Retrospective Wilhelm Hack Museum
This book encompasses over 30 years of photography as seen through the eyes of Douglas I. Busch.
When we approach the work of such an artist and survey the many works that have accumulated over such a long period of time, we notice that various subjects amount to continuous ‘lines’ running through the oeuvre; although these may not necessarily have appeared as clearly defined entities during his artistic development as such, they do, in retrospect, exhibit a pattern with its own inner logic.
Two main lines of this sort can be traced throughout Busch’s work: images of people along with land- and cityscapes. When one looks to see the time when the pictures comprising these main groups were taken, it becomes clear that both form unbroken lines which extend throughout his complete oeuvre, while occasionally overlapping and intersecting, i.e., they arose and proceeded parallel to each other.
In those phases principally devoted to the examination of urban landscapes, he also produced images of people, while during those periods giving rise to self-contained blocks of portraits, the artist most definitely had no reservations about taking pictures of cities or landscapes.
For over 20 years, Busch used large-format plate cameras to take his pictures: 8 x 20, 12 x 20, 14 x 17 and 20 x 24 as well as 30 x 50 inches are the negative sizes that he preferred. Most of his images were taken using a format of 12 x 20 inches, i.e., about 30.5 x 50.8 cm. This means that each of these negatives is about 180 times larger than a 35mm negative and thus contains 180 times more information. How is one meant to deal with so much information? Just how much are we, as human beings, capable of processing both visually and intellectually?
Busch solved this problem for himself by using his negatives for contact prints, i.e., his final prints have the same format as the original negatives from which they were made. Although the amount of visual information remains just as large as in the negative, we, the viewers, are able to perceive such images as ‘normal’ pictures because they are of almost intimate dimensions. Nonetheless, if we wish, we can look at the originals through a magnifying glass or loupe and transport ourselves into the visual depths of the image,into worlds that, at the first glance, seem quite incredible.
Busch’s world is heterogeneous. He observes individual phenomena and relates the stories of these individual observations in a manner that is as plain as it is powerful. The sum total of these individual observations adds up to his overall view of the city, the countryside and water. His expertise as a trained architect responsible for drafting interior spaces and constructing along aesthetic lines deriving from the ‘classical’ period of modern art, combined with the training of his eye as an artist to depict visual space within the medium of photography, become fused together in his images. His pictures never have anything of the air of malicious revelation about them; rather, they express a profoundly human approach that leaves the dignity of both people and things intact.
His most recent work group, the monumental ‘Waves’, comprises digital photographs taken between 2003 and 2005 and represents a radical turning away from traditional photography based on chemical processing.
Images of People: Early Works
Douglas I. Busch, who was born in Miami in 1951, began his photographic career in the early 1970s, a time when its prevalence in printed media meant that black-and-white photography was the predominant visual medium.
Back in those days, the USA was a country undergoing a radical social upheaval. The conflicts arising from the Vietnam War along with the determination with which the Afro-American minority was laying claim to its rights presented a tremendous challenge to the country as a whole.
In Douglas Busch’s images, we can only detect a distant echo of such conflicts. This is surely attributable to his age, yet also to the place where he was living at that time, the once-important industrial city of Rockford, Illinois. Here, these conflicts were less obviously to the fore. For example, black people are not to be seen anywhere in his early pictures of a funfair in Springfield.
But the people who we encounter in these images are striking examples of people from the lower middle classes who he has drawn out of their insignificance with a lucidity that is highly revealing. The most obvious feature that all of his photographic subjects share in common is their ugliness. These are anything but beautiful people. Overweight, with absurd hairstyles and bored expressions, they present an offbeat, unconventional view of American society. The harshness and bluntness of his images, along with his eye for the peculiar, are reminiscent of the visual world of Diane Arbus.
Busch took this series of photographs using his 35mm camera and approached most of his subjects head-on, regardless of whether they were visitors to or employees of the funfair. When we look at the images today, this confrontation almost makes us wince, for example when we compare the exhaustion of the mechanic (Plate xxx) or the person selling tickets (Plate xxx) with the appearance of the fat family (Plate xxx), whose massive bulk makes them seem to loom out of the surrounding darkness.
