Sunday, July 20, 2008

Precious Metals and Overseas by Roger Palmer

Throughout history man has used markings on walls to communicate. Whether they are important as the drawings in the caves of Lascaux or as seemingly insignificant as a Stop n' Shop sign or quickly scrawled graffiti, our world is permeated with markings that denote its cultural heritage. Roger Palmer, an artist I have just recently discovered, has explored this territory through exhibitions and books of photography and wall drawings.

The first book I discovered is called Precious Metals published by the Cambridge Darkroom in 1986 and was prepared to accompany an exhibition at the Serpentine Gallery.

Precious Metals is a project Palmer worked on while spending a month in South Africa in 1985. Working without any predetermined meanings he wound up creating photographs that referred not only to the physical landscape but alluded to its shifting history. The final work as presented in Precious Metals are photographs that are paired with short texts of facts about diluted or extinct civilizations that were a part of the history of the landscape.

Not unlike an anthropologist, Palmer examines the evidence within the landscape, but his images do not give rise to facts - but to the thoughts of the viewer concerning cultural shifts brought on by European colonialism. The visual "evidence" or "facts" he points his camera towards are metaphors and not the relics of the civilization under examination.

For one pairing, the text reads, "Territorial codes were strictly respected by neighboring groups. Natural landmarks such as a clump of trees, an old spring, or a dry river bed, demarcated the boundaries of adjacent hunting territories." This sits next to an image of a barren landscape punctuated with a wheelbarrow in the foreground, a small portion of wall from a destroyed structure and off in the far background an abandoned Chevy.

For another, his humor as an outside observer (and most certainly of European descent) is present. For the work titled Dorper Sheep, the text reads, "The Dorper is a cross between the Dorset Horn and the Black-Headed Persian. It is bred in the western cape as a hardy, drought resistant sheep able to raise its lambs on natural grazing in arid conditions." this sits next to a photograph of an abandoned car which is seen from a time of day when the facing side is in hard shadow. The next text reads, "For the Black-Headed Dorper, the ideal is a white sheep with black confined to the neck and head. Some black spots are permissible on the body and leg. In the case of the White Dorper, pigmentation is acceptable around the eyes, under the tail, and on the udder and teats." For this accompanying photograph, Palmer photographed the same car at a different time of day when the sunlight was hitting the side facing the viewer.

As the work progresses through Precious Metals, the horizon line of the landscape becomes filled with modern tract housing and the texts shift to descriptions of the natural elements of light and wind common to this arid land. Palmer takes us to the edge of the development but almost like we are forbidden to enter (or warned against it) he leaves us at a dividing point where the dirt road becomes paved.

As mentioned before, this is really a catalog for the exhibition but it was made to contain the complete work in book form. It is softcover and suffers a bit from some of the black areas of the reproductions blocking up. It is accompanied by an interesting interview between Roger Palmer and Pavel Buchler.

My curiosity with Precious Metals made me seek out other publications by Palmer. One that is currently available called Overseas was published by Fotohof Edition in Austria in 2004.

Overseas seems to be a culling of many of Palmer's photographs that also address colonial influence. Here we see some of the individual photos from Precious Metals (minus the texts) dropped within a sequence of 80 that seems more global in scale. Palmer starts his sequence with a landscape in the Skiddow Forest of a wall marking the boundary between clear grassland and a fog obscured world. Palmer places us in the shoes of an early colonist who arrive, first in one ship and later in many. Throughout the book, the image of ships reappear to remind us that we are passing through - always an outsider.

Along the journey, Palmer points out the markings left behind - some familiar, some foreign. Many of which, Palmer uses the cropping of the photographic frame to turn what might (in the real world) be something familiar into something foreign. He mixes our language and "theirs", often photographing through reflective surfaces, to create hybrids that confuse. His view of the world is not of a melting pot but of clashing cultures holding firm against the diluting effects of time.

Palmer ends the sequence with an image that mirrors the first - a line of industrial buildings (the wall) is partially thrown into a haze of dust (the fog) thrown up by a passing 18 wheeler truck.

In one sense, Overseas can be compared to Lee Friedlander's monumental Letters To The People in its subject and style of photography (Palmer is less the formalist than Friedlander) but the overall tone is not one of the celebratory as Friedlander's attitude. The markings of Palmer are polluting and destructive where Lee's are affirmations of life no matter how ugly or crude.

The book itself is in a traditional horizontal format with a design of one photo per right-hand page and a caption list in the back. Ivan Vladisslavic contributes a story called City Center (Street addresses, Johannesburg, fifth cycle).

Overseas takes time for it to sink in. Many will see Palmer's use of 35mm black and white film a detriment considering the fetish for clarity and color of today's trends. I see this work sitting on the creative line between Lewis Baltz and David Goldblatt - distant cousin it may be, but an important contribution and fine thought provoking collection.

Book Available Here (Overseas)