Imagine for a moment an Ansel Adams photograph. Any Adams’ image will do.
What does it look like? Do you see a landscape in black and white? Is it in a frame? Is it small? Large? Is the image on a poster pinned to a wall or displayed above a calendar page? Or do you see the landscape itself, as though it’s a real place?
It is hard to imagine what Adams’ colleagues and friends thought when they saw his photographs of Yosemite Valley, the Sierra, and other landscapes in the American West for the first time. Today, Adams’ photographs have become so commonplace, so clichéd, that it’s impossible for us to view these images with fresh eyes.
But when Adams’ images were first printed, they were novel and influential. It was his book Sierra Nevada: The John Muir Trail, and Adams’ testimony before Congress that played a vital role in designating Sequoia and Kings Canyon as national parks in 1940.
One challenge all artists face is how to create original, compelling work that is in dialogue with a medium’s history without being overly derivative. Artists are in constant battle with the tyranny of the familiar. How can a photographer working today inspire a viewer to see a landscape with new eyes when so many photographs have been made before, when our cultural memories are infused with so many popular images?
When I first saw Barry Underwood’s photographs, I was struck not only by how strange and surreal they were, but also by how familiar–familiar in the sense that they called to mind not only the landscapes of Ansel Adams, but also The Lightning Field of Walter De Maria, the sublime panoramas of the Hudson River School painters, the black and white images of Japanese photographer Tokihiro Satō, the orange pumpkins of Joel Sternfeld, and the eerie cinematic scenes in Close Encounters of the Third Kind.
Whatever Underwood’s influences, he has been shaped by them without being consumed by them. While he may reference the work of other photographers, he has invented a visual language that is entirely his own. When I look at his remarkable photographs, I sense that I am seeing these places for the first time, and I’m intrigued, but also unnerved. It’s easy to forget how difficult an artistic accomplishment this is to achieve.
The brilliance of Underwood’s work is that it suggests a larger narrative, and yet that narrative always remains elusive and mysterious. It is this tension between the familiar and the surreal that gives his photographs their power. Underwood shows us the potential of the ordinary, in the same way a brilliant cinematographer or set designer can turn an everyday moment into a memorable, visual experience.
Underwood’s talent for creating theatrical vistas can be traced back to his undergraduate days at Indiana University Northwest, where he majored in theater and served as tech director for a year. In the end he turned down a full-time theater position, choosing to study photography at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan instead. While working at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Underwood began melding his theater experience with still images by utilizing lighting and other artistic effects in his landscape photographs.
When I spoke to Underwood about his process, he explained that all of his photographs are shot with color negative film. All of the images he made before 2007 (like “Lightning Bugs” and “Blue Trees”) were printed entirely in the darkroom with no digital processing. More recently, he has begun scanning his film negatives and making small adjustments digitally. But it is important to note that the lighting effects you see in Underwood’s images are not created in Photoshop. Underwood fashions these scenes by intuitively reading the landscape and altering the vista through lights and photographic effects. Each photograph is a sort of dialogue–the result of Underwood’s direct encounter with nature.
“Everything starts from a drawing,” Underwood said. “Then I transfer the drawing to acetate that is fixed to the glass at the rear of the camera. I use this as a plan to create the installation.”
He creates light-emitting sculptures in the landscape using a variety of materials, including fluorescent marking tape, building up structures with rope and metal. The film is exposed for 15 minutes to five hours, depending upon the result Underwood wants to achieve.
Many of Underwood’s photographs are the result of time spent at artist residency programs. He has been awarded residencies at Banff, I-Park, The MacDowell Colony, Headlands Center for the Arts, and the Center for Land Use Interpretation. Underwood is the winner of the 2011 Cleveland Arts Prize Mid-Career Artist Award in the visual arts. His work has been exhibited at the Annual International Los Angeles Photographic Art Exposition, at Photo Miami, and at Johansson Projects, among others. His work is included in several corporate and private collections, including The Museum of Fine Arts in Houston. He currently teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art, where he is head of the department of film, video and photographic arts.
It is easy to appreciate Underwood’s images for themselves–for the interplay between light and shadow, for their remarkable detail and color saturation, and compelling composition. But Underwood’s photographs also stand up to deeper examination. These landscapes emit an eerie, alien beauty, and it is impossible to know if these strange scenes are the result of some mysterious, natural phenomenon or, instead, the result of some terrible environmental disaster caused by humans. The more I study Underwood’s images, the more intriguing they become.
If you would like to view Barry Underwood’s photographs in person, you can see his work from October 29, 2011 – March 4, 2012 at the Akron Art Museum (along with the work of Bruce Checefsky). To see more of Underwood’s images online, please visit his website.
If you enjoyed this post, please help spread the word about Gwarlingo by sharing this article on Facebook, Twitter, Google Plus, etc. You can visit the sidebar of the Gwarlingo home page to see work by Chinese artist Sui Jianguo and French street artist Zevs. You might also like these articles from the archive: “Olafur Eliasson: Your Blind Passenger,” “Gwarlingo Visits the Tate Modern,” or “George Bernard Shaw Exposed” (a feature on Shaw’s photography).
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