New York

Peter Campus

Peter Campus’ videotapes and installations from the mid-’70s had a riveting, obsessional quality. In an especially memorable group of tapes he used the familiar video technique of chroma keying, in which a blue surface drops out of a video image and another image is “keyed” into the space it leaves. In one tape from this group Campus held a card onto which he’d chroma keyed an image of himself; he then set the card on fire. In another he applied blue makeup to his face, gradually disappearing into the video background. At the time these works attracted attention for the reflexive nature of their technique, which employed a device familiar from broadcast TV to disclose how reliant the medium is on artifice and effect. In retrospect, though, Campus’ concern with destroying his own image takes on greater significance.

In an indirect way, Campus has carried on that sort of emotional consideration of self in the photographs he has been exhibiting for the past couple of years. Unfortunately he has chosen to work in what is by now almost a formulaic genre in photography, presenting picturesquely decaying industrial landscapes (which in the 13 large black and white prints here include abandoned piers, old warehouses, oil tankers at berth, and the like) with lyrical atmospheric and lighting effects. This genre draws on a wide range of sources, including early Romantic painting and, in its interest in the metaphysical implications of light, the glowing landscapes of the American luminists. More immediate precursors can be found in the smoke-suffused images of the Photo-Secession, as exemplified by Alfred Stieglitz’s Hand of Man, 1902. Where these earlier pictorialists wove industry and nature into an anthem to progress, Campus, in the more contemporary vein of such photographers as Lee Friedlander and Frank Gohlke, treats the two elements as combined in an elegiac decrepitude. In Campus’ Fast Clouds, for example, a tall treelike weed in the middle of an abandoned pier is framed by a halo of ominous, tumescent clouds, while in Late Afternoon a telephone pole rising up from a dark marshland is silhouetted against a gleaming white oil tanker that passes in the background.

But such pictures are not so much statements about the relations between nature and culture as emotionally fraught symbolic dramas. Many of the elements Campus employs are by now so clichéd that they form almost a standardized lexicon of signifiers for emotional states. For example, the white tankers in several of these pictures, gilded by early morning sun or storm lighting, suggest a longing for transcendence, while Campus’ titanic, Turneresque storm clouds indicate the awesome power of nature. In other pictures Campus depicts menacing industrial objects whose real function is unclear, but whose visual form holds a creepy fascination. Again like the Photo-Secessionists and their many descendents (including Ansel Adams), Campus uses the striking tonal effects that can be achieved with black and white printing to accentuate the quality of soulful yearning in such scenes. Borrowing from another branch of that same Modernist tradition, he relies on complex and formally ironic compositions of the sort extensively developed by street photographers in recent decades.

Campus’ style and choice of subjects remain widely prevalent in photography. Clearly he has mastered the subtleties of the approach, but his work in this medium has yet to achieve the incisive edge that his linking of a forceful concept with an appropriate technique gave his earlier video.

Charles Hagen