New York

Frank Gohlke

Daniel Wolf

Working now in color, Frank Gohlke continues to pursue the classic Modernist style of photography, based on the medium’s descriptive abilities, for which he is best known. Here he showed mostly landscapes, taken in rural Mississippi and Tennessee as well as in the Auvergne and Burgundy regions of France. One of the great strengths of this particular branch of photographic Modernist style, which involves the use of clear lighting, simple compositions, and great detail, and which is perhaps best exemplified by Walker Evans’ work, is its ability to encompass a vast range of seemingly mundane aspects of the world. The implicit assumption behind much of this kind of work is that anything can make for an interesting photograph, without the need to manipulate the picture in the darkroom or to use what are considered nonphotographic means. Instead this kind of photography relies on “the photographer’s eye” (in John Szarkowski’s phrase) to discover meaning, which can come either from the scene itself or from the formal terms of the picture.

In his earlier work Gohlke used the plainspoken descriptiveness of this style to picture dramatic aspects of the Midwestern landscape—grain elevators, at times glistening beneath stormy skies, or tornado damage in Wichita Falls, Texas, or the devastated landscape around Mount Saint Helens. In the work shown here, though, Gohlke relies more on visual events than on the doings of either man or nature to provide the subjects of his pictures. In Creek, piling, blue shadow—near Corinth, Mississippi, 1986, the title alerts us to the central incident of the picture: a small blue shadow cast on the water by a clump of bushes next to a creek, near the center of an otherwise unexceptional rural landscape. Leaving aside the question of whether the shadow looked blue in the scene itself—or looked quite this blue—what we’re left with is a photograph built around a subtle visual anomaly. In another photograph Gohlke’s interest seems to be in the way the window of a distant house can be seen through a gap in the leaves of a large tree, ma King it look as if the window were in the tree itself. These sorts of glitches in perception—or at least in perception as mediated by the camera—are fascinating, and have been explored in a more explicit, self-conscious manner by such photographers as Ken Josephson and John Pfahl. Gohlke, however, seems to be unwilling either to make greater use of the formal meanings that the camera can provide or to photograph subjects in which the scene itself provides evidence of its own social or historical significance. In his landscapes of the South, in particular, he’s working in territory that’s been made overly familiar by earlier photographers using this same style; the result is work that too often seems hermetic, and occasionally even dull and precious.

When Gohlke goes beyond this formal play he sometimes degenerates into a trite lyricism, as exemplified by a photograph taken in Burgundy of four horses—one of which is rolling around on its back in abandon—in a field set against a wooded hillside under a looming sky filled with turgid clouds. On the whole, though, the French photographs seem both formally looser and more concerned with the world beyond the camera than the Southern landscapes do. In one in particular, of a backyard in France, Gohlke seems to have relaxed and let the formal play of the objects in the scene run rampant. Again, the main subject is a photographic standby—laundry hung out on the line to dry—but Gohlke allows the spatial ambiguity of the objects, and the play of color of clothing, flower beds, and shuttered windows in the background, to take over the whole frame, rather than isolating one anomalous element within an otherwise commonplace scene. This sort of picture loses some of the insistent factualness of more straightforwardly descriptive photographs. What it gains instead is a new sense of discovery, of how the world and photographs can look and mean.

Charles Hagen