June 26 - August 5, 2012
In Black & White: Ansel Adams, Clyde Butcher & Robert Glenn Ketchum
The G2 Gallery, 1503 Abbott Kinney Blvd, Venice, CA 90291-3742
Thanks to the Getty and over 60 participating regional museums and galleries, in 2011 - 2012 an astounding series of exhibitions were installed throughout the Los Angeles area under the encompassing banner: PACIFIC STANDARD TIME The concept of these collective exhibits was to articulate the importance of those artists who have practiced in Los Angeles since 1945. Their unique perspectives have come to define the diverse artistic culture of LA and bring about the birth of the LA art scene.
I am happy to say that work from one of my earliest portfolios was included in a show at the USC-Fisher Museum of Art, entitled: ''SIGHT SPECIFIC: LACPS AND THE POLITICS OF COMMUNITY" The show highlighted the important contributions made to the growth of the LA photographic community thanks to the efforts of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, for whom I served as Director and Board member for many years.
Although prominent Los Angeles institutions have my photographs in their permanent collections, including this portfolio, it seems the work I have done is more acknowledged at a national level, than local, so I am grateful to Tim Wride, curator of the USC exhibition, and Dr. Selma Holo, Director of the Fisher Museum at USC for putting this print up and allowing me the opportunity to once again discuss my intent in creating these photographs.
The twenty-four images in WINTERS: 1970-1980 were created in the years following my graduation from UCLA (BA, '70), after which I moved to Idaho and helped found the photography workshop program for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities. Enduring a great deal of long-distance commuting for nearly a decade, I maintained an active relationship with a group of Idaho friends that were athletes - hikers, climbers and adventurous backcountry skiers - while also pursuing technical courses in view camera, and fine black-and-white and color printmaking at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, and an MFA ('74) in photography from California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). This portfolio of images was created during many different backcountry adventures in which mv friends attempted first winter ascents of several significant summits and expedition-styled range traverses, often of multiple-day duration.
The background for this work includes my study with two very inspirational and experimental teachers at UCLA, Edmund Teske and Robert Heinecken. Both communicated their passion for the medium and their own personal desire to push its boundaries. Eliot Porter and I exchanged letters about color and natural light, and ultimately I visited he and Paul Caponigro in New Mexico. Not insignificantly, Ansel Adams was viewed as North America's penultimate landscape photographer by the media and collectors, and was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, as well as in the first American television ad for Toyota.
My graduate work at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) was informed by the birth of the feminist art program and the emergence of the post-modern aesthetic. It was also CalArts' mentor/instructor, Alan Kaprow - recognized as an artist for his "happenings" - who suggested that just my effort to exist and create in the places my pictures depicted, constituted artistic performance.
Lastly, I was inspired by, and part of, a growing community of West Coast photographers and practicing artists who were remarkably diverse in their interpretation of the photographic image. Many of them I worked with on a regular basis at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies where we also published and exhibited historical collections and nationally recognized contemporaries.
Despite the very progressive nature of the artistic moment, landscape photography in the late '60's and early '70's was dominated by the "school of (Ansel) Adams," his peers and historical predecessors.
My colleagues - even some producing quite experimental work themselves - seemed to accept that the landscape was exclusively the domain of the large format view camera and broad tonal latitude sheet film. It was repeatedly expressed to me that I should be using a view camera if I expected to have my work "taken seriously," and that I could never "get what I needed" from the tonality of the smaller, 35mm role film.
The 35mm format allowed me to explore a world of landscapes none of my predecessors even considered as subject matter; one quite different from the benign-weather, convenient-access, point-of-view typical to the larger cameras.
In New York City, Lee Friedlander, Gary Winograd, Joel Meyerowitz, and Ernst Haas were using their 35mm's to witness the specticle and color of life on the city's street. Embracing the unique aspects of the smaller format helped them to capitalize on spontaneity, as did higher shutter speeds and a greater choice of lenses. The ability of roll film to achieve multiple exposures quickly, also allowed tonal control through exposure-variation and sequential photography. Their images were redefining how we viewed the world. These same attributes appealed to me as well, however I was witnessing a very different part of the world.
