Memory and Geography

The Center for Creative Photography shows UA prof Frank Gohlke's images of man taking on nature

Wichita Falls lies in the windswept plain of north Texas, just south of the Oklahoma border. It's plagued by hot summers and freezing winters, hailstorms and thunderstorms, and, most dangerously, tornados. In April 1979, the Big One hit.

A tornado so fierce blew in through the open prairie that it flattened whole swathes of the city. Forty-two people died. Entire blocks were demolished; houses were crushed; trees tumbled. Light poles bent in half; signs blew off their moorings.

Frank Gohlke, an up-and-coming landscape photographer who'd grown up there, would later call it the "watershed event in the town's 131-year existence." In his mid-30s at the time, he rushed back from his home in the Midwest to see if his family was all right. He brought his camera with him, and his resulting tornado series, "Aftermath," is an important part of his big retrospective at the Center for Creative Photography, Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke.

For two days, Gohlke wandered the streets, making black-and-white pictures of the destruction. On Aldrich Avenue, he documented a whole row of houses turned into kindling, piled up in heaps like so many pickup sticks on the otherwise tidy lawns. The trees were stripped bare not only of leaves but of branches.

McNeil Street was the same, with the addition of smashed-up cars on the debris-filled lawns. A trash bag dangled from a tree. In one picture, "Aftermath: The Wichita Falls Tornado, 1600 Block Aldrich Avenue," a lone child playing on the sidewalk looks like the last person on Earth.

Before he made the tornado photos, Gohlke had already been getting attention for innovative landscape work. Just four years before, he'd made a splash at the 1975 New Topographics show at Rochester's Eastman House, where he and other young Turks debuted an influential new genre. Defying Ansel Adams and his pristine wildernesses, they made "man-altered landscapes" that pictured such real-life travesties as suburbs sprawling toward Adams' revered Western mountains.

Gohlke's specialty was decidedly unpicturesque. He was captivated by the giant grain elevators that rise up from flat farmland, challenging the relentless "horizontality of the landscape" in the middle of the country, as critic Rebecca Solnit writes in the CCP exhibition catalog. In "Grain Elevator and Lightning Flash, Lamesa, Texas," 1975, a quintet of monster metallic silos gleam in the light. They are not the only human incursion on the land; a wet road runs alongside them, picking up their reflection, and a series of telephone wires are strung across the prairie as far as the eye can see.

Elsewhere, the elevators block out the view entirely. Boxy, sculptural and unpretty, they're a mass of geometric shapes and utilitarian materials. In "Grain Elevator and Tree," from Minneapolis, 1973, huge buildings obliterate the sky and dwarf the tiny tree.

But Gohlke's pictures are not entirely critical. They betray a fondness for plucky humans struggling against nature: Midwestern farmers creating outposts of civilization on the vast plains, Texas ranchers eking out a living in a cantankerous climate.

This affection shines through in the photos of Wichita Falls that Gohlke made on visits home before the tornado. "Front door of 2201 Wenonah, where I grew up," and, "The backyard of my parents' home," are tender homages to memory, and to the geography of childhood. The remembered houses in these photos are modest affairs. Clinging to their lawns and fences, their ornamental plants and curving front walks, they dare the region's wild weather to leave them alone.

Outside town, the contest between nature and civilization is even starker. Gohlke's family frequently made the rough drive over dirt roads out to the ranch where his mother had lived for a time as a child. "Ross Family Ranch House, Clay County, North Texas," 1972, shows a plain-white house perched on the open land, a fragile wire fence out front its only defense against the great dramas of nature.

Both places eventually were destroyed, the ranch by fire and the town by tornado. In a 1995 image of the ranch house after the conflagration, the old place is just another pile of sticks on the victorious plain. The only thing recognizable is a tire rim lying forlornly on a white mass of debris.

But Gohlke also wanted to document how people respond to disaster. Fourteen months after the tornado leveled Wichita Falls, he was back in town, this time making photos that marveled over the human response to nature's fury.

Aldrich Avenue was a model of small-town tidiness. Walls were rebuilt, roofs repaired, new trees planted: There was no sign at all of the devastation of the year before. On McNeil, the story was much the same. A new station wagon sat in a driveway, where a year before, a car had been turned upside down and squashed. The rebuilt house looked like it could have been there for five years. And the bare tree formerly shorn of foliage and festooned with a trash bag was in full leaf. The people of Wichita Falls were not about to let a tornado flatten them forever.

This narrative of regeneration and redemption, of cycles of life-death-life, would become a recurring theme in Gohlke's work. (He joined the UA faculty last year as a professor of photography.) A series from the early-'90s charts the assorted degradations wreaked on the historic Sudbury River in Massachusetts. Rendered in gorgeous color (a first for him) in dye-coupler prints and in tight close-ups, the pictures capture the river on the downslide--before a hoped-for redemption. Sickly foam clusters at the shoreline; oil slicks greasily shine on the water's surface; a dumped tire glows a creepy yellow mid-stream.

Most famously, Gohlke chronicled the aftermath of the Mount St. Helens disaster. Just before he returned to Wichita Falls to photograph the post-tornado recovery, the gale-force volcano erupted in Washington. A hellfire of lava and ash, the volcano spewed for miles around, destroying vegetation and taking 61 lives. Gohlke wasn't there for the big event, but he resolved to document the land's recovery. And he did, year after year after year.

Working in black and white, he first photographed "Confluence of Pine Creek and Lewis River" in 1981, and returned in 1982, 1983, 1984 and 1990. The five photos in the sequence record the restoration of a normal water flow, the first shoots of new trees and plants, and finally the growth of trees big enough to block out the view.

In the Mount St. Helens series, Gohlke reveled in his artistry more than he ever had before. The photos are bigger and lusher than the tornado and silo shots, and more self-consciously beautiful. The darks and lights are richer, and the details more lavish. Rocks, blades of grass, sticks and flakes of ash are finely rendered. (The volcano work got an airing at the Museum of Modern Art in New York in 2005.)

Lovely as they are, the pictures continue to tell a cautionary tale. Two images, taken just 10 minutes apart in 1990, show a precarious rim at the edge of the crater. In the first one, "Visitors on top of Mount St. Helens," a group of intrepid tourists are lounging in the dirt, relaxing after their steep hike up. Only one man is on alert, peering into the abyss.

He was right to worry. Minutes later, an earthquake wracked the crater floor, and a landslide took away a piece of the rim, just steps away from where the tourists had been resting, so blissfully unaware of danger. Evidently, they fled with their lives, escaping--for the moment--the raging power of nature.

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