Even though the major conflicts of the country referred to above may be far away, ‘State Fair’ still shows the artist taking stock of and making a statement about his native country. Busch succeeds in achieving distance by going in close to those he is portraying, by getting involved with the people in question. He uses lenses with a short focal length, which means that he has to get near to his subjects, in order to show the deformations of the society depicted. All of the people who he portrays appear isolated – only rarely is there any physical contact between the individuals shown – with this distance being most pronounced in those pictures showing young girls and their mothers.
It is evident that ‘Mother and Daughter’ (0477) and their counterparts in the picture bearing the same title (485) belong to different social classes. The well-behaved daughter in the black dress is wearing the same hat as her mother. The distance between the two of them is much greater than the width of the unoccupied chair between them. The other mother-daughter pair seems to be less well-to-do – at least the cheap glasses and clothing would seem to suggest this. These two also don’t have anything to say to one another, they are completely absorbed in their own worlds, with the mother turning her back on her daughter, while the latter appears to be staring into herself.
Busch retains this analytical distance in his series, ‘Cruising Miami’, too. In 1972, he found prototypes for the holiday industry in Miami in his portraits of holidaymakers waiting to set off on a cruise. Ageing and old people with leathery tanned skin or an elegant lady on a deckchair present the diametrical opposites of the suggestive image of Marsha (Plate xxx), the woman who would later become his first wife.
The intimacy of this picture stands alone within Busch’s oeuvre as a whole. Here, we are able to perceive the other side of the artist’s sensitivity, which does not set out to achieve distance from the subject portrayed, but rather attains profound and heartfelt involvement. The young woman is lying in front of a row of deckchairs that extend away into the distance. The look that she directs our way over the radio or cassette-recorder is absorbed and completely natural, standing in pointed contrast to the somewhat stifling atmosphere that permeates the series as a whole. The intimacy of youth is here symbolically placed in opposition to the tedium of advanced age.
In his images of people, Busch was never again to aspire to the sort of unmasking directness that he achieved in ‘State Fair’. Just a short time after he had begun to study art, he sold his 35mm cameras and lenses, using the money to buy a plate camera. Here, he was consciously following in the footsteps of the photographers of America’s west coast, for whom he worked as an assistant during his course of study, i.e., Ansel Adams, Morley Bear and Al Webber. He worked his way through these and then began to make landscapes (including urban landscapes) the central point of his work, not wishing to look beyond the work of these masters, who enjoyed a very high reputation in the perception of the general public. Nonetheless, people continued to be a subject that he was never entirely to lose sight of.
‘Street Nudes’ – a project that he realised in 1989 in Rockford, New York and Roscoe, Illinois – was a relatively small-scale project that he was to complete in just a little over a year. His aim was to create a piece of work “… that would say: regardless of how you might look, that’s just fine”.
The outcome was three large tableaux containing as many as 12 photographs. Each of these photographs is 30 x 50 inches (ca. 75 x 125 cm) in size. The persons shown are homeless persons who Busch encountered on the street and took up contact with. Several photographic sessions resulted in nude images of groups of men and women or of women alone. These nude studies lack the sort of unveiling directness of ‘State Fair’.
One cannot avoid noticing the respect that Busch shows towards those whom he is depicting. He records the actions of the three groups of men and women from a congenial distance. We see their physical deformities, but we notice these more in passing. Open wounds, pot-bellies, black toenails or scars that might have been produced by syringes do not deprive these people of their integrity or any part of their dignity. Even when the women are young, the harshness of their lives is visible on their bodies, while the men also fail to correspond to generally accepted ideals of beauty for persons of their age or build.
At first glance, the viewer doesn’t notice Busch’s method of imbuing the series with a more abstract, formal quality, i.e., the inclusion in the tableaux of mirror-image ‘doubles’ of the visual ‘raw material’. This is attributable to the fact that Douglas I. Busch does not place the mirror-images along the central axis of the works, i.e., he does not confront a ‘straight’ image with a back-to-front version. The idea is brilliant in its simplicity, while the complex effect thereby achieved is stunning.
The late 1980s also saw the creation of ‘Tattoos’, a series of portraits of people of both sexes who were either active or passive devotees of this form of body art. Busch attended meetings of tattoo enthusiasts and asked them to come to his studio that he set up provisionally wherever he wanted to take photos.