The winter world in which I was immersing myself was in a constant flux of changing weather and conditions. Existence was a kind of perpetual motion. Daylight hours were short. Stopping to ponder only made you cold. ln most circumstances, snow depth was great enough that establishing a tripod would have been impossible. Simply setting-up a view camera invited frostbite. Over multiple days of exposure in such conditions you became less exact in your personal functionality, and view cameras with their metal accessories simply froze-up and became unusable.
Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson, their peers, and in later generations Adams and Porter, either had entire entourages helping them, or they were working with assistants. These necessities for them were not an option for me.
To do what we were doing, my colleagues and I each carried what we needed with regard to food and gear. We were alpine adventuring and we succeeded because we were mobile and self-contained, there was little room for additional weight or bulk. At the time, new technologies in clothing insulation and food preservation allowed us to exist and enjoy very challenging environments. As an artist, the same was true of the smaller camera which was allowing me a new and unique point-of-view. I was quite intentionally using a format I felt best suited to translate what I witnessed and the result is a kind of visual "wildness" my predecessors seldom saw, let alone chose as subject matter.
With regard to film, 35mm was viewed as "grainy" by comparison to larger format sheet film, and it was felt to lack the tonal capacity as well. ln fact, my film of choice - Kodak Tri-X - specifically had more grain than other 35mm films I could have selected, but I used it because its grainy structure suited my nebulous, ephemeral, falling-snow-speckled subjects. lt also suited my printing intentions. These images were jewel-like to me, demanding closer, careful observation to truly be appreciated, so most images in the portfolio were never printed larger than 5"x8" making irrelevant any consideration of film grain becoming more distracting as enlargement increased.
Specific control of tonal latitude in large format is possible because each sheet of film is processed separately. This allows time of development to be adjusted to suite lighting conditions and to quite literally, control those conditions. Using this technique, every image can be manipulated by processing to render the broadest tonal latitude possible, and that "full-tone" concept defined "good" black & white printmaking at the time.
The "school of Ansel Adams" would certainly have had us all believe that every picture had black, white, and 12-15 shades of grey. Part of my purpose in this portfolio was to question that.
Given the environment and conditions in which I had chosen to work, there were many days when no such tonal range existed and some days where there were hardly any tones whatsoever. The lack of those tones was essentially part of the reason to make the picture.
Having said that, elegant tonality still gives a print its beauty so it was important to optimize the processing of the 35mm film I was shooting. Commercial roles of Tri-X were either 20 or 30 exposures to the roll, and with so many shots to the roll, it inevitably meant some subjects exposed in one light would benefit from perfect development, while other subjects in different lighting would likely suffer. The supposed advantage of large format sheet film - allowing specific processing for each and every sheet - thus accommodated producing the best tonal range for all lighting circumstances. To achieve this same control in 35mm, I simply rolled my own Tri-X. With only 5 or 10 shots to the roll, I would then shoot the entire roll in the same lighting conditions and process each roll individually, achieving the control over tonality expected of larger formats.
The limited tonal range apparent in the select images of this portfolio is not a high-contrast printing effect; it is an attempt to render the scene as actually viewed instead of manipulating technology to represent an idealized interpretation of the landscape.
For the record, my preferred printing papers were DuPont Velour #2, and #3, and Agfa #3, and #4 - all rich tonal printing material.
WINTERS: 1970-1980 was my reaction to the domination of the view camera in landscape photography and the concept that all prints should express a full tonal range. As importantly, these images were a rejection of the iconic view, the grand scene.
The British painter J.M.W. Turner believed his atmospheric canvases expressed his actual experience of the subject, his personal immersion in that landscape or storm that stimulated and informed the work. Similarly, my images are not about "views" of a "beautiful" place, rather they are an attempt to translate my experiencing of a dynamic landscape through film to print. These photographs do not define location; they explore mood and mystery using atmosphere, tone, and form. ln fact, these images are so foreign and abstract to a general audience that titles are simply explanations of the event being witnessed, and intentionally lack any description of place.
