New York

John Horgan, Jr.

Daniel Wolf, Inc.

The surrealism in the photographs of John Horgan, Jr., is the kind with a small s, the sort that is unintentional. Often, it is a result of the peculiarities of composition when you have to fill a very large picture of a very large landscape. Horgan made albumen mammoth-plate photographs of Southern plantations around 1890. Most of his pictures were done from a distinct elevation to show the sweep of the country, like those establishing shots from a crane in Gone With the Wind. The effect this creates is one of compartmentalization. There are sometimes two or three geographically separate areas of composition whose relationship is uncertain. These pictures give much the same impression as a medieval painting in which the walls of a castle have been cut away to show the various aspects of life all going on simultaneously. In the most beguiling of Horgan’s pictures, one entitled A Glimpse of Tensas River. Jas. S. Richardson’s Dallas Property, Louisiana, there is a footbridge full of people in the background on the left, a hill covered with dappled light and cows in the central foreground, and a slow-moving river with some fishermen in a boat in the middle distance on the right.

Also contributing to the surrealism is the whiteness of the cotton. Most of the 35 photographs in the show are of plantation fields, and in one or two the cotton bolls in hard sunlight are so bright that they defy the illusion of perspective. Everything else in the picture—and everyone—is contained within a narrow range of earth tones. The cotton bolls contrast with these so starkly that they appear as polka dots on a two-dimensional surface. King Cotton instills yet another kind of surrealism in these pictures, too—the kind seen in Black and White Mixed in the Press Room, where two black men trying to stand up under an avalanche of cotton force a grin for the camera. Horgan made these photographs to promote tourism for the Illinois-Central Railroad, and the most surreal, nightmarish quality in them is their facile assumption that you can sell the South on racism alone. In the end, what these pictures are trying to offer us is the magical, unreconstructed charm of slavery.

Colin Westerbeck