Thursday, December 11, 2008

Other Nature by Ron Jude

It is interesting to follow the traditions of photographing nature. Back in the day, photographers ventured into that genre to show Mother Nature's grandeur and celebrate its poetry. A 'natural' subject perfectly suited to this new invention that required a certain amount of stillness and one that could be found in abundance.

Landscapists like Timothy O'Sullivan were early to interject a different tenor to their images through inclusion of lesser idyllic subjects such as the effect of man and war on that landscape. This shift in attitude was most profoundly felt almost a hundred years later when the American photographers lumped into the "topographic school" started their more critical and perhaps more cynical approach. The pictures became more about us and how we would venture into nature to slap the old bitch around. In turn, anyone continuing with the older, more pure celebration, even the best like Eliot Porter, started to look like kitsch.

Contemporary landscapists seem to avoid the traditional "obvious beauty" and concentrate on the ironic in Mother Nature's lesser successful experiments. Often found in the area that blends man's territory into the wild, these trampled but not quite dominated areas become fodder for comment on our current love/hate relationship with the land. Light rains down on the brambles and felled trees with a beauty that is passed onto discarded garbage and we are momentarily struck with the tension of the irony.

Ron Jude's book Other Nature just published by The Ice Plant explores this 'occassional-man's-land' in complex and subtle ways.

With a large format camera and color film, Jude responds to these places with an eye for both the beauty in the wear and tear but the real subtext seems to be one of accessibility. At every turn, Jude makes it difficult for us to venture far without man-made or naturally occurring roadblocks barring our access. A running steam, fallen logs, an impenetrable bush and even a threatening looking garden-hose/snake imply that, if we are really committed to experiencing "the other," there are going to be certain risks involved. An opening in a stand of trees and bushes may look inviting at first but the darkness that would quickly envelop us is certainly disconcerting.

Interspersed among these images are others of man-made representations of nature. Fake wood-grained furniture and flowery patterns in fabrics may remind us of the beauty and virtues of Mother Nature without that risk - the American replacement of nature is easy on the conscience and a lot more convenient. Even light can be provided at will or filtered to our liking.

Jude's photographs are very well made even though many are similar in form. My harshest criticism of this work is that the repetition makes itself felt after several viewings. The exteriors share a common distance and scale as do the interiors from their close-up vantage point. In those close-ups Jude has us seemingly trapped in a hotel room where we examine the details with crazed intensity. The result has a comic tone for me that is part of the joy of Other Nature. We are either keeping ourselves locked in or nature locked out. What seeps in by way of faux wood-grained items is a mere extension of the exterior spaces but mannered and superficial.

As a book Other Nature is very well conceived. The sequencing and edit follow an interesting path without being jarring or obvious. The printing is good and, as with all of The Ice Plant's titles, the design is clean, cool and thought out down to smallest details.


Anonymous said...

What are we to make of these pictures? A rock, some trees, an old telephone, a door ajar? Is this book contemporary comment on our fractured relationship with nature, or just a collection of disparate and bland images crying out to us for mystification and our well-trained esoteric eye. Unfortunately, like so many photobooks, it surely lies in the latter category. Now, I'm not wanting photobooks to be useful, for we're discussing art after all, but I would like each one to amount to a provocative and stimulating opus with a coherent and intended theme. Even if the theme is just poles, or fridges, or a particular town in South Africa, or a wistful journey along a river. But canonical photos of bland objects just won't do. That said, bland photo books do seem to sell well ten years down the line, so maybe I will buy a copy...

Mike in San Diego said...

I think Anonymous should stick to the totally interesting and expected Ansel Adams photos. I find these photos interesting because they are not cliche like so many others.I wonder what you would think of Eggleston?

Anonymous said...