WINTERS: 1970-1980 was created and exhibited in tandem with the 18-print color portfolio, ORDER FROM CHAOS. Visually, the two bodies of work were foils to one another. WINTERS: 1970-1980 consisted of small, ephemeral black & white prints, and ORDER FROM CHAOS images were shot with 4x5 film and printed 30"x 40" on Cibachrome paper. The two very differing visions of the landscape presented gallery audiences with highly detailed, claustrophobic, and overwhelmingly colorful forest skeins, punctuated by groupings of quietude and void - often-boundless space with no horizon, where solid objects merged with weather and the sky.
At the same time, both portfolios were similar in that each was an intentional wedding of subject matter to camera and print. Camera size, print size, and print material were essential, and carefully considered aspects of how I intended the final image to be perceived. Both portfolios also served as acknowledgments of mentors, while simultaneously rejecting, or re-addressing various aspects of their work.
The portfolio WINTERS: 1970-1980 is comprised of 24-5"x 8" silver gelatin prints, individually mounted on de-bossed rag pages with letter-pressed titles & dates. The images were created with a 35mm camera, and every image/print is represented full frame, as seen in-camera at the time of making the picture. The mount pages and portfolio box design, honor, and accentuate the rectangular aspect of the 35mm film.
This absolute in-camera framing and printing has remained a signature of my career, regardless of the cameras I have used.
The portfolio was produced in a signed, limited edition of 20. I personally made all the prints, and assembled the portfolios by hand. The subtle tonalities in the prints were so difficult to match consistently that I adapted a digital clock as a timer in order to count fractions. Nonetheless, any fluctuations in electric current, water, and chemical temperature, number of images processed in one chemical batch, and changes in paper emulsion, caused tonal variations. Achieving 20 matching prints was a considerable ordeal.
The portfolio box for WINTERS: 1970-1980 was designed by Claudia Laub studios and echoes Asian influences apparent in the photographs. lt is bound with a fine white rice paper, the titling is letter-pressed in silver and my initials have been designed as a chop mark, letter-pressed in red.
Both WINTERS: 1970-1980 and ORDER FROM CHAOS were published in a 2-catalogue set, "Robert Glenn Ketchum: New Work" and "New Work, II" which included an essay from author/critic, Kathy Coleman. Printing for this catalog was done by Gardner-Fulmer, the principle printers for many of Ansel's books.
Cathy Coleman wrote the accompanying essay for the catalog in which she provides further insights to the work and its historical origins, so I have included the pertinent parts of that essay herewith:
"If Ketchum's color work is expressionistic, orchestral and effulgent, his black and white series Winters: 1970-1980 is Oriental, etude-like, minimal. What the 35mm camera "sees" is a world concerned with equilibrium, graphicness, surprise in scale, disintegration and the void. The photographs are minimalist exercises, less immediately emotional than the color work, though they share formal concerns and intent. Order from Chaos is like Stravinsky. Winters: 1970-1980 is like Bach. With the easily transportable 35mm camera, Ketchum went into the wilderness to witness these natural events in a landscape that most would find too hostile to enjoy aesthetically. He transforms it into images that join a primal lyricism with a masterfully realized formal beauty.
As in Order from Chaos, Ketchum uses direct treatment of the subject, no manipulation and no cropping. There are few horizons and the flattened picture plane makes the graphic quality of the work even more poignant. In "View from a Summit: Visibility Diminishing" the surprise in scale where we discover, upon close observation, that the dark objects in the lower right of the frame are full grown pine trees, makes us see the image graphically and shakes up our idea of space.
The use of black and white photography to render these tonal landscapes is wonderfully apt, as is the graininess of the 35mm film which complements the snowy world perfectly. This is demonstrated in the beautifully atomized "Snowfall". As in the color work, the non-monumentality of the subject and non-specificity of place relieves us of any narrative considerations or preconceived notions. With fewer biases, our vision is freshened.
Ketchum's use of negative space or voids, the flattened picture plane, the vertical movement of the composition and the elemental graphic minimalism are reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting. In the same way that he uses color and texture in Order from Chaos to create depth, Ketchum uses graphic texture, atmospheric "panels" or curtains and negative space to represent different planes of depth, as in the perfectly poised image, "Approaching Storm."
