Thanks to the Getty and over 60 participating regional museums and galleries, during the last five months an astounding series of exhibitions were installed throughout the Los Angeles area under the encompassing banner, PACIFIC STANDARD TIME. The concept of these collective exhibits was to articulate the importance of those artists who have practiced in Los Angeles since 1945. Their unique perspectives have come to define the diverse artistic culture of LA and bring about the birth of the LA art scene.
I am happy to say that work from one of my earliest portfolios was included in a show at the USC-Fisher Museum of Art. Entitled, "Sight Specific: LACPS and the Politics of Community," the show highlighted the important contributions made to the growth of the LA photographic community thanks to the efforts of the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies, for whom I served as Director and Board member for many years.
"Avalanche Lake Basin (Cirque Headwalls in a Blizzard), 1974," my print selected for the USC exhibition, was 1 of 24 images in my first published portfolio, WINTERS: 1970-1980. At the time I created and exhibited this work, it challenged the accepted status quo of how we perceived photographs made in nature, and what the purpose of those photographs might be. In 2006, when the Amon Carter Museum in Fort Worth, Texas hosted my 45-year retrospective, Amon Carter curator, John Rohrbach highlighted this portfolio as one of the first post-modern works based in nature, referring to the winter images as Anti-Landscapes.
Although prominent Los Angeles institutions have my photographs in their permanent collections, including this portfolio, it seems the work I have done is more acknowledged at a national level, than local, so I am grateful to Tim Wride, curator of the USC exhibition, and Dr. Selma Holo, Director of the museum at USC for putting this print up and allowing me the opportunity to once again discuss my intent in creating these photographs.
The twenty-four images in WINTERS: 1970-1980 were created in the years following my graduation from UCLA (BA, '70), after which I moved to Idaho and helped to found the photography workshop program for the Sun Valley Center for the Arts and Humanities. Enduring a great deal of long-distance commuting for nearly a decade, I maintained an active relationship with a group of Idaho friends that were athletes - hikers, climbers and adventurous backcountry skiers - while also pursuing technical courses in view camera, fine black-and-white, and color printmaking at the Brooks Institute in Santa Barbara, and an MFA ('74) in photography from California Institute of the Arts. The images that constitute this portfolio were accumulated during many different backcountry adventures in which my friends attempted first winter ascents of several significant summits and expedition-styled range traverses, often of multiple-day, and sometimes multiple-week duration.
The background for this work includes my study with two very inspirational and experimental teachers at UCLA, Edmund Teske and Robert Heinecken. Both communicated their passion for the medium and their own personal desire to push its boundaries. Eliot Porter and I exchanged letters about color and natural light, and ultimately I visited he and Paul Caponigro in New Mexico. Not insignificantly, Ansel Adams was viewed as North America's penultimate landscape photographer by the media and collectors, and was featured on the cover of TIME magazine, as well as in the first American television ad for Toyota.
My graduate work at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts) was informed by the birth of the feminist art program and the emergence of the post-modern aesthetic. It was also CalArts, mentor/instructor, Alan Kaprow - known as an artist for his "happenings" - who suggested that just my effort to exist and create in the places my pictures depicted, constituted artistic performance. I have since carried that concept forward and view my proactive participation in media campaigns, capitol visits, and other staged events I organize on behalf of conservation advocacy as "performance".
Lastly, I was inspired by, and part of a growing community of West Coast photographers and practicing artists who were remarkably diverse in their interpretation of the photographic image. Many of them I worked with on a regular basis at the Los Angeles Center for Photographic Studies where we also published and exhibited historical collections and nationally recognized contemporaries.
Despite the very progressive nature of the artistic moment, landscape photography in the late 60's and early 70's was dominated by the "school of (Ansel) Adams," his peers, and historical predecessors. My colleagues - even some producing quite experimental work themselves - seemed to accept that the landscape was exclusively the domain of the large format view camera and broad tonal latitude sheet film. It was repeatedly expressed to me that I should be using a view camera if I expected to have my work "taken seriously," and that I could never "get what I needed" from the tonality of the smaller, 35mm role film. From my very different perspective in the wilderness of winter, and with my increasing technical capabilities in the darkroom, I simply saw a new world opening up.
I had worked quite a bit with 8x10 and 4x5 format cameras and their mandatory tripods, and was using them primarily for the photography I was doing in color - a series entitled ORDER FROM CHAOS. It was my intention in that series to wed the large format camera to a subject complimented by the cameras capacity to render astounding detail. The larger film and camera size allowed me to define the intricate lines and color of random skeins of forest branches and bushes, and reproduce them without loss of integrity in the large-scale prints I was making.
ORDER FROM CHAOS and WINTERS: 1970-1980 were two bodies of work I was creating simultaneously, partially as compliments to one another, partially as contrasts to one another. As in ORDER FROM CHAOS, the choice of camera format for the images in WINTERS: 1970-1980 was quite intentional. The winter world I was immersing myself in was in constant flux - changing weather and conditions, people in perpetual motion, and little or no time to stop and ponder anything - in most cases driven by the desire to survive. Snow depth was often so great, it was not just a matter of being unable to set a tripod down, many times if you fell, it was hard to even get back on your skis without help from your friends.
In conditions of extreme cold over multiple days/weeks of exposure, view cameras and their accessories become unusable because of freezing. To do what we were doing, my colleagues and I each carried what we needed with regard to food and gear, there was no room for additional weight or bulk. Carleton Watkins, Eadweard Muybridge, William Henry Jackson, their peers, and in later generations Adams and Porter, either had entire entourages helping them, or they were working with assistants. These necessities for them were not an option for me.
