Saturday, March 17, 2018

Drew Harty: The Retail Landscape

In 2016 I wrote about this project, after it had received a Luminous Endowment grant:

"The Retail Landscape" from Drew Harty seems to be "Twentysix Gas Stations" all over again. This artist is right - the project needs more depth. Also, I think the assertion that in 1964 the USA had only 7600 retail spaces is absurd. This might be a typo, the correct number might have been 76,000, but that renders the cited current number of 107,773 less shocking. Not sure what's going on here. The work itself is perfectly serviceable, the project's agenda is more or less worthwhile, but I don't see anything new or interesting here, ultimately.

I am pleased to report that Drew's plan to get more depth has succeeded, in spades. At the moment, and one hopes forever, the Luminous Landscape article is public access.

In it you see a project that, while it continues to have strong echos of "Twentysix Gas Stations", has its own voice, its own ideas. This is a pretty robust commentary on an aspect of America which I recognize. These scenes are an America I Recognize, as it were. The obsession with clouds feels a little forced, but he has a strong general idea of presenting something which we all recognize and know in a way that emphasizes both the inherent problems with them but also in a way that reveals them as beautiful.

The aim, I think, of the clouds, it to juxtapose some element of natural beauty against the man made landscape, to emphasize the essentially destructive nature of these artifacts. Well, I get it. I'm not sure, honestly, that it's necessary. The fact that he's using tonal ideas lifted pretty much lock stock and barrel from Ansel Adams, Mr. Natural Beauty, probably helps to get the point across.

Anyways. These objects in the frame have a certain beauty, but ultimately they are a blight on the world in their car-centric vastness, in their mind-numbing retail-ness.

Contrast this stuff with this one, recently reviewed by Jörg Colberg: Chikara Umihara's Whispering Hope which I recall mentioning in the past, but damned if I can find my remarks.

Visually, these seem to have some relationship. There's the same desolate commercial landscape, and in a way I recognize these pictures, this America, as well.

Perhaps it's the sheer mass of artifice, the Greyhound Bus Trip, the use of Film, the washed out bullshit, the use of teeny little square pictures lost on white pages with double-trucks of the landscape zipping by through the window. If there was a gimmick to throw at it, Chikara threw it, and that's not a good foot to start out on.

Still, there are two basic problems with Whispering Hope, to my eye.

The first is that while I recognize these things, after a fashion, this in no way matches my memory of Greyhound Bus Trips taken as a whole. My experiences are a couple decades old, and I am a moderately gregarious white guy as opposed to a Japanese guy. Still, I missed a lot of stuff. I've almost certainly ridden a lot more Greyhound Buses that Chikara. Where's the young couple having sex in the back seat? Where's the talkative guy who won't shut up about his life? Where's the sad girl staring out the window for 800 miles? Where's the overhot bar-and-grill where the bus stopped for lunch? Where are the crowds and long lines at the busy stops?

Chikara has taken an experience that has a lot of people in it, and removed all the people in order to show us a really pretty gloomy picture of America.

I recognize Chikara's America just as much as I recognize Drew's, but Chikara's view is so narrow, so edited down, as to be untrue.

The second problem is that the photographer pretty obviously set out to replicate the popular coastal fantasies about how shitty the middle of the country is, and by carefully choosing his subjects, brought back that fantasy. While it's possible that there are essential differences between Chikara's trip and my trips, there's no way that it's gotten as uniformly deserted, ugly, and washed out.

What's the difference?

Drew Harty's photographs are also largely unpopulated. This, however, is because he's showing is a world populated not by people but by automobiles. Parking lots and gas stations and roads. Harty is also giving us the ambiguity of the scene. There is still natural beauty, although you may have to look at the sky to find it. There is beauty in these structures and artifacts, although it is a beauty of glib, unnatural, human design. And, also, there is the destruction and, in a sense, ruin brought by these things. Drew's pictures speak a certain truth. Drew's vision is of a slice of America, but within that slice it speaks of a certain truth, with a certain depth.

Chikara's work strikes me as having none of that depth. It's a simply "holy shit, look at this horrorshow, I can't wait to get back to Connecticut and civilization."


  1. Wow!

    As you know, this type of photography is near-and-dear to me and I agree wholeheartedly with you that Harty has succeeded in a big way with this series.

    However, based on my experience photographing similar subject matter in a similar way, I find myself a bit puzzled as to how he was able to photograph many of these scenes.

    That's because whenever I have tried to photograph on shopping mall property in the area where I live (the suburbs of Phoenix, Arizona), I am almost always immediately confronted by a security guard (or guards) and asked to leave.

    Nearly Every. Single. Time.

    At times, in fact, I wonder if I unknowingly have a tracking device implanted under my skin, so quick are they find me.

    Although these are public spaces, they're also private property and per the law of most states, whenever one is asked to leave by a person with legal authority over the property, then one must do so lest they be subject to arrest by the police for trespassing.

    That Harty successfully navigated his way around this increasingly common obstacle and successfully photographed in these spaces is, to my mind, an accomplishment fully on par with his artistic accomplishment.

    So hat's off to him for figuring out how to take these photos at all, let alone doing so very well indeed!

    1. Iam informed that some people have a nearly mystical ability to Act Like They Belong. They somehow project an air of "It's ok, I am supposed to be here, this is 100 percent OK" and people don't harass them nearly as much.

      I have heard legends in fact (a friend of a friend sort of stories) of a man who was so adept at this he could and did enter "secure facilities" (pre 9/11) by simply striding purposefully past the guards projecting his "I am Supposed To Be Here" air. Presumably, if true at all, it did not work on all secure facilities.

      That said, maybe he was using the Sony a lot, and just running hell for leather when the rent-a-cops showed up.

  2. JG—I had the exact same thought, how did he get these without being kicked out? Sure, a lot of the camera positions are from the sidewalk where security can't kick you out (although they'll try) but plenty are from right in the middle of things and these often strike me as the best pictures given my preference for close camera positions. I like the project overall but find the "ain't nature grand" Adams-esque cloud formations more jarring than beautiful.