“I was cutting the paper in place, in the landscape, in fifty mile per hour winds.” I got a vision of Julie Shafer flailing about the severe terrain of Owens Lake with sheets of photo paper larger than she, slashing at the paper and walking it face-first into her hand built large format pinhole camera. I don’t know which impulse was stronger in me: to laugh at the humor, or to be inspired by the artist’s heroics. Both, I decided. “I was trying to make them human size,” Shafer continued, “and I simply guessed at my height and cut.” I like this uncertainty about one’s size. Especially when making photographs of the land, for which there is no defined size, guesswork seems an honest approach.
I see large, loose prints on the walls of Shafer’s studio, if there was a breeze these black and white photographs would flutter, as they are adhered only at the top. They range from more than five feet to less than six feet high, and are slightly more than three feet in width. Shafer’s blacks are particularly nice, they are of a rich, deep sable. As my eyes adjust, I notice white scrapes and points, these are evidence of imperfections in the processing and damage done by flying sand. Again, the human act of making – and of perceiving – is stressed.
The photos show landscapes vertically, like portraits. There is an emphatic horizon line in each and it wanders up and down among the prints, sometimes more sky is on view and sometimes more earth.
Placing one’s self in the land to capture a picture is an original impulse of photography. Historically, the resulting photographs have often been romantic, and by making a choice of what to leave out and what to include the artist and, ultimately, the viewer were allowed the dominating position of objectifier. One got a sense of ownership, of mastery. Perhaps because of their failure as idealized images Shafer’s photographs make me think of… well, of the artist herself, of her body in the spare, harsh earth. I cannot get away from her actions in making them, her negotiations with the elements are… foregrounded, to use a worn out term that could be a horrible pun yet is one that just happens to function in this place.
These landscapes of Shafer’s are about people, and while it is true that all land has been affected by its relation to humans, Shafer chooses territories that were used for mining, and in the removal of gold and silver this land has been scraped, it is stained with mercury and arsenic, its mountains have been hollowed. The evidence is underground, so to speak, and might not be visible, and I wonder about this, now several days later. Is my knowledge of the human intervention necessary here? The title of the piece in the LACE benefit is Conquest of the Vertical: 9 miles outside of Eureka and I think this carries just enough information. There is the invitation to think about the historical boundaries of photography and how the work responds to that history, I am given a refreshing view of the land as portrait and so consider the extent of human nature that is embedded in the landscape, and how much I see me when I look outward, I can wonder about the connection to Eureka and ask questions from this point, all of these things are in place. But what is most striking is the power over the image that Shafer grants to this land – the wind and the sand have their way with her art, her giant unwieldy pinhole camera begs the earth not to tumble it over as the wind whips around the interior of her U-Haul truck – I guess I like the romance inherent in such determination.