The Composition of Place
Simmons B. Buntin reviews Animal Logic, by Richard Barnes, and Earth Forms, by Stephen Strom
In his introduction to Animal Logic, Richard Barnes writes that the collection explores “the dual nature of interpretation and shifting point of view as expressed through our relationship to the animal world. The interplay between our overwhelming drive to subdue nature and the devices, such as the diorama, we use to reanimate it after its subjugation.” Stephen Strom’s Earth Forms, on the other hand, leads us on “a journey into a different America, depopulated, arid, and infinite, blessed of a beauty that requires some eyes to adjust their notions of what constitutes beauty in the first place,” writes Gregory McNamee in his introductory text.
Beauty and the place of humankind are at the core of both of these attractive, large-format collections: beauty of scale and pattern, form and perspective, and timelessness and transition.
In Animal Logic, Barnes transitions between sections that span 110 photographs: Container holds a stunning set of photographs of museum animal collections—shelves of skeletons and skulls as in the title photograph, “Animal Logic,” mounted gazelles and rhinos and alligators in wooden crates or atop museum work tables, a cataloging room littered with the bones of displays. Diorama presents perspectives on dioramas under construction, with and without animals, without and with humans who adjust the branches on a tree or vacuum snow at the hooves of a bison. Skull captures the assembled white fragments of animal skulls against a black backdrop to striking effect. Refuge presents an eclectic and sublime series of nests built at least in part from human materials—dryer lint, fishing line, thread—also against a black background. The section concludes with a lovely personal essay, “The Nesting Urge,” by Jonathan Rosen. Murmur, the book’s final section, displays photographs of the midair massings and shapings and organic flockings of hundreds of thousands of starlings over Rome.
"Abandoned Hogan, South of Comb Ridge,
Viewed from South of Bluff, Utah" by Stephen
"Mudhill, Near Burnham, New Mexico" by
The transitions in Earth Forms are less obvious; the collection of 42 Western landscape photographs is not subdivided by section, nor by geography, nor even by season, though the first two photographs showcase winter scenes. Yet the photographs themselves transition, building upon each other as stanzas build upon each other in an epic poem. Epic seems appropriate considering the landscapes of striations, petrified hills, dry riverbeds, and sage extending beyond all four sides of the photographs.
It is this concept of scale that most binds and yet separates these books. For Barnes, scale is not only easily defined, but in many cases is the driving power behind the photographs. In “Mummified Fish,” photographed in Cairo in 2000, a large fish rests in black-and-white in the foreground while a mummified dog, providing the fish’s scale, stands mounted behind, in a different display. In “Desert Scene with Woman and Coyote,” the museum employee provides the scale as she adjusts the scarlet flowers of an ocotillo. Scale is crucial even in the starling photographs that include buildings and horizons, as in “Murmur #23” and “Murmur #1,” a dark and massive cloud of starlings above a sporting arena.
Scale is nearly indeterminable in Strom’s horizon-absent photos, yet that ambiguity is likewise the driving power behind these photographs. Who is to know the vastness of the area of “Mudhills Near Hanksville, Utah, I” for example, with its foreground swales of low brush that could as easily be a macro shot of lichen, and its distant hills that may be no bigger than gravelly runoff from a curb or as large as a mountain range? Are those trees or only clumps of grass in “Desert Foliage Pattern Near Shiprock, New Mexico?” In the book’s concluding text, Albert Stewart writes that “[t]hese are landscapes that illustrate space, rather than time, and travel towards what is not seen, discovering what is seen.” Perhaps they do not in fact discover what is seen, for there are mysteries in the revealing, and that too provides power to these photographs. Is it the discovery, and not the seeing itself, that matters most here? If so, that discovery is a matter of perspective, a matter of distance.
Barnes’s starling photos aside, distance provides keen perspective in Animal Logic. Classified like museum exhibits, which are mostly their subjects, the quirky photographs present views otherwise impossible for the average museum visitor, and probably for most museum workers. Certainly a painter brushing the distant blue peaks of a diorama has a unique perspective, but the manner in which the diorama-in-progress is captured by Barnes reveals not only the place and time (or the lack of place and time due to their artificiality), but also a subtle yet intense symbolism to which Barnes speaks in his introduction, and which builds throughout. Indeed, Barnes’s photographic arc in Animal Logic is as compelling in both composition and intent as any series I have seen.
Middle of Three Panes from "Animal Logic"
by Richard Barnes.
"Smithsonian Antelope" by Richard Barnes.
As with Animal Logic, composition—or more appropriately framing—defines the photographic style of Earth Forms. Here, however, the constant near-aerial perspective presents a kind of flatness that is both intentional and, to some degree, undermining. By the end, I found the most compelling photographs to be those in which some clue was given to scale and distance and which were, therefore, more dynamic—“Abandoned Hogan, South of Comb Ridge, Viewed from South of Bluff, Utah,” for example, and “Oak Savanna Landscape, Summer, Priest Valley, California,” in which a dirt road lopes through the soft hills. Individually, the photographs are spectacular—“Near Paiute Mesa, Utah/Arizona Border” and “Mudhills and Grass, Cottonwood Canyon, Utah, I” are two of my favorites—but over the series, their individual power wanes.
Context—or perhaps a sense of the viewer’s identity in relation to the photograph and our larger “place”—is defined in Animal Logic thanks to the accompanying text: Barnes’s enticing introduction, essays by Jonathan Rosen and Susan Yelavich, and a short prose piece by the poet Mark Strand. The short essays by Gregory McNamee and Albert Stewart serve well to introduce Stephen Strom as the accomplished astronomer and photographer that he is, but unlike the texts of Animal Logic, those narratives do not truly build a dynamic conversation within the book. That seems to me a lost opportunity. Perhaps if the photographic series was set into discernable sections, with essays between, my concerns would be resolved and I would have the context I seek. Yet I also understand the presentation of an uninterrupted series—a series that is like the landscapes themselves, like the tenuous relations of humans to that beguiling, arid terrain.
In both collections, though, the photographs resound. Taken separately, the books provide unique perspectives on our role in the nature of place. Taken together, they contrast elegantly even as they complement in surprising and alluring ways. Ultimately, both Animal Logic and Earth Forms delight, inspire, and provoke.