Finding Beauty in Asphalt

The subjects of Claire Harlan's eerie nighttime photos range from highway exit ramps to parking lots and parking garages

When has anyone ever found beauty in El Con Mall?

Until now, probably never.

The shopping center is a dispiriting collection of cheap-junk commercial structures that are hardly a match for El Conquistador Hotel, the distinctive building that once graced the site. Designed by Tucson's first female architect, Annie Graham Rockfellow, the hotel was a grand Spanish baroque fantasy that became a signature piece of the city's architectural history.

In 1967, the mall's owners leveled it. All they kept was a slice of its name.

And the mall's latest addition, a standard Walmart horror, is rising within a few feet of neighboring historic houses. (Let us allocate appropriate blame to the lame city of Tucson administrators who did nothing to stop the Walmart juggernaut.)

But now a California photographer who spent her childhood in Tucson has composed a rather grand nighttime view of—of all things—the El Con parking lot.

Claire Harlan focused on the lot at the mall's east end, which until a few years ago was a lush piece of desert. Hardly any shoppers park in this section anyway, but Harlan waited until evening when it was completely deserted, emptied of both cars and humans.

She composed a perfectly symmetrical shot of the lot's fake landscape, aiming her old-fashioned film camera at a single tree at dead center, and caught the white stripes of the parking spaces shooting out diagonally on both sides.

Then she pushed the shutter at the exact moment when the moon broke through the twilight clouds and cast a poetic light on the black asphalt below.

So, yes, in its own way, it's beautiful.

Part of the 17-work solo show Claire Harland: Grandscapes at the UA's Joseph Gross Gallery, "El Con" is typical of the artist's M.O. Her gorgeously crafted nighttime photos, most in pungent, glowing color, picture "grand" human structures imposed upon the land.

Highway exit ramps cut curves high in the air; parking garages hulk under dark skies; electrical wires spin out of power-line towers, dominating landscapes hardly worthy of the name. In these film-to-digital photos, nature is defeated. It consists mostly of forlorn boxed trees like the one in the El Con parking lot (a faint echo of the Rockfellow gardens that once were), or desiccated bushes halfheartedly planted at roadsides by cynical contractors fulfilling the letter of the law.

Yet Harlan is captivated by these places: She admires their vastness, their geometry, their silence.

At El Con, "I liked the emptiness of the parking lot," she said by phone from L.A. last weekend. "And I loved the repetition" of the painted stripes.

Most of the photos in her show depict places in Los Angeles, but she connects the scale of her mostly architectural subjects with the Sonoran Desert.

Born and bred in Tucson, Harlan learned early on about the sweeping spaces of the West, about the long views of desert and mountains that go on forever (think Gates Pass). And architecturally speaking, the Tucson Museum of Art exerted an influence. When she was a small child, her father, Roger Harlan, worked for a time at the museum. (He and his wife, Pamela, ran the late, lamented Harlan Gallery of contemporary art.) Their daughter remembers "running up and down" the sloping ramp at TMA, and something of its roundness recurs as a motif in her architectural photos.

Even after she left home at 18, she immersed herself in places characterized by a grand scale.

She went to college at NAU in Flagstaff, which has a northerly variant of towering peaks and Western skies. And when she joined the Peace Corps after graduation, she worked in Mauritania, at the edge of the Sahara.

"The Sahara Desert is so vast," Harlan said. "And L.A. is the first giant city I've lived in.

"Los Angeles is a great city for architecture. But scale is always difficult for me to try to put my brain around."

She seems to work out brain puzzles in her photographs.

Harlan has a day job in photographic production, but that's not the only reason she ventures out with her camera at night. In the dark hours, the places she photographs are unpopulated. There's an eeriness about her pictorial world, empty of people and lit by shrill highway lamps and security lights.

"Untitled (parking garage)," 2006, pictures a standard-issue parking garage under an inky black sky. It's in L.A., but with its creepy parking decks and unwelcoming pedestrian underpass, it's the twin of the UA's parking garage just north of the Joseph Gross Gallery. But Harlan converts the massive, inhuman complex into an impressive geometry of curves and straight lines and diagonals, illuminated a lurid orange and a blue-green.

For "Ventura," 2008, Harlan positioned herself beneath a highway overpass. Here again she manages to turn a place that we barely register into a compelling composition, this one of curves and darks and lights.

Only a few of her grandscapes are pure landscapes. A supersized shot of the dunes along Interstate 8, west of Yuma, is an undulating cascade of one dune after another, stretching out endlessly like the waves of the sea.

In another landscape, a Louisiana forest at first appears to be unmolested. The tree trunks rise up as pleasing dark verticals in the foreground, their leafy canopies waving out over the sky. But a closer inspection reveals human impact on the land. Harlan's Hasselblad camera picked up tire tracks crisscrossing violently over the dirt, and broken branches littering the ground. On the distant horizon, in a thick line of trees, a cloud of smoke has erupted.

Even the better architecture that Harlan photographs shows signs of deterioration.

"Ennis" pictures a famed Frank Lloyd Wright house in Los Angeles. Constructed of his trademark Mayan motif blocks, the house is a series of rectangular volumes pushing up into the sky. Harlan positioned herself far below, antlike, to get a spectacular composition: The house is all vertical lines and diagonals, and the earth below it slopes sharply down to the right.

Harlan photographed the house in 2005, when it was crumbling badly. Her photo has a bit of an "Ozymandias" feel: Like the ancient monument in Shelley's poem, even a masterpiece by a brilliant architect can fall into ruin.

Luckily, a rescue effort was mounted in 2007 and Ennis House was restored. Unlike Annie Graham Rockfellow's vanished El Conquistador Hotel—supplanted by a throwaway mall and now a Walmart—Wright's work can be treasured for generations to come.

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