees and a mountain stream that are by no means at odds with their fundamentally romantic tradition. Elsewhere, however, the disparity between their luminous depiction of the exquisite or the sublime and Busch’s usually ironic view is carefully orchestrated.
In such images, it is not a great slab of granite, but an ordinary — big, but ordinary — propane tank that rests beneath dark evergreen branches, their tips made feathery by sunlight. A cement dome built to shelter sand for icy roads has the presence of a site that would beckon Adams. A massive water tank of weathered concrete, looking for all the world like exfoliated rock, is afforded a solemn and solitary dignity. These all could be — but are not — aspects of western grandeur; they are in fact homely, more or less thoughtlessly placed utilities.
A farm setting, with all the elegant geometry of a Charles Sheeler painting of Pennsylvania rural architecture, is subtly without key Precisionist qualities: bare branches obscure triangular roof lines, paint has flaked away from barn siding, doors sag out of plumb, a fence in need of paint seems propped against a storage shed. In a second farm view, the geometry is more pristine, but in this bucolic setting, between a pair of cylindrical silos, rises a pair of cooling towers from a not very distant nuclear power plant.
There are formal jests: the rounded shape of a 1950 Ford is parked before rounded ersatz Moroccan architecture that could have been the car designer’s inspiration. More often, the ironic eye at work here is social. Children are fenced in strewn yards. A family is assembled outside their store; the image suggests a version of all of those Victorian portraits of a prosperous and prideful father, dutiful wife and elegant children; here, what is underscored is poverty and separation.
Specifically urban scenes are, in varying ways, purposefully ironic. Christ glares from a billboard that declares, “Denver, I love you this much.” Around the billboard itself is a kind of wasteland of badly planned, weedy space. The figure of Christ is reduced to head, shoulder, and dramatically foreshortened arm –the hand being spiked to the cross. Propped in the air, the image is at once horrific and absurd. In Atlanta, a church’s billboard, depicting an Ideal American Family, seeks worshippers as it hangs near the vast coliseum — under construction — designed as home for the Falcons, who play, of course, on Sundays.
Busch’s view of the city is also laconic. Construction (or demolition) seems abandoned. Against a vast Y-shape of reinforced concrete (for Chicago’s Lakeshore Drive), leans a ladder. It reaches nothing whatsoever but a blank surface of concrete. The lone figure at the base of the stairs beneath the vast barrel vault of Denver’s performing arts center seems to underscore its emptiness, its lack of human scale, the pointlessness of flagged ropes to keep people away from closed doorways.
And so it goes. What makes these ironies especially apparent is that they all exist within the tradition of large-format, “straight” photography. They are all carefully composed through the lens. Surely, the photographer was struck at first not by that oddly placed ladder but by the formal array of repeated shapes marching (blankly, like progress?) in a diagonal sweep across the photograph. The formal balances, the elegance of many of these works suggest the work of Paul Caponigro or Harry Callagan, indeed any number of artists who work (ed) within the tradition of taking a photograph of the world and presenting it as an accurate report on reality.
For many works in that tradition, there is an accompanying mood — a melancholy in the work of Kertesz and Brassai, for example, or a stillness and mystic light in Adams or Weston. Here, by contrast, we are not asked to see the human or natural environment as a resource for spiritual renewal. Christ is an image in an advertising campaign. Spaces are empty, fields are dormant, trees are without leaves.
Children are lined up like refugees beneath a faded, quaintly hopeful bit of urban propaganda. The mood is not, however, one of despair or derision. There is no abiding effort to persuade or motivate the viewer; the viewer is invited, instead, to absorb the vast array of information recorded on the panoramic negatives.
It is the absence of mood, the impossibility of romantic retreat to a pristine nature, the deadpan presentation of urban fact, that contributes to this work’s power. Busch’s contrast with tradition is from within. His view of Chicago’s famed Marina Towers is a case in point. It is fair to see this work within the tradition of Atget and Abbott; on one hand, it is a nearly documentary, straightforward view, on the other, it is a remarkable composition of geometric shapes.
In the context generated by Busch’s work, this elegant array of cylinders and rectangles is not (mainly) a celebration of the vastness of cities or a poetic record of urban life. Like the cylinders and rectangles in the image of the Delux Drier plant, the tanks and identical sheds of another agri-biz plant, the triangulated shape of the Union Dairy building in yet another work, these shapes appear habitations for machines parked, if not abandoned. The image is a formally astute homage to Bauhaus aesthetics, but his cityscape is not of an architectural system designed to function (brilliantly) on behalf of human habitation. The fact is, we are looking at parking places. Here, Marina Towers may be a Meisian poem; it certainly is a garage.
To return to Eco’s image of the hovering image before the concave mirror: traditions do hover, ghostlike, in these works. Bauhaus design, Precisionism, the multi-faceted tradition of straight photography; especially, if not exclusively, the romantic tradition of the perfect print as definitively expressed by Adams and Weston, are all — at one moment or another — in evidence.
John Szarkowski once argued that the most important distinction for contemporary photography was that divides the romantic tradition of Adams, et al, and the realistic tradition given definitive character by the work of Robert Frank. In Szarkowski’s terms, . . . a belief in the existence of a universal formal language, and a minimal interest in man as a social animal.”1 By contrast, he asserted that “realistic” photography depends “. . . on a sophisticated social intelligence.”2 The romantic image thus conveys a mystical quality to the viewer, suggesting that reality — especially nature — is suffused with spiritual meaning. Realistic work is without such a reservoir of meaning, but can be “unfamiliar, eccentric, . . . stubbornly subtle.”3
What Busch fuses in a single print, or presents cumulatively in sequences, are eloquently perfect prints which fuse these ostensible polarities. In this body of work, the massive rounded form which evokes the richness of Adam’s famed image of Yosemite’s Half Dome is a weather-stained monolith only in some suburban setting; it is extraordinary as it looks dead center in a 12 x 20” print, and diminished, scruffy and merely a water tank as its massive presence obtains scale from the roof peak of a church, just visible beyond the grassy hillside.
In this image, Busch is not engaged in the (by now ordinary) exercise of appropriation. Tradition is not reflected upside down in a concave view of traditions in photography. These are pictures of the world Busch has traveled through; his concern is with what is in plain sight. Radically extending the use of the 8 x 10” view camera, without seeking to diminish precedents, Busch discloses, sometimes with stubborn subtlety, the ironic possibilities of the perfect print.
1John Szarkowski, Mirrors and Windows, American Photography Since 1960 (New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1978) p. 17.
2op. cit., p. 17
3op. cit., p. 21