New York

Jim Dow

Robert Friedus Gallery

In his earlier work Jim Dow photographed various forms of vernacular architecture, including county courthouses, interiors of bars and poolhalls, soccer stadiums in England, and minor-league baseball parks. Dow was pursuing the sort of photographic archaeological investigation of folk culture practiced by Walker Evans and a slew of followers. In this now-familiar approach typical but heavily connoted artifacts and scenes of contemporary life are presented in as neutral a fashion as possible, with the photographer typically using a large-format camera and great depth of field. Seldom is work of this kind concerned with genuine archaeological research; texts, beyond minimal captions, are almost never included. (Evans’ and James Agee’s resplendent collaboration, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men—perhaps the archetypal embodiment of this kind of work—is a rare and striking exception.) Instead, behind most of this work lies the implicit assumption that presenting the subject in an uninflected way will allow its ineffable reflections of the culture to emerge.

In the work shown here Dow continues his interest in vernacular structures, presenting photographs of every major-league baseball park. In each picture Dow butts together three 8 by 10-inch color contact prints (in some cases arranged horizontally, in others vertically) taken from a vantage point in the stands, looking out over the playing field and the tiers of empty seats. Small details in each picture—advertising billboards, elaborate scoreboards, the skylines of the cities beyond the outfield walls—evoke both the specific qualities of each park and team, and the general character of the game itself. As a group the photographs form a catalogue of a particular class of vernacular architecture, and thus suggest the comparative typologies of Bernd and Hilla Becher. Considered this way, they reveal the general structural traits of ballparks—from the spiffy new domes of Seattle and Houston to the funky, aged parks of Boston and Oakland.

Compared to the quainter, more idiosyncratic subjects of Dow’s earlier work, his big-league ballparks are bland. They have been stripped of many of their folk-culture aspects, reduced to a slick functionalism by the big-bucks commercialism of baseball today. But the spartan lines of these corporate coliseums are a medium for the Modernist concern with photographic form that underlies Dow’s work. Here, that concern is expressed through an articulation of the illusion of space in photographs.

Panoramic views are often made using special cameras, with lenses that scan the wide field of view during exposure while film is being pulled across the shutter opening. In other panoramic systems the whole camera rotates on a tripod head. The photographs that result from these sorts of cameras are perspectivally consistent throughout their length. Each of Dow’s triptychs, though, depicts three distinct tunnels of space whose edges are made to line up only approximately, producing the effect of a broad vista with a fractured spatial illusion. Straight lines in the scene are broken into angles where they cross the joined frames, so that each photograph can be considered separately from its counterparts in the triptych. This formal play between the unified vista of the triptych and the unified spatial illusion offered by each part is accentuated by the geometries of the stadiums themselves—straight rows of seats converge toward the centers of the various frames; the diamond of the playing field is twisted and pulled into various shapes, depending on whether Dow photographs from a spot behind homeplate or a long the first- or third-base lines.

With their pop-cultural references and ironic formalism, these photographs are part of a widespread genre in contemporary photography. But the artifacts they depict are those of a fully commercialized sport, not of a folk game. The pared-down functionalism of these ballparks reveals the Modernist ironies that in other work of this genre are often masked behind sentimental or simply cynical evocations of a populist vernacular. Dow’s pictures demonstrate what is too often ignored in work of this sort—that this vernacular is being, and has been, radically altered by corporate culture.

Charles Hagen