I/Eye: On Photography

Steve Fitch: Diesels and Dinosaurs

Posted in Landscape, Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on February 21, 2011
Dinosaur, Highway 40, Vernal, Utah, 1974 © Steve Fitch

Dinosaur, Highway 40, Vernal, Utah, 1974 © Steve Fitch

Sometimes, to see something new you need to look to the past. I remembering borrowing a copy of Steve Fitch’s Diesels and Dinosaurs a few years ago, and decided that I should get one for myself. The book is one you’d swiftly tuck under your arm if you encountered it in a bookstore somewhere; and you’d soon wonder why it’s not more mentioned in the histories of the discipline. But perhaps this is not altogether surprising, considering that photography is continually erupting into being with volcanic speed, carrying away all that came before it and remaking the ground — several times over already.

This photographer, however, is one to come back to: so much of what we think we recognize as “current” in the work of present-day practitioners was adroitly realized in his work already in the 70s.

Truckstop waitress, Highway 66, Gallup, New Mexico, 1972  © Steve Fitch

Truckstop waitress, Highway 66, Gallup, New Mexico, 1972 © Steve Fitch

The first thing we need to know about him is that his imagination is shaped indelibly by his father’s car. As a boy, he is witness to a titanic clash: it’s part Detroit, part Mt. Olympus — a show-down, at any rate, between a latter-day Zeus and an American-built Buick, with the kid an awed, back-seat observer:

We were driving along the highway in my father’s 1952 Buick Special. Outside, a ferocious thunderstorm sent the car shimmying every few seconds or so with a blasting thunderclap. Inside the Buick my father and grandmother were having an odd argument.

“This car is the safest place to be,” my father stated quite simply. “If some lightning hits us the tires will insulate us from the ground.”

“Ralph,” my grandmother replied, also quite simply, “if God wants to kill us, He will!”

“Yes, but a car is still the safest place to be.”

“Ralph, if God wants to kill us, He will!”

Back and forth it went, unchanging. I had been young and confused by the argument. Which was stronger, I wondered. My grandmother’s God or my father’s Buick?*

The phlegmatic Buick drones on through the elements, and the boy’s perception of the “bent and mysterious” aspect of the world seen through the car window becomes an enduring preoccupation. What to make of how its proportions balloon in relation to the tidy mechanisms of the car’s interior? How to contend with the primitive (and threatening) energies of the universe?

At some point, the kid has a revelation — an insight aided by the transfiguring boundary of the aperture (car window) which mediates his relation to the outer forces:

One time, driving down the shiny-wet street of a small town at dusk with an army of neon reflections bouncing off the slick pavement, I felt akin to an explorer on another planet who has abruptly come upon a canyon as gigantic and majestic as the Grand Canyon — only a canyon made of neon light! My excitement was clean and loud that night: I felt in touch with some kind of raw American voodoo!*

The idea bursts on him like a big bang of the imagination — inspiration shooting out into the far reaches of the mind all at once. And it opens the way toward formalizing what has been happening all along.

Between that moment and the appearance of Diesels and Dinosaurs (1976), there is considerable tempering and refining — for one thing the camera becomes the tool of choice. And a visual idiom evolves: quite naturally and rather quickly, it seems. The sparkling residue of the big bang is still present in the published photographs, but the photographer has a Keatsian control of his enthusiasm now. I should hasten to add that this collection has aged well — and has acquired some somber notes with time: wry, surreal nocturnes — with all the crazy, exhuberant, or absurdly jurassic juxtapositions they contain — many of them seem now more haunted by a chastening darkness. The sunlight, when it appears, is high and scorching. The neon fantasies that glow in the night, and the 18-wheelers that graze peaceably among them, are lonely follies — but these are observations conveyed with such low-key perspicacity, such bemused taciturnity, we may be spared the harsher insights they contain.

Steve Fitch: 1970–2010, a retrospective of the photographer’s career, is on view through March 31, 2011 at the Kopeikin Gallery in Los Angeles.

*Quoted from A Highway Introduction Diesels and Dinosaurs (Berkeley: Long Run Press, 1976). Available at the photo-eye bookstore.

Motel, Highway 101, Uklah, California, 1974 © Steve Fitch

Motel, Highway 101, Uklah, California, 1974 © Steve Fitch

One Response

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  1. linharingphotography said, on February 24, 2011 at 5:48 pm

    You’re a good read — lots of food for thought here. Thanks!

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