At the beginning of the last century, photographers were to be found at funfairs, where they took portrait shots for visitors; Busch modified this practise for his own ends in order to implement an analytical process documenting the normality to be found behind the façade of the seemingly special and unusual. Along with the man who, at that time, had more tattoos than anyone else in the world, (Plate XXX), we also see a picture of ‘abc’ (Plate Xxx), who had left only his hands and face untouched in order not to jeopardise his profession as lawyer.
At this time, tattoos had yet to receive the blessing of society as a whole and were accepted as a symbol of fashion only among strictly demarcated groupings. The fact that the facial expression of ‘Doc’ (Plate xxx) is not especially characterised by intellectual reflection but rather by a certain dull brutality, or that the multiple piercing of the labia of ‘xxy’ does not exactly correspond to concepts of beauty espoused by people in general or, indeed, by art-lovers in particular, reflect the inherent nature of the project, without being applicable criteria for assessing its quality.
The subject of this work is not some sort of standardised beauty but again, as in the ‘Street Nudes’ discussed above, the depiction of people living on or beyond the fringes of social normality, and without whom definitions of what is ‘normal’ would be impossible and meaningless. Here, in actual fact, the artist is concerned with completely normal people who just happen to have the desire to alter their bodies via painful graphic interventions. In New Orleans, Sturges, Dakota, and Chicago, Busch attended meetings of tattoo freaks and Harley Davidson fans, chose his subjects, set the stage for them and recorded them on film.
The broad spectrum of the types of people depicted is just as surprising as the restraint and calm mood of their portrayal. The photographer confronts us pretty well head-on with his characters. He provides them with a space and setting in which they can present themselves without feeling threatened and where, at least to some extent, they themselves decide how they would like to be seen.
The viewer feels somewhat intimidated and puzzled by the immediacy of the subjects’ physical presence, the massiveness of the bodies and, in contrast to this, their imperfections in terms of beauty.
Landscape / Farmland / Cityscape
The overwhelming diversity of nature’s manifestations in the United States, its majestic force and sheer magnitude, have exerted an enormous influence on America’s photographers of both the past and present. The conquest of the continent by settlers was followed by its visual conquest by photographers: it was indeed the latter who made it possible for people to gain an idea of the geographic riches of the country.
Landscape photography enjoys a special place in Douglas Busch’s oeuvre. For him, this embraces scenes capturing the ‘wide open spaces’ as well as close-ups showing telling details, with the interface between nature and civilisation playing an important role along with the exploitation of nature as manifested in agriculture.
One of the provisional titles for the exhibition that this book is intended to accompany was ‘From the Majestic to the Ephemeral’. The ‘majestic’ has its imposing place in the landscape alongside the ‘ephemeral’. When we see ‘Monument Valley’ (Plate XXX), we immediately think that we know approximately where the picture was taken. The unique geological formations of this area are familiar to us from countless films and a good many photographs that are a constituent part of our collective visual memory.
The situation is completely different in ‘Black Forest’ (Plate XXX), a peaceful study of evergreen woodlands, whose contemplative calm and beauty presents us with the edge of a forest that none of us has ever seen before. In spite of the orderly way that it has been planted, it still stands for the idea of untouched nature, an illusion of naturalness. While Busch was setting up his camera to take this picture, some people came over to him and, when he remarked that the place looked just like the Black Forest, they said that this was hardly surprising because that was where they themselves originated from and that they had planted these trees 40 years before.
This is impossible to deduce from the image itself, but it does, in an anecdotal manner, throw light on one of the fundamental problems of photography, i.e., that it is an illusionary medium, so that its objectivity, even in images like this one that have not been manipulated, exists at most at the level of the image itself but not in its relationship to the outside world.
Monumentality is also to be found in Busch’s works that do not show a vast scene as a whole but, instead, place a carefully selected detail at the centre of interest. He achieves this via his expert handling of visual space, his exceptional instinct for organising a two-dimensional surface. By their very nature, photographs are two-dimensional images of a three-dimensional structure. Their translation back into a three-dimensional space occurs in the mind of the viewer and distances him or her from the power and beauty of the image.
