Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Poles by Frank Breuer

There have been many books that follow in the tradition of the Düsseldorf School of typologies that I just find boring. In fact, I even have a hard time looking through an entire book of the Bechers themselves when it is entirely made up of one of their subjects. Like many other genres of photography, their conceptual tendencies seemed to lead to a whole generation of photographers that would simply pick their typology and plug in the information. Of course one needs to make interesting photographs but the makers seem to say, “I'm going to photograph X” and then their job is to photograph “X” 200 times. Within this framework is common for these bodies of work to be a bit more interesting conceptually than visually which is why I was surprised to like Frank Breuer's book Poles as much as I do.

Breuer, a former student of Bernd and Hilla Becher, started his career photographing roadside and parking lot signs that hinted at the commercial sprawl encroaching on the suburban landscape. His interest in globalization shifted his attention to shipping containers and the superstores that they supplied.

In this new work shot mainly in Massachusetts in 2004 at 2005 is of large utility and telecommunication poles that spring up in the landscape and through a mystery of tangled wires and transformers connect different parts of the country.

His approach is familiar, each of the utility poles sits squarely in the middle of the frame and the crisp focus of the 8 x 10 camera is lengthened to include the entire frame from foreground and background. Brewer does not vary his distance from the object so that the end result is the same amount of distance from the top of the pole to the top of the photographic frame. He has chosen, like his predecessors, to photograph on days where an overcast sky provides a clean backdrop upon which his subjects could be drawn.

What immediately gets addressed is the seeming impossibility of the wiring and engineering that makes these functional objects. To us, it seems randomness and jury-rigging has been placed upon a well thought out initial design. (It would be interesting to show this book to an employee of an electric company and for them to provide the schema in which to understand whether the messiness is necessary or perhaps just sloppy maintenance).

For me what makes these fascinating objects to look at is the paradox of strength and fragility. The telephone pole material sometime shows its strength and resistance to the forces that are connected to it and other times they list and cant with the tug and pull of the high tension lines. Some have broken completely, probably sheared from their moorings by the weather, and are literally tethered to a reinforcement pole. In his introductory essay, Marcus Verhagan describes these photographs, as does the artist, as portraits. I tend to agree. Without resulting to anthropomorphism one can see individual characteristics while the basic framework, the structure that anchors, is very much the same. It is the configurations and geometry of the connections that varies drastically and is what ultimately makes each unique.

Another enticing characteristic of these photographs is that they work very much like line drawings. In many of the images, Brewer has chosen to photograph poles that stand next to buildings that share the same color-drained palette as the sky. Not only does the pole and its wiring show with remarkable contrast against the sky but so does the random darkened window, curbside, or strip of grass; providing an equally minimal dose of description and color. The overall effect is a background luminosity that might remind us of objects placed on a light box.

What I enjoy about looking at Brewers series of poles is becoming conscious of the remarkable ready-made sculptures that are common but not noticed along our daily treks to the mall or to work. There is something about the attention paid to these objects that oddly reminds me of the background details used by Robert Crumb in his drawings. I think what set Crumb's drawings of the contemporary American landscape apart from many of his contemporaries was that he was perhaps the first cartoonist to include utility poles and transformers as the subliminal details that we attach to everyday seeing. These objects are part of our infrastructure and they exist as a link between the primitive and the current miracles of technology.

Poles by Frank Breuer was published in 2006 by the Faulconer Gallery at Grinnell College.

Book Available Here (Poles)