Monday, October 29, 2007

The books of Frank Gohlke

Frank Gohlke is enjoying a retrospective at the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas and an accompanying book called Accommodating Nature: The Photography of Frank Gohlke has been co-published by the museum and by the Center for American Places.

I have been familiar with Frank’s work for quite some time now. While I was in school I was drawn to his landscape images of grain elevators throughout America’s farm belt that I had seen in various books and museum collections. One image was a part of the old MoMA’s permanent photography exhibit and occupied a space on the wall for what seemed to be five years or longer. Each time I would visit the museum, I would be drawn to that one image as each time it seemed to reveal something slightly different beneath its apparent simplicity.

For a young photographer, it is rare that one gets to own actual prints of any photographer outside of close friends but I have had the luck of coming to own two of Frank’s early photographs. This came about due to my sharing a loft space near Tompkin’s Square park in 1992 with a woman whose parents were friends of the Gohlke’s. When I moved in and she found that I was a photographer she excitedly started to mention a ‘landscape photographer’ she knew, but disappointingly, none of her other photographer friends were familiar with his name or work. She ran to her closet and returned with an 11X14 Kodak paper box and upon opening it she asked ‘Do you know who Frank Gohlke is?’ To my surprise, a print of the exact image that I studied on the walls at MoMA for all of those years was right at the top of the stack.

Originally studying English literature, Gohlke’s first interest was in becoming an essayist but a bout of writer’s block sent him into making experimental films along the shoreline of Connecticut with a Super-8 camera. Soon there after, he found still photography and with the encouragement of Walker Evans, Gohlke enrolled into a workshop taught by Paul Caponigro.

After several years of honing his craft, Gohlke found his stride not within Caponigro’s untouched wildernesses but within the landscape of the Texas towns in which his family had resided when he was a child. It would be this work made in Wichita Falls that would lead to his being chosen to exhibit alongside the likes of Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams and Bernd and Hilla Becher in the now legendary New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape show at the George Eastman House in 1975. His profile as an important contemporary photographer continued with steady momentum as his project of photographing grain elevators was funded by the award of a Guggenheim Fellowship in 1975, and were the subject of a one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1978

Gohlke’s work has been the subject of three books before this recent publication. In 1988 the Friends of Photography in San Francisco and the Museum of Contemporary Photography published Frank Gohlke: Landscapes from the Middle of the World. This is a modest catalog of Gohlke’s work that has a refreshingly contemporary feel to the design and layout that is lacking in most of the other Friends of Photography publications. This soft cover book served as a mid-career survey of Gohlke as it presents examples of his projects from 1972 to 1987.

It was within this book that I first experienced a sense of lingering danger from nature that is an underlying thread through some of Gohlke’s projects. In 1979, he made a series of images of the aftermath of a tornado that swept through his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. He returned a little over a year later to the same exact spot as the first photograph in order to document the change and repair of the sites. The photographs reveal nature’s destructive power in relation to man’s resilience, though even with the quick re-establishment and seeming permanence of the new structures, they take on a frail and vulnerable quality when the photographs are displayed next to one another.

Around the same time as he was photographing the rebuilding of Wichita Falls, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in Washington State would draw Gohlke into a tangential project that continued his exploration of the dramatic forces capable in nature. The eruption had blown a quarter of a cubic mile of earth off the side of the volcano laterally and spread it over 250 square miles. Gohlke revisited the surrounding areas of Mount St. Helens five times from 1980 until 1991, photographing both from the ground and from the air. This work was the subject of his second one-man show at the Museum of Modern Art in 2005 and a book called Mount St. Helens was published as a companion to the exhibition.

In 1992, Johns Hopkins University Press published Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape a book dedicated to Gohlke’s photographs taken in the 1970‘s. Grain elevators provide some of the most distinct architecture of the farmland and Gohlke’s photographs highlight their contradictory alien yet familiar appearance within the flat surrounding landscape.

The image that I used to stare at on the wall at MoMA (and braggingly, I get to stare at here at home) is of a brick building in Oklahoma that is half covered with the shadow of a grain elevator. The shape of the shadow reveals an odd Midwestern version of a Zen yin yang symbol. Its structure is characteristic of many of Gohlke’s images from this period in that he includes vast amounts of foreground in his compositions. This accentuates not only the vertical nature of the structures but places them in context with the surrounding landscape. The horizon line is often a second subject as it sits as a perfectly flat dividing line between sky and land and defines the deepness of the space that is in character with the land. .

Measure of Emptiness was originally published in a hardcover edition and later in softcover. The hardcover edition has become rather valuable and is commanding high prices on the secondary market. Copies of the softcover edition are readily available at reasonable prices.

In 1987, Gohlke and his family move to Massachusetts and in 1988 he accepted a teaching position at Massachusetts College of Art in Boston. This change in local and new territory also sparked a slight change in his work. Up until then it was only on occasion that Frank would work with color (at least that is my impression through the evidence of his books), for his new project photographing the Sudbury River that flows in eastern Massachusetts he chose to work entirely with color film and a 5X7 inch view camera. The river also provided a refuge for Gohlke from his new urban environment. The resulting work that describes the length of this 40 mile waterway is a mixture of a celebration of its beauty and a critique of the pollution that is evident from the surrounding industry.

A small catalog called The Sudbury River: A Celebration was published in 1992 by the DeCordova MuseumSculpture Park. and

This brings me full circle and to the latest book Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke. Throughout his other books, Frank has exhibited not only his talent for making images but also his remarkable talent for writing. What is an added joy about this new book is that Frank ties all of his various projects together with a running narrative of text that covers his life with photography as a near constant companion. Uncharacteristic of most retrospective type books, this one is not constructed with a strict chronological order to the images. The photographs follow the text in this regard and pleasurably serve as flash back and memory alongside Frank’s steady narration.

Gohlke is a writer of such talent that by the time we get to the two other essays by John Rohrbach and Rebecca Solnit, although perfectly fine and very well crafted, they seem superfluous as Gohlke’s voice has established itself to be the perfect guide.

If you are not familiar with the work of Frank Gohlke then this book would be a perfect introduction. It is finely printed in tri-tone and four color reproduction. The design is conservative but importantly allows the photographs to be reproduced at a good size to fully appreciate Gohlke’s technical prowess. It is printed in an edition of 1,750 paperback and only 500 clothbound copies. There is a limited edition of 50 that are case bound and signed and come with an original print. These are available through Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York City.

Book Available Here (Accommodating Nature)

Book Available Here (Mount St. Helens)

Book Available Here (Landscapes from the Middle of the World)

Book Available Here (Measure of Emptiness)