In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places

At the Corcoran Gallery of Art to Dec. 31

Twice within the past two years, the Corcoran Gallery of Art has mounted a single-subject exhibition featuring the work of a dozen or so famous photographers organized by a liberal-leaning interest group. In 1999, the gallery featured "The Way Home: Ending Homelessness in America," sponsored by the National

Alliance to End Homelessness. Now, the Corcoran is showing "In Response to Place: Photographs From the Nature Conservancy's Last Great Places."

For an art museum to work hand-in-glove with public-policy advocates—no matter how worthy their causes—is tricky, because the risk of turning out an overly preachy exhibition is high indeed. If such shows are to succeed as art, rather than as mere politics, the individual artists involved need to nourish the aesthetic spirit as well as the mind.

On that score, "In Response to Place"—like "The Way Home"—partly succeeds, an accomplishment that owes much to the organizers' decision to commission work from 12 independent (and independent-minded) artists. Ultimately, however, only about half of the photographers in "In Response to Place" carry the show. Too many of the others amount to little more

than celebrity decoration.

"In Response to Place"'s two strongest contributions come from Hope Sandrow and Richard Misrach—two photographers who rank relatively low on the exhibition's fame scale. Each of them, as required by the Nature Conservancy's formula, visited an ecologically sensitive location on the organization's watch list. They were then free to chronicle the site as they saw fit. Landscape images were fine, but so were portraits or action shots, as long as they communicated a sense of place.

Sandrow's images, taken in Indonesia's Komodo National Park, are the show's most technically interesting. Indeed, it's a pity that the description on the museum wall doesn't spell out her underwater technique more carefully. Apparently, Sandrow swims in the current with a waterproof camera, letting herself, as she writes, "become one with the flow of the water." Back on dry land, she assembles a horizontal array of prints that captures the sweep of the landscape so that her works capture the split-second view of a swimmer lifting his or her head midstroke.

Though "In Response to Place" includes only three of Sandrow's photographic works, they are all startlingly good. Her long, multipanel pieces—mounted on the wall as if they were frames of developed film—pulse with aqueous blues and mossy greens, embodying the energy of the surf. It's unclear whether Sandrow actually shot each adjoining image in rapid succession, but the clarity and intensity of her idea renders the question utterly irrelevant.

Her works become even more interesting when each frame is examined individually. Consider the five panels of Selat Flores, Indonesia, October 17, 1999. Panel 1 features a wavelike form composed of various shades of blue; the overall smoothness of the wave coexists in dynamic tension with the turbulent eddies that brew within it. Panel 2 complements Panel 1, but it offers a distinct variation: This time, the mix of water and sky is split by the eruption of a primal brown triangle—a nearby, though indistinct, mountain.

The third panel continues these theme-and-variation patterns, featuring a low row of mountains that separate the now-familiar sky from a shallow pool of water. This time, however, the blue water is pocked by the subtle reds, yellows, and greens of plant and animal life. Panel 4 offers a clearer view of wavy, green vegetation beneath an ambiguous rectangle of water-filtered sky. And in the fifth and final panel, the green vegetation takes over, limiting the sea (or is it sky?) to a thin strip along the top of the image.

All told, the five panels come across as coherent and complementary. The same could be said of Sandrow's other two photographs, especially in relation to each other. Island of Rinja, Teluk Lehokuwadadasami, Komodo National Park, Selt Sumba, Indonesia, October 28, 1999 spreads its near-symmetrical image of a beige mountain across five panels, whereas Island of Komodo, Selat Linta, Komodo National Park, Indonesia, October 27, 1999 operates almost exclusively in the blue underwater realm, featuring enigmatic filamentlike forms that may be either organic shapes or light-ray tracings. Only Sandrow's odd, neominimalist installation of boxes containing crushed coral from the site fails to add much to her photographs.

If Sandrow's technique is strikingly creative, Richard Misrach's is decidedly old-fashioned: He uses a large-format camera on a tripod, which is pretty much the same setup used by the explorer/photographers who ventured West after the Civil War. Though more than a century's worth of Western landscapes have been made in the interim, Misrach's results are just as inspired as images made by Timothy O'Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, or Ansel Adams.

Misrach focuses his lens on Pyramid Lake and the Lahontan Valley wetlands in Nevada. The oasislike site was well-chosen: It's one of the rare places in Nevada with still surface water, and it also stands in close proximity to interestingly shaped sand dunes. In Battleground Point #8, Misrach has captured a silvery, reflective finger of water that laps against the base of a dune. The crescent shape of the water, as well as the separate crescent of wet sand at its edge, subtly resonates with the shapes of the dunes themselves—and with the rivulets of sand caught (skillfully) in clear focus in the foreground. Though other images by Misrach feature one or two of these elements, none put so many of them together so well.

In some ways, though, Misrach's most memorable work consists of four nearly identical images of a faraway sand dune, taken in a variety of lighting and atmospheric conditions. Smartly, the Corcoran has arranged them on opposite walls, two to a wall, with a bench in the middle for quiet reflection, as if one were in the Rothko Chapel or Monet's water-lily room in Paris.

