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.