Mike C, Eggleston is brilliant in the way he unifies disparate images into a theme, and in so doing imbues those objects with a meaning beyond themselves. What is worrying is when a photographer relies on the fact of publication to transform bland scenes into something transcendental - a little bit like a newshound relying on the printed word to boost the veracity of his story. Ok, maybe I'm being harsh. It's all down to taste after all. As for Ansel, he was cutting edge stuff in his time, we just introduced the cliches a bit later.

Anonymous said...

"I find these photos interesting because they are not cliche like so many others"

Mike C you are absolutely correct. these photos are not cliche, but simply bad imitations of the work of William Eggleston. they would be amazing if taken during 70's but sadly they are not. not cliches, simply something that we've seen many, many times before. nothing new, nothing that tells us something new about life, about photography, or about art. strange if someone finds this work interesting.

Anonymous said...

I found it interesting enough to be compelled to write 500 words on it...I guess I am strange.

Have you heard the rumor that art is subjective? Don't worry it is just a rumor.

Anonymous said...

Jeff, I always enjoy your thoughts on photography and share most of your tastes but for today I agree with anonymous nr1 (who expresses his reservations with much clarity).
Am I allowed?

Anonymous said...

Of course. I enjoy the dialogue and the contrary opinions. There isn't enough of that in the comments usually.

Anonymous said...

Eggleston was not interested in nature at all, so although Jude (like many) uses some of his aesthetic, I wouldn't call them just an imitation.

Maybe the work of Eliott Porter's followers can be deemed kitch, but at the time "In Wilderness" was first published, nobody had ever seen anything like that in a book. Remember that Porter did his color work way before Eggleston.

Lester P. said...

Dear Anonymous(s),

I have to completely disagree with just about everything you said here. Except for the part about how you would like photobooks to provide “a provocative and stimulating opus with a coherent and intended theme”. We actually agree on that except I believe that Other Nature more than satisfies that criteria. When I picked up Other Nature for the first time (which reminds me, have you ever looked at the actual book? Are you critiquing the object in question here or simply basing your response on some low-res jpgs and your own photographic preferences? Just curious...) it was very clear to me that this is a book that has been carefully crafted with a clear focus. I’ll admit the work is not forthcoming in its readings but I actually feel like that is precisely the intention of the work. The feeling that is created when bouncing between the confined interiors to the seemingly open spaces - only to find them closed just as tightly - creates a claustrophobic sense of quiet anxiety that plays out through the sequence. So for me its impossible not to see a distinctive vision at work here and be transported on a journey within this work, which in my opinion is an excellent example of how photographs and the book form can merge together to become something entirely different. This is no simple matter of repackaging, and to claim so is to completely miss the subtlety from which the actual work consists of.

And I had to roll my virtual eyes when you made the lazy comment about how these pictures are simply “bad imitations of Eggleston.” That’s completely absurd in so many regards. I can see echoes of many other artists in Ron’s images but Eggleston is not the first one to come to mind by a long shot. I would think of Jem Southam, Thomas Struth and maybe even Joel Sternfeld before Eggleston. Not to mention these are large format photographs of locations that aren’t in the American South. It seems to me that there are many more differences than similarities to draw any real comparisons. They both shoot color film and parts of the world around them but that doesn’t make them the same.

Anonymous said...

Thoughtful comments Lester. Thanks.

Anonymous said...

The point with that book seems to be its very Anglo-Saxon taste. Don't misunderstand me : it is just that I'm a European and that it appears to me as a generic product. Seen from here, even through my Lutherian eyes, it seems to deal with issues that have been developped again and again in in the best American photography or litterature : Nature and the loss of innocence, etc., etc., etc.
Pantheism as a predictable alternative to other more disturbing issues.

Anonymous said...

A thought experiment (inspired by Lester P and luke Rhinehart): Buy large/medium format camera, take map of the States, put pin in at random, go to pointlessly pinpointed location pronto, take picture in random direction (though pointing vaguely at ground). Do this 46 times. Ask hip museum curator to sharpen pen and put down words. If he wants to see the images, all the better. Bind foreword with random photos. Title? Random word generator should do. Unleash searing new random vision on world.