Each of the four images is impressive in isolation, but the four-way multiplication heightens the effect. What I especially like is the way they invoke—intentionally or not—The Banks of the Nile at Thebes, a famous 1854 image taken by the obscure American photographer John B. Greene. Greene organized the river, its bank, and the sky into a wide-open, proto-minimalist geometrical form. Here's how George Eastman House's survey Photography From 1839 to Today describes it:

Greene was either a very bad photographer or a very good one. Most new photographers, when first faced with the problem of photographing a large scene, place the central subject of the view so far away and surrounded by so much empty space that its emotional impact is diluted and lost. Every professional photographer knows tricks to overcome this problem by moving in closer, changing the angle to get a more dramatic perspective, or introducing an additional element to make a more exciting picture. In this photograph, Greene accepted the huge empty skies, the barren horizons, the desolate ruins smothered in the drifting sands of the desert, the futile works of man overwhelmed by time and fate....Do these romantic, expressive images of a dead civilization result from bad technique and happy accident, or are they the crafted result of an exceptional young man with the vision to do all the wrong things to make all the right pictures?

Misrach clearly does all the right things, and the resonance of such basic geometries across a century and a half of photographic history reflects well on his choices. Sadly, only a handful of photographers in the exhibition approach the quality of his work.

One of them is Mary Ellen Mark, a respected chronicler of the poor and alienated. (In fact, she also participated in "The Way Home.") In this show, she contributes a series of affecting portraits of residents of Virginia's Eastern Shore and Alaska's Pribilof Islands, portraying them with directness and compassion. They range from the devout members of an African-American church to a pair of girls sitting on a porch with a (possibly toy) gun, and from a boy sitting alone on an empty school bus to the sad grown man hugging what is described in the piece's title as his "beloved toy monkey." Mark's work reminds us, poignantly, that land conservation is pointless without involving people as well.

Sally Mann, best known for making moody black-and-white photographs of her family and friends, here turns instead to landscape work at the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in Mexico. The visual material at her disposal—jungle-clotted Mayan ruins in the Yucatán Peninsula—is no more dramatic than that which Sandrow or Misrach photographed. But Mann's decision to use an old large-format camera with a damaged lens pays off in a big way. The resulting images are appropriately dreamy, wavering in appearance between mid-19th-century salted-paper prints, early-20th-century autochromes, and faded '50s color snapshots. Their hard-to-date appearance offers the perfect

medium for the ruins' own palpable timelessness.

Mann succeeds at creating memorable images from a seemingly bland palette of colors. Several other photographers in the exhibition—notably the celebrated William Christenberry and William Wegman—use techniques that produce similarly overcast images, but they do so with far less success. Christenberry's deadpan approach to photographing Southern vernacular architecture is rightly admired, but it doesn't translate well into landscape work, especially in the relatively boring northern Alabama settings he's chosen. (Though the sites are important for reasons of biodiversity, their visual charms leave a lot to be desired; it says something that Christenberry, a connoisseur of Alabama's back roads, had never heard of the places he documented before the Nature Conservancy suggested them.) As for Wegman, his Weimaraners are as cute as ever, playing with seaweed and driftwood and hiding in the bulrushes. But their presence only serves to upstage Cobscook Bay, Maine, the supposed focus of the exercise.

Much more vibrant is the work of Karen Halverson, who photographed the Cosumnes River near Sacramento, Calif. Though some of her images, such as Valley Oak Tree, Moyer Slough, Cosumnes River Preserve, verge on overpolished Condé Nast Traveler territory, others are paeans to understated beauty. One particularly impressive piece is MacFarland Ranch, Cosumnes River Preserve, which features a metal cross haphazardly encircled by a green hose; the vertical bar of the cross bisects a nearly symmetrical tree in the middle distance, while

the cross's intersection is superimposed on a white house in the

background.

The remainder of the artists offer uneven work. Annie Leibovitz uses uncharacteristically understated black and white to capture the spooky Shawangunk Mountains of New York, Lynn Davis offers a rather derivative portrayal of southern Utah's natural wonders and man-made kitsch, Fazal Sheikh used words and pictures to compose a social anthropologist's portrait of an undeveloped region of Brazil, and Lee Friedlander provides a rather monotonous mix of gnarled-tree-branch images from the San Pedro River in Arizona.

Then there's Terry Evans, whose work has something of a split personality. Some of her photographs—of decontextualized plant species placed on white sheets of paper—come across as gimmicky and distracting. But Evans' landscapes, taken at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in northeastern Oklahoma, hint at a much more complex sense of place. The preserve's beauty is among the subtlest of all the show's sites; the vistas lack clear nodes of focal interest and are dominated instead by auburn waves of grass that sway distractedly in the breeze.

I know the site firsthand, from a trip I took there a few years ago. Absorbing it was a memorable experience—though less for what I saw than for what I heard. As I walked alone on a loop trail cut through the nearly 7-foot-high grass, I found it impossible to ignore the buzzing of a multitude of insects, all of which thrive in the virgin-prairie habitat. It was a revelation to me that such seeming emptiness could be enveloped in a dull roar.

As I viewed Evans' game attempts to document this unusual terrain, I reflected on that visit. What I concluded was that no matter how good a photograph is, it still can't capture the full essence of a place. The humility of that realization, I finally decided, is a better argument for preserving places such as the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve than any collection of mere photographs. CP

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