The Panorama: Magnificent Obsession

By April Rapier

Panorama Exhibition: E.O. Goldbeck, Mary Peck, Jiri Polacek, Michael Ruetz. Benteler Gallery, Houston, April 17-May 1.

There is something to be found in grand vista, an enormous expanse of uninterrupted space that creates obsessive, repetitive behavior in landscape photographers. Michael A. Smith comes immediately to mind, yet he is only following the footsteps of other like-minded wanderers who have similarly experienced magnificence and who wish to share it.
The panoramic photography exhibit at the Benteler Gallery contained fine examples of this tradition, as well as imitative, adoring gestures — honorable, beautiful, but empty. The images that endure give one an eloquent feel of the land, without resorting to sensationalism.
While looking at Mary Peck’s quiet images of West Texas, one has a clearer sense of things — the way the hot, dry air feels blowing across the parched earth, the distant sounds that become recognizable after they’re gone, the flatness that seems to have no end. Peck does not intellectualize or anguish over her vision — she simply knows when a picture is right. She uses a minimalist approach, which implies that every detail in the frame is deliberate, important, to be reckoned with.
Perhaps her movement from 4x5 to Widelux format forced the issue, due to considerable expansion of terrain and information. Signs of man are few, and seem inconsequential in the vastness of nature. She began this work as a participant in a photographic project commissioned for the Texas Sesquicentennial, continuing after the project’s end. The pictures enable one to experience, say, a train’s enormity as it snakes along because we see it from beginning to end. One image in particular, “Lesley, Texas, 1984” imparts the subtle thrill of discovering a well-guarded secret. One sees a house in the center of the frame, a utility pole sending wires to the house and into the sky (out of the frame). A patch of light grass surrounds the house, providing a lovely contrast to the dark earth elsewhere. Tire tracks lead from the viewer’s vantage point to the house. A small clump of flowers sits right on the edge of the foreground. The background is infinite, isolated. There exists in these landscapes a found iconography of a style encouraged by practicality — wood stacked in a teepee shape, bales of hay, odd shelters. Through Peck’s pictures on can experience a part of the country that is otherwise forbidding.
Michael Ruetz, a self-taught freelance photographer born in Berlin, is represented here by images that allow one to see a landscape fully, but not intimately. These large color photographs are distinctly beautiful, but don’t speak of much else. Nor is the panoramic effect put to best use. He is published, and would seem to have settled into a stylized vision, in the National Geographic tradition of privileged (and magnificent) access. There is, however, a certain humor in “Vanderbilt Estate, Hudson River, New York, 1980” — an exact tribute to the light and color and style of Maxfield Parrish. That a lighter touch is essential to the photographing of monumental space and architecture may or may not be something Ruetz is willing to acknowledge; one hopes he will find it a possibility worth examining.
Jiri Polaceck’s panoramic images (made with an 1895 Kodak camera for roll film) almost remind one of cleverly printed diptychs because of the inclusion of the film identification and numbers (a full five frames’ worth.) A Czechoslovakian, he spent several years during the late 1960s traveling through the U.S. “Kerouac-style,” then returning to Prague. This could be why the images are those of mourning — dirges to the lost potential of freedom. The beauty of his Prague Series seems always distracted or intruded upon by a disconsolate sorrow, or so the symbols seem to say (there is calm, but the streets are empty, for example). However, there is a compelling strength, a determination to be found; they are anticipatory of joy, beautiful settings awaiting crowds of the contented.
E.O. Goldbeck (saving the best for last), now in his 94th year, imparts the treasures of history in his always-exciting Cirkut camera images, dating from the 1920s. Events and places spring to life in these photographs, as one searches crowds for a familiar face or location. Goldbeck seemed to be everywhere, from KKK rallies to “bathing girl” contests, getting it all down for the record and the joy of it. His own history is rich, having never strayed from the dream of being a photographer. His social commentary was profound; in an image entitled“Dallas KKK visiting San Antonio KKK, 1924” no further discourse is necessary — the picture implies what rhetoric cannot. One of the loveliest, most invigorating images in memory is “Rice Terraces of the Philippines, n.d.” His work is not to be missed; fortunately, it can be seen in its entirety at the Humanities Resource Center in Austin.

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