Los Angeles

View of “Miles Coolidge,” 2022. Photo: Miles Coolidge.

View of “Miles Coolidge,” 2022. Photo: Miles Coolidge.

Miles Coolidge

Miles Coolidge has long been associated with a strain of photographic practice that arose in Germany during the interwar years under the banner of Neue Sachlichkeit. Exemplified by the work of Albert Renger-Patzsch and Karl Blossfeldt, this approach involved the renunciation of arty pictorialism in favor of a sober inspection of the object world with large-format cameras and the highest degree of resolution possible. In the 1960s, this mode was aligned with the structural tenets of Conceptual art by the team of Bernd and Hilla Becher, famous for their gridwork typologies of industrial architecture, which they termed “anonymous sculptures.” Coolidge, in fact, studied with Bernd Becher during a postgraduate fellowship at the Kunstakademie Düsseldorf. Like the Bechers’ other notable students—Andreas Gursky, Candida Höfer, Thomas Struth, et al.—Coolidge continues to mine this artistic legacy for meaning, even he when appears to subvert it.

For instance, in the 2007 series “Street Furniture,” Coolidge captured his discarded subjects, found on the sidewalks of suburban Los Angeles, by adjusting his camera’s vantage to their thrown-out, off-kilter positioning, thereby rendering everything around them topsy-turvy. For his exhibition at Council_St, tellingly titled “Snags,” he deployed a similar strategy, but instead aimed his lens at the natural environment. Revisiting the dense forests around a childhood vacation home in central New Hampshire, Coolidge noted a prevalence of uprooted trees, caught mid-fall by surrounding thickets and suspended diagonally above the ground. By tilting his camera accordingly, he restored those trees to their upright posture, while simultaneously tipping every one of their neighbors at a precipitous angle. This move, in its blithe disregard for the horizon line as the stabilizing measure of the landscape genre, exerts a profoundly disorienting effect on the beholder. However, when it is repeated with strict regularity, as was the case here, it also serves as a means of reorienting oneself vis-à-vis an unstable world.

In this space, rendered pitch-dark for the occasion, Coolidge’s pictures were presented one after another, as a rear-projection slideshow. The hanging screen afforded a narrow view around its edges of two stately Hasselblad projectors clicking away in the back, their carousels slowly turning atop them. Connected by an old-school dissolve unit, they seemed to show the same continuous view gradually transforming. In each picture, the righted tree is located dead center, bisecting the frame top to bottom, so that one tree registers precisely with the next, while, to either side, the forest wavers from left to right. The remarkable sharpness of the image—the photographs were shot with a Hasselblad camera as well—assumes a somewhat absurdist tint in this context. It is paradoxical, to be sure, that the eye of a naturalist, attentive to the condition of every slight twig or leaf, could be amply rewarded even as the whole scene is plunged into a state of drunken disequilibrium. But this paradox is at the crux of Coolidge’s gambit with photography, which, despite every one of its fictionalizing functions, remains for this artist a means of revelation. Couched in this work is an ecological argument: Due to increasingly erratic weather patterns, many trees (and countless other plants and animals) have fallen, and many more will unless we reduce our impact on the environment. However, the sylvan “snags” here extend well beyond any strictly topical issue. Coolidge wields his camera in the time-tested manner of the evidence collector in a great historical trial. Siding with weakness—i.e., anything that is threatened with disappearance—he delivers a diagnosis that should worry even the strongest among us.