New York

John McWilliams

Light Gallery

John McWilliams’s large view-camera photographs show out-of-the-way landscapes in the rural South. The land is dark and ruined, but singularly beautiful nonetheless. It is Eden after the fall, Georgia post-Sherman. Ivy covers the pilings of burned-out bridges. An unused silo has become only a shape, as abandoned in the woods as was Bishop Berkeley’s tree, falling unheard in the heart of the forest. The focus of each picture, however, is a human intrusion of some sort, either of the past or to be created as a future presence. There are old houses and outbuildings and there are signs of swamps being drained and land being cleared. In one picture, the puddles left by some sort of earth-moving machinery point like fingers to a silvery smooth future of K-Marts and interstate highways.

But the finished development is never present. The ruin of the human past and the ruin of nature are part of the same implicit romance. There is a rhetoric of change and decay: beneath the flatness of the presentation the pictures stand on the frontiers of cool photographic sensibility the same way the subject matter stands on a suburban frontier that is leveling and making uniform the Southern landscape. Though the prints are always smooth and dark, the illusion of space and the sense of real milieux are kept uppermost. Often, as in the case of Atget’s views of decayed parks, one has the feeling that a print two or three times as large would involve the viewer more fully in the space of the image, but that the photographer fears the grain and resultant disenchantment such enlargement might also bring.

W. J. Cash commented on the dominant role of the landscape in forming the mind of the South, like “a sort of cosmic conspiracy against reality in favor of romance.” Adam was fooled; McWilliams is cautious: the coolness is carefulness, a kind of extreme technical self-restraint in framing. The landscapes themselves, even at the distance where they are held, seem open, welcoming, infinitely susceptible to adjectival evocation. McWilliams’s great strength, like Faulkner’s, is that he can divert fancy into a reverent, studied fascination for the history and the openness of the land, without yielding to nostalgia. The position is one of lyric respect rather than pure romance, and it is an implicit standard for the social relation to the land as well.

––Phil Patton