Charting Territory

The works of three photographers from varying eras come together at Etherton Gallery

Debra Bloomfield got into her car one winter day in 1989 and drove east out of San Francisco. She didn't have a plan, exactly, but when she got to the Four Corners region of Northern Arizona, she began photographing the wide-open land.

"I experienced what I can only call an awakening to the land," she writes in Four Corners, the book documenting her project.

Eadweard Muybridge went in the opposite direction. Abandoning the slow-motion village of Kingston-on-Thames, he traveled west out of England and into mid-19th-century America. After circuitous stop-offs and delays, he arrived in his true home, bustling San Francisco, first in 1855 and again in 1867. He photographed the Western land, too, at first, and this new American city, but what he really wanted to do in his pictures was photograph movement--and stop it.

The two photographers--coming from different directions, geographically and artistically, the one capturing timelessness and the other stopping time--both have work on view at Etherton Gallery, along with Christopher Burkett. (An Etherton regular who makes ravishing and astonishingly detailed color photos of landscape, Burkett this time plies his camera in Alaska, Colorado and the South.) The show's title, The Landscape of Time and Place, covers all three artists. Muybridge's earlier landscapes are not on view, only his stop-motion studies, but the title makes sense for him, too--his investigations of time charted new cultural territory.

Physically, the work of Bloomfield and Muybridge couldn't be more different. Bloomfield's pictures of Hopi moons and rock arches and Moab sunrises are big and beautiful and painterly, full of moody, overcast skies and brilliant orange sunsets. They have a spiritual quality, too, and not only because one of them pictures an angel in the clouds (the golden "Bonnie's Angel, Walpi, AZ," 1990) and another a place called "Garden of the Gods, Mexican Hat, UT," 1989. They touch on that old 19th-century idea of the sublime in the landscape, that a place can have a meaning beyond itself. If here on earth, we can have a place and picture like "Hopi Blue Moon, Hopi, AZ," 1989, where a yellow light breaks through the dusky blue evening sky, we don't need a heaven.

By contrast, Muybridge's works are scientific. His small pictures are studies, really. They're series of pictures, taken seconds apart, of horses galloping, of men running, of women carrying water jugs, the many moments that make up their movements precisely captured, step by step. Flip through them like cards, and you get a motion picture. They're black and white; they're grainy; they're tiny; and they're enormously important, and not only in the history of photography.

In River of Shadows: Eadweard Muybridge and the Technological Wild West, a book that won the National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism in 2003, Rebecca Solnit argues that Muybridge's serial stills changed the world.

"It was as though he had grasped time itself, made it stand still, and then made it run again, over and over," she writes. "Time was at his command as it had never been at anyone's before. A new world has opened up for science, for art, for entertainment, for consciousness, and an old world had retreated further."

His work led directly to motion pictures, and to the planetary media culture that they spawned. (Solnit believes it's no accident that the age's other great technological revolution--the computer--also developed in California, near San Francisco, the place, she says, where people re-invent themselves, and the world.)

Muybridge's revolution started when Leland Stanford, the railroad magnate who founded his namesake university in part to wash away his sins, hired Muybridge in 1872. The task: to determine once and for all whether a race horse ever has all four hooves up in the air at once. The photographer's successive exposures proved that they do indeed rise up together. This small fact was a revelation to painters who had been painting them wrong, to scientists and to everybody else. More importantly, the stop-motion pictures gave them a new way of seeing. As Solnit notes, Muybridge had "annihilated time and space" for his fellow Victorians. Their world was different from what they had imagined, and they wouldn't see it the same way again.

The Etherton show has 12 sets of collotypes printed in 1887. (They're "photo-mechanically produced printed images," according to a gallery note.) Each one is arranged in rows with multiple images. A naked baseball player pitching a ball is pictured in 20 separate shots that serially record his wind-up, his swing and his throw. Like many of the models, he's posed in front of a dark tiled wall, in an indeterminate outdoors. A galloping buffalo gets 16 images, while a naked athlete doing a high jump over a hurdle merits two rows of 12 each.

Despite the great impact these pictures had on the 20th century, they have a 19th-century air. The zaftig young woman, a blond braid dangling down her neck, carrying a bucket of water, patiently walking up and down the stairs for the photographer, has her era's favorite body. The muscular athletes look like specimens of 19th-century pluck, fresh from the heartland. (And there is that buffalo.) These are technical studies, but Muybridge was a good enough photographer that he somehow makes us feel connected to these long-dead people, eternally going through the motions of a life they no longer have.

Bloomfield's landscapes don't have people in them, but here and there, she includes human traces on the land. "New Mexico Fence, NM," 1989, has rough wooden posts marching across the foreground, while in the middle distance, a blue formation rises above the burnt sienna earth. (Doug Nickel, director of the Center for Creative Photography, calls it a "maternal hillock" in his catalog essay.) Overhead, threatening brown-gray clouds gather. "Medicine Wheel, Sedona, AZ," 1989, has a circle of rocks in a shiny stretch of water, evidently placed there by people, perhaps Sedona New Agers, perhaps Native Americans. This one has a serene sky, a gentle sunset colored in pale pinks and yellows.

As her handsome book demonstrates, Bloomfield's Four Corners project did include the region's Hispanic churches and their painted wooden saints, along with pure landscapes. But Etherton exhibits 10 landscapes and just one church photo. But that one is enough. "Rancho de Taos, NM," 1989, pictures the shapely church so familiar to us from the work of artists from Strand to O'Keeffe. It's a wonderful work, taken on a night when snow lay on the ground and snowflakes flecked her camera lens. The earthen building, brown and soft-edged as a hill, seems to grow right out of the earth.

The photographer, in town last week for a book signing at the CCP, turned up at the gallery late in the afternoon. In her mind, she said, the 10-year body of work is a "portrait of the land."

Mirroring Muybridge's diligence--or obsessiveness--she drove out to Four Corners again and again for a period of 10 years, three or four times a year, two weeks at a time. One can imagine the 19th-century photographer making time-motion studies of the peripatetic photographer of the 20th and 21st.

"I submerged myself," Bloomfield said. "I never had distractions. I like the sky over there and the dirt roads. It was like navigating the ocean. Put me out there and I don't want to come back."

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