For instance, ‘Black Forest’ is subdivided in two ways into two zones: horizontally, the lower half of the picture is determined by the straight vertical structures of the tree-trunks on the edge of the forest and the bright forking of the tree in the foreground. The upper zone is marked by the horizontal elements of the branches of the pine trees and the shimmering light playing on them.
At the same time, the tree-trunk in the foreground divides the image vertically in a proportion of about 1/3 to 2/3. The lower section of the tree in the foreground appears as a bright structure highlighted against the dark tree trunks , while its dark upper part stands in contrast to the bright and moving branches of the woodlands. The tension between horizontal and vertical elements as well as between the immobile tree trunks and the waving branches lends the image a dynamism extending beyond the essentially restful calmness of its subject.
Douglas I. Busch’s landscapes tell us about the beauty of the world. He utilises the camera to give expression to what his eyes see and, in taking this approach, he finds himself within the long and notable tradition of American landscape photography. The certainty of his judgement and his determination to achieve a convincing visual organisation mean that even the viewer of today is utterly incapable of perceiving these images as conservative or kitschy models of the ‘American way of life’, but rather will experience them as creative confrontations with the elements, land, water and sky, as well as with the creatures that inhabit them.
The zone of transition between landscape and the city is that given over to agriculture. Nature in an almost untouched form, landscape shaped with intent, farms and industrial sites: all of these are equal partners and components of a complex existing next to a natural world that has been reduced to servitude.
The solitary wind turbine in xxx (Plate xxx) stands symbolically in front of the spectacular strata of a receding landscape. What here still appears to be a tiny mark in a seemingly untouched landscape has grown, in ‘Nuclear Farm’ (Plate Xxx), into a brutally unromantic attack on the rural idyll. Behind the utility buildings of a farm and between two silage towers that are standing about like military equipment, the cooling towers of a nuclear power station rear up in the hazy distance.
The virgin earth has been irrevocably damaged, Busch sees this and shows it as well. In ‘Deluxe Dryer’ (Plate xxx), ‘Car and Granary’ (Plate Xxx) and ‘Farm: 6942 East Riverside’, the agro-industrial complexes have become macrostructures whose presence literally does violence to the landscape.
Devoid of animation or human figures, Busch’s work has a distance about it that rules out any trace of sentimentality, but in spite of the absence of ‘beauty’ as such, the clarity of composition and design give rise to a beautiful image.
We might think that we have, at last, chanced upon an idyllic scene when we see a white-painted wooden farmhouse with fruit and vegetables piled up for sale in front of it, an image rounded off by a funny hydrant in the corner and a man loading his dark pick-up truck. If it weren’t for the wheelchair with the unbuckled artificial leg lying on it, that is. ‘One-Legged Fruitseller’ (Plate Xxx) tells its story almost furtively, as it is easy to overlook the leg prosthesis that alters the bucolic mood to invite a reading in social terms.
Over the years, Busch has explored a whole series of monumental technical structures within an urban context (‘Propane Tank’, ‘Water Reservoir’, ‘Salt Dome’, ‘Gas Storage’, ‘Nabisco Bakery’ and so on). These are of tremendous importance in his oeuvre, as they stand apart from his urban landscapes in terms of both their formal aspects and their content.
It may be that they stem from the environment of urban agglomerations, yet the way they have been isolated has transformed them into fascinating objects whose interest transcends their surroundings.
Basic geometrical shapes provide the underlying framework characterising this group, the manner in which they are embedded in their surroundings, in nature and within civilisation determining their location.
It is not without good reason that ‘Propane Tank’ is placed at the start of Douglas Busch’s magnificent book of photographs, ‘In Plain Sight’. The subject of this picture is as unspectacular as could be, comprising a white propane-gas tank laid on its side in front of and within the shade cast by a few pine trees. The power exuded by this image cannot be explained in terms of the subject it depicts, though.
In each viewer, the object shown will trigger different responses and expectations, and the associations that come to mind (submarine, phallus, battering ram, etc.) are more an indicator of our own particular mental state and feelings than a valid comment on what is portrayed. The richly modulated white of the tank is lying immobile on its stand in front of a soft black, impenetrable darkness. Above it, mysteriously illuminated pine needles appear to be d