Regarding the Rural

by David Brickman

Photographs by William Christenberry, Matthew Moore, Julie Moos, Paul Shambroom, and Alec Soth

September 24 - December 31, 2005 MASS MoCA, North Adams, Mass.

In a time when the art world seems fixated on "the next big thing," here's an exhibition that looks to the past for its inspiration. Curator Molly O'Rourke was curious to see what photographers today were doing to continue the spirit of the FSA photographers of the 1930s—giants like Walker Evans, Dorothea Lange and Russell Lee, who documented American rural life at the behest of a government organization. What she found was a group of five artists working independently, with influences as wide-ranging as Robert Smithson and Norman Rockwell, but with a consistency borne of rigor, vision and deep concern.

Of the five, only William Christenberry forges a direct link to the past work. He was born in Hale County, Ala. in 1936, the same year Evans began to make many of his most famous photographs there, and he later pursued a successful collaboration with Evans in the 1970s. Christenberry's work, shown here, a series of 16 framed color prints presented in a grid, begins in 1974, shortly before Evans' death, and continues through 2001.
The prints are quite small, demanding close attention by the viewer. They each depict a particular unassuming wooden structure in the woods, often from the exact same distance and point of view, so that their sameness is at first far more apparent than their differences. Titled Red Building in Forest, the series is obviously an extended portrait, but it also can be considered a meditation on landscape as the relationship of the cabin to the surrounding trees shifts with changes in distance and lighting.

All this is captured in the pale tones of old-fashioned Ektacolor (as opposed to, say, Cibachrome's saturation) and the scale of the prints (not more than 5 by 7 inches) adds to the hypnotic spell Christenberry casts. In the end, it is clear that his subject is neither the building nor the woods, but the passage of time.

Paul Shambroom derives his pictures from the same, depopulated territory as Christenberry, but there the similarity ends. His two 6-foot-long archival pigmented inkjet prints on canvas are drawn from an extensive series of photographs taken at government meetings in small towns across the United States. In each, the details of time, place, population, and the names of the people depicted are meticulously recorded, creating the impression of a genuine, humble documentary effort.

However, though the images are derived from immensely detailed, technically exacting 8 x 10 negatives, they are extensively digitally manipulated before output, and the "prints" are then stretched over thick frames, varnished, and float-mounted in a black void so as to appear as much like oil paintings as any photograph you've ever seen. Add the very carefully controlled visual tricks of soft focus (achieved with the view camera's planar tilt mechanism) and the effect is that of being suspended perfectly in a world neither photographed nor imagined but halfway in between.
Though Shambroom is slickly masterful, I don't doubt his sincerity—he presents his subjects neither revealed nor romanticized but, despite all the flashiness, believably neutrally. Then again, his choice of unsung heroes, semi-rural underdogs in a culture that will likely live to see them go extinct, shows a sentimental side that bears honest comparison to Rockwell, whose paintings these photographs physically resemble to a remarkable degree.

Rural heroes (or perhaps antiheroes) are also the subject of Julie Moos' nearly life-size outdoor portraits of farmers who use genetically altered seeds produced by the Monsanto corporation. Born in Ottawa, Ontario, and now based in Birmingham, Ala., Moos made her Monsanto series in Missouri and Illinois.

Her two 6-foot by 8-foot C prints front-mounted on Plexiglas show pairs of farmers literally out standing in their fields. Both images feature a merciless white light that emanates from a colorless sky and washes over the figures and the scene, which is otherwise the green color of knee-high soybean plants.

The poses are frontal—confrontational. Is Moos challenging the practices of these farmers, and are they staring back at her camera in defiance? We don't know. Of the four people depicted, three are male, and all three appear guarded. Only the one woman (presumably the marital partner of her colleague) shows softness in her expression. But this contrast in appearance may also be a product of the alien light that envelops the taller men's heads, which stick up above the green field, while hers is shielded by the plants.

In case you're wondering, these photographs are printed straight (from 4 x 5 negatives), so the effect of that strange light is, presumably, authentic enough. There is, however, some distortion from the degree of enlargement, and the extremely shiny, edgeless plastic objects they have become through the mounting technique does enhance the otherworldliness of these otherwise intentionally mundane depictions.

Matthew Moore is himself a farmer near Phoenix, a city noted for its unrelenting sprawl across the Arizona desert. As an artist, Moore has made the land his canvas, hand-tilling and raising crops of barley for the express purpose of cutting line drawings of tract houses into it before the land is given over to exurban construction.

He photographs the fields from the ground and from the air, where you can see other as-yet unsullied farm fields, huge housing tracts in progress, sweeping clusters of finished developments, and purple mountains in the distance. His yellow field of barley, with its burnt, black lines depicting the planner's drawing of a three-bedroom ranch, lays in the midst of this unfolding drama like a Mayan signal to the gods of what man has wrought.
Were Moore an interloper from the big city with an art degree and a conceptual label, I'd be pretty unimpressed with this exercise in futility. But this is his family's land, and there's no sneer of irony apparent in his sweat and toil. The photographs themselves are unassuming—four poster-sized prints mounted to black foamboard and trimmed to the edges, they are neither beautiful objects nor particularly well-composed. Rather, they document the real art, which is on the ground, as well as Moore's heartfelt commitment to the land.

Finally, Alec Soth's five 40- by 50-inch chromogenic prints, framed in white to the edges, give a taste of the behemoth project that engaged five years of his life, in which he lugged an 8 x 10 view camera the length of the Mississippi River, from his home in Minnesota to the New Orleans delta. Soth is probably the best known of this group, and with good reason.

Though the argument could be made that he is influenced by the FSA and WPA photographers, in this color work I see more of Joel Meyerowitz's Cape Light series—the attention to atmosphere, the sometimes garish interiors, the exquisite perfection of the compositions, and the allusion to a home place the photographer shares, all hark to that seminal work. What Soth adds, obviously, is scope but also relevance. Sleeping by the Mississippi is more elegy than travelogue—particularly now that Hurricane Katrina's wrath has laid waste to that most American of cities at the river's end.

But that disaster needn't have happened to make this oeuvre sing its dirge loud and clear. Whether embodied in the snowblown Peter's Houseboat, Winona, MN or the seedy, Hopperesque interior titled simply New Orleans, LA, this is work with great depth and real staying power. Soth has already been included in the Whitney Biennial, so I know I'm no prophet—but I assure you that he is indeed the genuine article.

My only complaint about this show is that it should have been bigger. More prints by all the participants, particularly Shambroom and Soth, would have been hugely welcome. Even so, as a sort of curatorial exercise working within a limited space, it succeeds by bringing together important work and by raising key questions about the direction of American photography today.

David Brickman is a photographer, curator, teacher, editor, and art critic. He lives in Albany, N.Y. He wrote "In Memoriam: John Coplans" for the fall 2005 issue of SPOT.