Scene on the Street

Living as we do, in an age of profligate picture-making, Douglas Busch’s large contact prints of only a few decades ago seem to be anachronistic relics of the past, startling in their scale, clarity, and minute details.

Busch began his studies at the University of Illinois in architecture, while he also took classes in photography from Art Sinsabaugh and Reed Estabrook. Within a year, the restless, somewhat iconoclastic youth had shifted his focus to photography,cinema, and graphic design, becoming the first student in the entire university to declare an independent major.

As Busch came of photographic age in the 1970s, academic institutions were integrating the theory and practice of photography-as-art into their curricula, transforming the subject. Art Sinsabaugh, an influential professor during that period who later became a life-long friend, was noted for his use of a banquet camera that produced 12-by-20-inch negatives. With this large-format camera, Sinsabaugh explored both distant horizons and the urban landscape, producing images – often cropped to great dramatic effect – that synthesized the nineteenth-century sensibility of expansiveness with twentieth-century formalism.

Busch absorbed Art Sinsabaugh’s lessons and went out into the world to learn from other photographic masters. For several years, he assisted Ansel Adams, Morley Baer, and Al Weber at photographic workshops from Carmel to Death Valley, assimilating and adapting the knowledge he gained. Busch mastered his craft and, like his mentors, trained his lens on the landscape. The launch of his Denver Photographic Project in 1986 proved to be a turning point, as he took to the streets of major cities with large-format cameras – ranging from 12 by 20 inches to 30 by 50 inches – which he built himself. Busch became an architectural archaeologist as well as cultural anthropologist, seeking to reveal the structural bones of a city and its ordinary people in hyper-real detail.

The images in Scene on the Street focus primarily on the 1980s and early 1990s, as the photographer lived and moved about from Denver to Chicago, Atlanta, and other cities. With his huge photographic apparatus, he captured the multilayered architectural evidence of each city’s growing pains and exposed the threads of the fabric of city life. Capturing the complexity of these urban environments and giving them a human face proved a major challenge; Busch’s 30-by-50-inch camera, with gear, weighed 450 pounds. Yet the vigor of youth, fueled by curiosity and training in photography and architecture – plus a certain amount of bravado – provided Busch with a rich panoply of subjects. The large-scale negatives from which he produced contact prints render subjects in far more detail than human vision can normally encompass.

Busch’s views of multiple intersecting freeways bring to mind Mondrian’s Broadway Boogie-Woogie in their dynamically structured rhythms. The photographer conveys the energy and the elegance of the concrete ribbons that speed city inhabitants to destinations beyond the frame. In North Street Bridge and Marina Towers, the archaeological layers of past structures march in planar precision toward the modern, multifaceted skyline of Chicago. The vast grid of the city, depicted in the crispest detail possible, becomes almost three-dimensional.

Busch turned his massive lens on both sacred and secular architecture. His image of a massive, somewhat squat nineteenth-century church, planted solidly against a tall metal-and-glass upstart, is a masterful expression of mass, volume, and tone. Every brick is discernible. The rotund shapes of a city yard salt dome and a water reservoir achieve near elegance, as does a propane tank sheltered by a leafy bower, though these are merely useful, vernacular structures. Busch’s glowing Electric Building, a night view of the company’s downtown Denver headquarters, with car headlights dancing up and down the street, evokes feelings of exuberance and optimism, despite the aura of frigid temperatures.

Busch’s street portraits are not of beautiful people but of citizens who make up the backbone of a working city, and these pictures are as complex and satisfying as his architectural views. The photographer sought out ordinary folks going about their daily tasks or enjoying simple pleasures, such as a day at the zoo. A family portrait of three generations of women, with a zoo goat perched on a ledge in the background, is oddly moving.

The mothers and their daughters are simply dressed, perhaps slightly overweight by today’s measure, and not overtly pretty, but they address the camera with straightforward openness, unapologetic and unembarrassed by their appearance. The picture is like a snapshot taken by a family member – there is neither pretense nor guile – but somehow these women and girls engage and challenge the viewer to figure out their story.

It goes without saying that, in fact, these pictures are not candid photographs: The subjects are facing a behemoth of a camera that takes time to set up and that also requires patience while the photographer frames and focuses his view. But the sweet awkwardness and shy smile of the teenage maintenance man in Love Flowers shines forth in heartbreaking detail, as does the vulnerability of the homosexual nearly backed into a triangular corner by an automatic teller machine. (One cannot help but think of Irving Penn’s series of cornered celebrities made four decades earlier.) A group portrait in front of Curry’s Convenient Shop in Rockford, Illinois, is an artful composition reminiscent of those by the best Farm Security Administration photographers of the 1930s.

Douglas Busch’s large-scale black-and-white photographs from the 1980s and early 1990s are more than a technical tour de force. They record a time and place, though those instances may not be momentous. Even as we journey on into the digital age – as does Douglas Busch – continuing to discover, uncover, and reveal reality, we savor the beauty and elegance of these huge silver prints and the wonder the photographer has found in the commonplace.

Karen Sinsheimer
Curator of photography
Santa Barbara Museum of Art