New York

Peter Campus

At the center of half a dozen of Peter Campus new landscape photographs sits a boulder—huge, impassive, unmoving and unmovable. The boulder in one of these pictures appears in sunlight filtered through the pines around it; a whale-shaped boulder, in another picture, broods in shadow. This is a tremendously rich symbol, one that I read as Campus’ own view of the process of making art: the artist tries to get to the heart of the world but inevitably ends up describing the mystery, not solving it. It’s not irrelevant to this interpretation that the boulders all look like brains.

The fact that the boulder can be read symbolically in any number of ways provides a key to all Campus landscapes, and also suggests the difference between these pictures and most landscape photographs. Campus presents his scenes theatrically, treating the various objects in the usually woodland scenes as characters, with the specificities of their visual appearance serving as their emotional characteristics. The dramas played out are always somber, sometimes tragic, in a few cases melodramatic. Thus in a couple of pictures a spindly sapling is pitted against not just a boulder, but a whole face of rock. In another picture a single bleached white tree limb twists out from the underbrush on a hillside, pointing toward a neighboring mountain.

The pictures inevitably risk banality; no photographic genre has been more overworked than landscape. And occasionally Campus falls into stale cuteness. In one picture, a rushing stream has been photographed with a slow shutter speed, so that the water becomes a blurry river of mist. The effect is lyrical—but it’s also simply picturesque, done better by dozens of earlier photographers including Paul Caponigro and Minor White, even taught as a tip for “better landscape photos.”

Campus’ use of the theatrical properties of his scenes is what distinguishes them from these “better landscapes.” He doesn’t pretend to depict the “grandeur of nature” realistically; the best of his pictures look so staged that they implicitly acknowledge that notion of nature to be a cultural construct. Nor does he strive to match the effects of some earlier photographers—the way Eadweard Muybridge, for example, tried to outdo Carleton Watkins in his photographs of Yosemite. The basic elements of his pictures are the familiar components of the romantic landscape: rocks, gestural trees, grassy expanses. But Campus recognizes their specificity, and is able to modulate their connotations with great skill. Because of this, most of his pictures have the pointedness of fiction without losing the seeming transparence of photography.

Charles Hagen