Saturday, April 13, 2013

Looking at The Land, 21st Century American Views and Colin Blakely

This post has taken me forever to write and my apologies to those concerned that it didn't come earlier. I guess getting the courage to write about my undergraduate mentor was more challenging than I imagined. Luckily, tax season always reminds me of Colin Blakely, so that has motivated me to get down to business.

In an effort to be transparent...

I met Colin Blakely in 2002. He was a fairly new hire at Eastern Michigan University and the only full-time photo professor in the Department of Art and Art History. Colin was young and fresh out of grad school. His beautiful wife was pregnant with their first child and so we had some things in common: new school, new baby.  Over the next two years of school, Colin became my mentor and friend. I would watch their house while they traveled, inject their sick cat with meds, and we celebrated a few birthdays when our kids were younger. He pushed me harder than anyone else in photography ever has. He influenced not only my process but as I would later discover, my teaching style. Eight years later, after I finally finished grad school, he became my boss. 

Last summer Andy Adams of Flak Photo Collaborated with RISD's Museum of Art to produce Looking at the Land, 21st Century American Views. From over 5,500 images entered, almost 90 images were chosen to represent the American Landscape since 2000. These images represent both geographical and topographic depictions of the land, but also a (curated) mental landscape of our culture. Many images whisper references to the crash of our economy and the cessation of gentrification on the rural landscape.

Images depicting urban landscapes are also represented in the exhibition, most with hard edges, concrete, and tell-tale signs of corporate America. Some of the images ask the viewer to find respite in a landscape that carries few reminders of what was originally there (and what extends outside the city), but with numerous reminders of what propelled the nation forward economically: industry. In these images, I find myself searching for the light, the foliage and anything else that can carry me away from a landscape where hard edges prevail and organic shapes are planned. I think Andy Adams hits the nail on the head when he states that, "Clearly, the idea of landscape photography is in as much flux today as it ever was."
Copyright ©Colin Blakely, 2006
Then there are the images that fall somewhere in-between. That's where we find Colin's image, The Half-Hearted Confession of a Rainy Day Fan, fits in. One of only a handful of black and white images included in the exhibition. It's hard not to see that from the three block radius where he photographs in Michigan, Colin giving a nod to the history of Photography and his Southwest roots. For me, what appears to be a simple image is anything but that. There are indicators in the image, like the rooftop of a nice middle-class house, the supple gradation of the moonrise late in the day, and the clean lines of a well kept baseball diamond that provide the viewer a sense of comfort and safety. Then there's Colin's title, which asks us to think beyond what is there. This isn't about drifting off while watching a game, Colin's inclusion of the moonrise is too grand a gesture. I believe this is a nod to a more amazing landscape, one that beckons Colin. This is a nod to Photography's history and those who explored the landscape through large format cameras. 

The Midwest landscape, the affluent university town, the safety of his neighborhood, all fine places but maybe what we're really seeing is a glimpse into the landscape of Colin's psyche - one that is emotionally connected to a landscape somewhere else... but for now, lives somewhere in the middle.

This post only touches on what is contained in the exhibition, Looking at the Land, 21st Century American Views. Please take time to visit the online exhibit if you haven't already and while you're there, get lost on the Flak Photo website. 

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