Adrift on Dry Land

North Country Spring
Just off the eastern shore of Lake Ontario, creator unknown.

Driving through the north country on highway 3 yesterday, I was listening to a National Gallery Notable Lecture by Richard Brettell about The Hill by James Magee. Like most people, I suspect, I had never heard of this particular artwork. I’ve become increasingly interested in installation/land art, and as I listened to the podcast I became increasingly aware that this particular work is the complete antithesis of everything I think of as “art.” It is exclusive, impenetrable, and generally thought to promote a sort of bourgeois “profundity” that just grates on me like fingernails on a chalk board. It came as no surprise that Magee once worked in “abject art” and that most of his work in that vein has not survived; in the words of the lecturer, “that’s probably a good thing.” The Hill, according to accounts, is incredibly important (to some, at least).

The Hill isn’t a repository for interpersonal relationships or emotional responses. It may generate them, but it doesn’t exhibit those of its creator. The Hill is nothing if not the product of great passion, but the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded. In my mind I complete this process. I see the complex as I never saw it in person — as it hopefully will never be until a very long time from now: stripped of people, the doors ajar, shadows slowly circling the structures like rearguard troops left behind after the war, when everyone else has gone home. The installations house colonies of insects and animals who come and go uninterrupted on the beautiful stone causeways, unconcerned about whose God made their home.

Pamela Petro, Jim Magee’s Hill (2008)

What really bothered me about Brettell’s discussion of this work is his claim that it is mostly earth-shatteringly important when you experience it in a very small group (clique?) with the artist whispering his poems (titles) in your ear from behind. If experienced in a large group (as was Pamela Petro’s experience) it is vastly diminished. All signs point to the commanding personality of Magee, the one thing that will not survive, as the truly singular aspect of this work. For me, I find it sad that there are clearly intelligences at work in the most mundane of landscapes that will not be preserved by 501C3 foundations like The Hill. Eventually, they just rot, with colonies of animals and insects wandering through.

I’ve been thinking about two major issues in my return to photography lately. First, that vision is selective and what we see represents only a small slice of the experience of being there. When one plane is in focus, another falls away. The mythos of the f64 group has loomed large for me, and for the first time in my life I am beginning to reject the illusion of perfect detail in photographs. Too much information is confusing, impeding the worth of many tableaus. I have never warmed to “fuzzy” arty photographs, or carefully manipulated planes of focus (a la “lensbaby” or large format swings and tilts) that distort the reality of a scene, but I have always liked the less predictable imperfections of less-than perfect hardware/optics (toy cameras and such). I suppose the best way of putting it is that I’ve come to accept that technology can never be perfect. 

I remember fondly shooting with an old Leica IIIg with a 28mm lens with a front element the size of a pencil eraser. It had an incredibly sharp hot spot in the center and delicious softness on the edges. Now I find that my main lens for many years (a Nikon 35mm f2) has some of the same qualities if I shoot with it wide open. I like it even more now; I never noticed its flaws on regular 35mm film, but the D-700s sensor makes them apparent. I think that continuing to use it implies an acceptance that no vision is perfect. My second issue is a longer-standing obsession with the traces left by people on landscape.

When I told Krista about the complex depicted in the last two photographs (above and here) she exclaimed “there has got to be a story behind that!” The photographs only hint at the nature of this complex (for sale, by the way) in Rural Hill, New York. There are at least three decaying boats, one old pick-up, two collapsed barns, one travel trailer, a riding lawnmower, and the shell of a house just off highway 3. Someone left this behind; no doubt they had reasons. I find it just as compelling (and certainly more accessible) than Jim Magee’s hill.

Like Richard Brettell’s experiences of The Hill, I feel transformed by the experience of being in this site and would like to go back once I’ve had time to process my thoughts a little better. I found it overwhelming; it was such a curious aggregation of things near the middle of nowhere. The voices in this place were merely in my own head; there was no poet standing behind me whispering non sequiturs in my ear.

I’m not really interested in decay or ruin. There’s been far too much ink spilled on that subject, I think. What I am interested in, however, is what Pamela Petro called “great passion.” What sort of person collects so many wrecks? I noticed that a lot of people up in the north country collect wrecks, especially wrecked SUV’s. They are as ubiquitous as old Camaros and Trans Am’s up on blocks in the South. The U.S. is obsessed by vehicles, of course, and I think that once they’ve been left behind they become more interesting as “the erosive effects of time, intellect and the desert make for passion distilled rather than passion paraded.” At least, that’s what I’m thinking about now.