Changing Houston

by Ed Osowski

University of Houston College of Architecture October 20 - November 26, 2005
Not since Sicardi Gallery exhibited Luis Mallo's In Camera (January 15 - February 7, 2004) and FotoFest showed selections from David Maisel's The Lake Project and Mark Klett's work in the project Water and the West ( March 12, 2004 - April 12, 2004) has an exhibition of photographs in Houston seemed as exciting, intellectually grounded, and historically and aesthetically relevant as the panorama photographs by Paul Hester on view in Changing Houston at the gallery of the University of Houston College of Architecture (October 20 - November 26, 2005). If a viewer needed proof that Hester is both thought-provoking and thoughtful, a master at balancing romance against fact, then the 21 new works, all dated 2005, certainly made that case.

Paul Hester is not unknown to Houston audiences. Under the name Hester+Hardaway, his commercial photography regularly appears in regional and national architectural publications. He has been the principal photographer for Cite, the magazine of the Rice Design Alliance, since its founding 25 years ago. And he has been exhibited in Houston and elsewhere, most notably at the Menil Collection where The Elusive City was shown October 16, 1998 - January 3, 1999.

When called upon by his commercial clients, Hester has produced classic examples of modern architectural photography, works that stand up against the best work of Ezra Stoller and Julius Shulman, the two American architectural photographers whose work from the 1950s-1970 sets the standard. Works in this tradition treat the building as sculptural mass, with a sense of grandeur and beauty. But among the images last seen in his exhibition at the Menil , and now in his more recent body of work at the University of Houston, are images that can only be called perverse—works that stand the traditions from which they come on their heads.

Nostalgia often haunts our response to images of places that once existed but are now changed, gone, destroyed or recycled. This idea informed a project Hester and another Houston-based photographer, Orson Bean, presented in 1983 that directly informed this 2005 exhibition. Displayed in the Julia Ideson Building of Houston Public Library, Houston-in-the-Round (September 12 - October 22, 1983) brought together a group of panoramas made between 1903 and 1935 by two Houston commercial photographers, Joseph Litterst and Frank Schleuter. With assistance from writer Douglas Milburn, over 200 negatives were reviewed and a selection was made with new prints produced for the exhibition. Then, using the 100 year-old panorama camera originally employed by Litterst and now owned by the Harris County Heritage Society, Hester and Bean rephotographed many of the same sites once visited by Litterst and Schleuter. The two bodies of work were installed side-by-side, prints of the older images paired with contemporary images of the same site. A 1924 photograph of Rice University depicting a few buildings on nearly tree-less expanses of grass hung next to a 1983 image in which those same buildings, and new ones, hide behind a dense forest. A second pair showed two views of downtown looking south from 806 Main St. The earlier photograph reveals a horizon that stretches as far as the camera could record with a few "modern" buildings close at hand. Its companion presents a row of new buildings with Main Street just a thin slice between a wall of office towers and the horizon is gone.

This 1983 exhibition offered an untroubling documentary view of how a small Southern city had grown. A vertical framework of tall buildings now replaces its flat, horizontal lines, and vistas are a thing of the past. The 1983 works were appropriate responses to the historical moment in which they were made: Houston was booming and these works announced its position among great cities. If the earlier works seemed simple and sweet, the new ones were strongly reassuring indicators that growth was a good thing.

Twenty-two years after his work in Houston-in-the-Round, Hester returned to many of the same locations he and Bean had visited earlier. But the very apparatus used to make panoramas has been simplified. Indeed, in two decades, the very act of making a photograph has undergone a radical transformation. More significantly, what the viewer expects from that photograph has undergone considerable revisions.The viewer is now much more likely to question the "truthfulness" of the images printed on paper. What is seen by the viewer may very likely be a creation pieced together from various images. Despite the bulkiness of the original camera, a photographer working in 1983 still found him or herself using equipment and techniques that had not substantially changed in decades. Hester chose not to work with Litterst's old equipment but chose a simple, inexpensive digital camera to produce his new works and then printed them the "new" way, using a digital printer.

The installation of the works lets the viewer know that something here was amiss. When an archaeologist digs down, the discoveries start in the present and move to some point in the past. Hester chose to hang the newest works, not as one might have expected, as the top layer in a layered photographic history, but with the new works hanging beneath the other layers.

Hester's new work is startling and beautiful. One notices that color has replaced the flattering but abstract tones of the earlier black-and-white images. Secondly, one notes how much smaller by at least half the new works are. At a point when photographers have confused "large-format" with "important," Hester forces his viewer to slow down, to look closely and carefully.

Perhaps most significant in a comparison with the earlier works is that the older works are seamless and uninterrupted: one image from one negative. His new works are broken, challenges to the traditional definition of panoramas. Edges don't meet, colors don't match, and white spaces appear at the tops and bottoms of individual frames, an effect made deliberately by the artist.

These changes move the photographs beyond description. The expected subjects of urban photography, growth and change, the appearance of buildings and disappearance of others are no more interesting than the subtle changes in sunlight and shade. Compare three photographs made at the intersection of Yoakum Boulevard and Westheimer Road, "Nostalgia be damned!," Hester seems to be saying to the viewer. The way water glistens on a street, the way light falls through trees on a summer afternoon are the intangibles that concern him here. Just as BrassaT's photographs of Paris at night would be of little use for one attempting to construct a replica of that city, so would Hester's new photographs frustrate historians looking for an accurate model of Houston. Hester creates a new vision made of tiny installments that don't line up perfectly. More than two decades separate his 1983 works from the 2005 project. These bodies of work stand on opposite sides of a divide: "straight" photography, with its flat but tempting illustrative appeal, set against something more elusive, more transformative.

Ed Osowski, a former librarian, is a collector and writer who lives in Houston.