I/Eye: On Photography

The readiness is all

Posted in Other Photographers by Sheila Newbery on September 9, 2011
Battery Chamberlin © Ryan Hendon

Battery Chamberlin © Ryan Hendon

At the suggestion of a photographer friend, Ryan Hendon, I went down to the David Brower Center a couple of weeks ago to see Hello Tomorrow: Bay Area Artists Envision the Future (which ran from June 16–Sept. 2, 2011). For those who don’t know, the Center was founded to honor the memory of David Brower, prominent California environmentalist (Berkeley native) and founder of the Sierra Club Foundation, the John Muir Institute for Environmental Studies, Friends of the Earth, and other organizations. The Center includes a temporary, ground-floor-level exhibition space open to the public, and in its short history has already mounted solo shows of work by the likes of Sebastião Salgado, David Maisel and Chris Jordan.

Hendon had a piece in the show I saw: one of his photographs of abandoned gun mounts in World War II-era coastal defense installations. The photo projects the future of human controversy as an inevitable silent swallowing by the land and its (non-human) life, yet its minimalism of form contrasts scales of reference in such a way that we end up seeing a blooming lushness of understatement where at first we were struck by a resolute austerity.

Kirby Cove no. 1 © Ryan Hendon

Kirby Cove no. 1 © Ryan Hendon

Each image in this series (printed, impeccably, from large-format negatives) confines the viewer to the basic geometry of the coastal defense — a circular base, in which the massive gun once rested, and the concrete battlement itself — which is a notched wall bearing all the signs of weather corrosion. There is an intimacy in this confinement: the concrete structure seems on the one hand to take as its mission the protection of the weeds and grasses now rooting in the base. And the weedy occupation of the base, in its turn, seems a wry nod to the domestic mission of the houseplant  — as living ornament. In this latter vein, one could fail to recognize the purpose of the architectural elements in the photographs, but not the effects of nature’s ornamentation, its “improvement”, of these bald constructions. And so you could say there’s an unobtrusive joke at the heart of each image.

But taking the time to read about the function of the defenses in Hendon’s statement unlocks another level of the joke: we see that the invaders have already arrived (viz. Cavafy, Waiting for the Barbarians) — and in the deliberately compressed depth of field of the photos, each of the images also seems a kind of mug shot of their wholly unthreatening aspect: the invaders are the weeds, of course. It’s they who’ve penetrated our once vaunted defenses. And it’s they, paradoxically, who are now manning the battlements: ‘volunteers’ (the word has a botanical meaning) that they are. This last bit may be taking the joke too far, but that’s what occurred to me as I looked at the straggly, unprepossessing lot who’d laid claim to the bulwarks in these quietly beautiful photographs.

Kirby Cove no. 2 © Ryan Hendon

Kirby Cove no. 2 © Ryan Hendon

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