Oakland

“Slices Of Time: California Landscapes 1860–1880, 1960–1980,”

In her introductory essay to “Slices of Time: California Landscapes 1860–1880, 1960–1980,” curator Therese Heyman appropriately refers to nature as California photography’s “most powerful and typical genre.” “Slices of Time . . .” concerns itself with a particular relationship within this tradition: the comparison to be drawn between the mammoth-plate explorer/photographers of the 19th century (e.g. Thomas Houseworth, Eadweard Muybridge, A.J. Russell, Carleton Watkins, A.W. Ericson, and Charles L. Weed) and the late-20th-century photographers who, in Heyman’s words, have returned to “the objective, neutral and evidently ‘real.’”

The comparison is a provocative one. Much that has been produced in the last decade, particularly by the so-called “New Topographics” photographers (Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz, Joe Deal, and Stephen Shore, for example), manifests a formalism analogous to the clarity and precision practiced by their 19th-century predecessors. Nevertheless, it is the distinctions in purpose and motivation that make the comparison useful: the 19th-century photographers were documentarians with utilitarian aims, while their 20th-century counterparts exploit documentary and vernacular strategies in the pursuit of art.

In an accompanying catalogue essay critic Ted Hedgpeth locates the origins of the “New Topographics” sensibility in a reductivism which emerges out of a desire to create “tough,” unindulgent pictures. Hedgpeth points out that the impetus behind this strategy is a desire to rid photography of art inflection, particularly that of the Romantic variant; nonetheless these photographs are full of art inflection, though it is drawn from the cool influences of the Pop, minimalist, and conceptual genres rather than from that of expressionism.

While both Hedgpeth’s and Heyman’s essays provide convincing constructs for the development of the “new neutrality,” the work on view, oddly enough, ranged so far afield of the stated premise that “Slices of Time” was almost curatorially incomprehensible. Heyman opted to include several contemporary photographers who not only don’t fit into the mode, but whose work blatantly contradicts the premise of the show. Cynthia Kanstein’s ghostly landscapes suggest a kind of post–Ralph Eugene Meatyard gothic romanticism. David Maclay’s hand-tinted photographs of construction sites and of industrial objects placed in sculptural arrangements have nothing to do with implied neutrality or realism. And Hamish Fulton’s work, while based in the landscape, draws more on conceptual practice and art inflection than the perimeters of this exhibition would seem to allow.

A small selection of work did deal with the concept of photographic neutrality in more contemporary and interesting ways. Robbert Flick’s multi-image composites of Los Angeles topography refer to both Muybridge and Ed Ruscha, but also advance the idea of topographic notation into a new stylistic form. And Catherine Wagner’s photographs, selected from her four-year study of the building of the Moscone Convention Center in San Francisco, are the contemporary images that come closest to manifesting the spirit of precision and visual sumptuousness that informs the work of Watkins and other 19th-century practitioners.

Perhaps unsure of her original premise, at some point in the evolution of this exhibition Heyman seems to have attempted, unsuccessfully, to transform “Slices of Time” into a survey of landscape photography of the past two decades. The end result is an exhibition that is too limited to function as a survey, and too garbled to support the ideas initiated in the catalogue essays.

Hal Fischer