In Chinese painting, leaps in depth through undefined voids created a feeling of immeasurable space. This sense of limitlessness was heightened by the use of clouds, mist, light and weather conditions to make the voids between differing depths more vague. In "Peak, Above a Cloud" and "Distant Wall through Snow and Clouds" this technique is used so skillfully that we are left doubting what is presented us: an image unimaginable before this viewing.
Also, the lack in Chinese painting of a single arbitrary horizon allowed the artist to freely adjust the levels of the terrain. The absence of horizon in "Avalanche Lake Basin (Cirque Headwalls in a Blizzard)" is one of the elements that allows Ketchum to create a sense of disequilibrium, which, combined with his fluid use of negative space, gives the image its forceful thrust.
Because the Chinese used voids instead of painted skies dotted with clouds, the artist had to calculate the quantity of void needed to balance the forces of movement or to establish an equilibrium of tensions. This task is more difficult than the western balance of clouds and earth across a horizontal axis. In "McPartland Peak" Ketchum achieves this perfectly, with the mountain existing on the same plane as the sky. The image has a magical aspect as this (we know it is) solid, unscalable mountain in a harsh landscape appears to be made of ash, as if it might blow away at any moment.
As in Order from Chaos, there is a concern and delight in elucidating what the Chinese termed, the "eternal flux of all things." The living quality in the Chinese rendering of static objects hinged on a rhythmic abstraction of form. In "Chute Detail" there is a wonderful rhythm of vertical movement set up as the line of trees embedded in rock are set against negative space which is then broken by a disappearing wall of sparse rock. The complexity of this image brings the eye back again and again for perusal.
The mystery of the spirit of nature was implied in Chinese landscape by the disintegration of form. In "Distant Wall through Snow and Clouds" this disintegration and reintegration gives the image a sense of an enchanted, appearing and disappearing world, as well as a syncopated movement. The obliteration of form also works dynamically in "Descending Ice Clouds" where the planes are in varying states of intactness.
Another formal affinity Ketchum's work has to the Chinese is their inclination for using a design made up of a contrast of two and after that, preferentially, a group of three. Ketchum chooses the elements of two in "Visual Haiku" and three in "3 Trees" out of all possible variables. The starkness and force of these arrangements gives both images a potency as well as a rare, poetic lucidity.
In "Sheer Wall" there is a likeness to the use in Oriental painting of a high tilted background so that the eye can move freely vertically as well as horizontally. Here we can delight in the graphic pleasure of texture as we wind our way up through the image, dappled and brindled, lush and satiny. The lack of hierarchy of subject (here, as in Order from Chaos) gives the parts of the picture plane a rhythmic likeness akin to the Eastern idea of consonance.
In Chinese landscape painting, since no ground plane stated a physical connection between forms held down by gravity, the forms often seemed to be floating across a background or a void. This quality of floating can be found in Ketchum's color work as well but is most obviously and dramatically used in "Two Domes in a White-out." This is a daring image as Ketchum is bold enough to play with a line and a mass in a formal exercise exploring the Oriental idea of balance. It is virtuosic, utilizing all the elements discussed here, yet fusing them into an image filled with supreme energy and grace.
Though slightly more traditional than Order from Chaos, Ketchum's black and white work goes farther than the work of photographers like Jackson, O'sullivan and Fiske as well as Adams. They would not have conceived of an image like "Two Domes in a White-out," nor do they seem to have chosen and used such a singular, formal idea as their subject matter. The Chinese knew that each situation in nature had to be treated as a unique occasion, an unusual meeting of different forces. With a passionate love of the natural world, Ketchum's work exploits and exalts nature's tendency to offer up limitless surprises, pleasure, and so apparently / inspiration."
Essay © 1984 Cathy Colman
This essay, and all 24 images of the portfolio may be viewed on-line at www.robertglennketchum.com.
These prints and portfolios are represented in Los Angeles by The G2 Gallery.