San Francisco

Ellen Land-Weber

Focus Gallery

ELLEN LAND-WEBER’s exhibition—coincident with the publication of her monograph The Passionate Collector—reveals an aspect of her work entirely different from the machine process imagery for which she is well known. For the past two years Land-Weber has collected “collectors,” traveling around the United States making portraits of individuals and their possessions. The collections run the gamut from the expected: bells, angels, license plates, antique glass; to the less common: cash registers, credit cards, carousel horses, and paperback copies of Catch 22; to the downright bizarre: venus fly traps, tractors, whiskey stills, and nuts (the owner claims squirrels and chipmunks have carried off 50 exhibitions).

While these are extremely competent and enjoyable portraits, there is a curious ambiguity to many of them, a note of surrealism that inevitably crops up when people are reduced (even sympathetically) to specimen status. In several pictures the juxtaposition of collector against collected turns the image into an oddity—a young oriental man surrounded by illustrated lunch-boxes, or an old farmer standing in front of what is purportedly the world’s largest ball of string, are vernacular mysteries.

Almost all the collectors pictured are white, middle class, and obviously have the leisure time (and the money and space) to amass collections. Many appear to be rural Americans who look as if they might have stepped out of central casting or a W.P.A. mural. Land-Weber (perhaps intuitively) plays off ’30s documentary motifs. A photograph of a woman in a flowered print dress sitting in front of a background of mason jars and black-hinged kitchen cabinets reminds one of Russell Lee’s FSA kitchen. Equally retro in several pictures is a specific typological gesture and expression—a wholesome, unaffected posturing common to ’30s imagery, but rare in the more angst-ridden contemporary genre.

In the book the pictures are accompanied by statements from the collectors, usually describing how the collection originated. With few exceptions these remarks are superficial and distracting. The Passionate Collector has an “introduction” as well—Walter Benjamin’s essay “Unpacking My Library.” It is not one of Benjamin’s stronger works, and its inclusion strikes me as intellectual show-and-tell. Land-Weber’s pictures are effective in a gallery presentation without written bric-a-brac.

Although it is not suggested in the text, I suspect that a passion for this type of eccentric collecting reflects on an insecurity peculiar to the American psyche: the need to fashion a sense of personal history and internal order. Land-Weber’s subjects project a self-assured air because they have, through the acquisition of objects, fabricated public personas, which they willingly exhibit for the photographer.

Hal Fischer