The 35mm format allowed me to explore a world of landscapes none of my predecessors even considered as subject matter - one quite different from the benign-weather, convenient-access, point-of-view typical to the larger cameras. In New York City, Lee Friedlander, Garry Winograd, and Joel Meyerowitz were using their 35mm's to witness daily life on the city's street. Embracing the unique aspects of a smaller format helped them to capitalize on spontaneity, using higher shutter speeds and a greater choice of lenses. The ability of roll film to deliver multiple exposures quickly allowed tonal control through exposure-variation and sequential photography. Their images were redefining how we viewed the world. These same attributes appealed to me as well, however I was witnessing a very different part of the world.
With regard to film, there is no doubt large format film can be made to render a broad tonal latitude if properly exposed and developed. Because you only process one sheet of film at a time, this allows for exposure-specific-development in which tonalities can be expanded or contracted by altering film processing times to "optimize" the tonal range of the scene. 35mm film was marketed commercially in rolls of 20 and 36 exposures. A roll of so many exposures likely contained extremely varied lighting conditions, so when developed some exposures would produce optimal negatives, and other negatives on the roll would be compromised. This technical problem was easy to resolve - I rolled my own film, often with only 5 or 10 film frames, and then I would shoot that entire roll in the same lighting conditions so that the roll could be selectively processed for desired tonality.
All of this asks a greater question, however, which was one of the essential conceptual points of doing this work: how many tones are really in any given scene? Ansel would have had us all believe that every picture had black, white, and 12-15 shades of grey. Part of my purpose in this portfolio was to question that concept. Given the environment and conditions in which I had chosen to work, there were many days when no such tonal range existed and some days where there were hardly any tones whatsoever, so why would I manipulate my processing to create a tonal range that simply was not visible when I took the shot?
35mm film was also viewed as "grainy" and was felt to lack the tonal capacity and elegance of larger format film. In fact, my film of choice - Kodak Tri-X - specifically had more grain than other films I could have selected. Using it was quite intentional because of the way it rendered my subject, complimenting the conditions I was photographing. In most of the images grain structure simply merges with the snowy conditions and unusual weather circumstances that were my subject matter. Further, recognizing that grain increases with print enlargement, the majority of these images were only printed at 5"x 8", or smaller.
The darkroom work for this portfolio was extremely frustrating, transcending even dye-transfer color printing. Often the difference between a true white and a muddy grey was a matter of fractional seconds in exposure. The standard darkroom timer of the day was not accurate enough, so I adapted a digital clock as a timer in order to count fractions. Nonetheless, while matching these edition prints, fluctuations in electric current, water and chemical temperature, number of images processed in one chemical batch, and changes in paper emulsion constantly caused tonal variations that were unacceptable, so to get 20 "matching" images required resolve.
The limited tonal range apparent in select images is not a printing effect; it is an attempt to render the scene as actually viewed, instead of manipulating technology to represent an idealized interpretation of the subject. For the record, my preferred printing papers were DuPont Velour #2, and #3, and Agfa #3, and #4 - all rich tonal printing material.
WINTERS: 1970-1980 was my reaction to the domination of the view camera in landscape photography and a complete rejection of the point of view held by so many that all B/W subjects should always have a full tonal range. These images were also a rejection of landmark subject matter. I had no interest in the iconic view or the grand scene. In fact, I believed many of these images would seem so foreign and abstract to their audience that their labels are simple explanations of the event being witnessed. The rendering of these subjects does not define location, it explores tone, form and atmosphere - like a J. M. W. Turner painting, expressing some of the concepts Turner expressed as a painter - the complete literal immersion of the artist in the subject matter to stimulate and inform the work. My images are not about "viewing" a "beautiful" landscape; they are about experiencing the dynamic of an actual landscape and trying to translate that thru film to print.
WINTERS: 1970-1980 was exhibited in tandem with the contrasting view camera work of ORDER FROM CHAOS and both were published together in the 2-catalogue set, Robert Glenn Ketchum: New Work and New Work, II. Printing for this catalog was as difficult as the darkroom work because of the subtle tones. The excellent results are thanks to Gardner/Fulmer, the principle printers for many of Ansel's books.
The portfolio, WINTERS: 1970-1980, is comprised of 24-5"x 8" silver gelatin prints, individually mounted on de-bossed rag pages with letter-pressed titles/dates. The images were created with a 35mm camera, and every image/print is represented full frame - as seen in-camera at the time of making the picture. The mount pages and portfolio box design honor and accentuate the rectangular aspect of the 35mm film. This absolute seen-in-camera framing has become a signature of my career, regardless of the camera I am using.
The portfolio box for WINTERS: 1970-1980 was designed by Claudia Laub studios and echoes Asian influences apparent in the photographs. It is bound with a fine white rice paper, the titling is letter-pressed in silver and my initials have been designed as a chop mark, letter-pressed in red.
The portfolio was produced in a signed, limited edition of 20. I made all the prints, and assembled the portfolios by hand (with no assistants).
Cathy Coleman wrote the accompanying essay for the catalog in which she provides further insights to the work and its historical origins, so I have included the pertinent parts of that essay herewith:
If Ketchum's color work is expressionistic, orchestral and effulgent, his black and white series Winters: 1970-1980 is Oriental, etude-like, minimal. What the 35mm camera "sees" is a world concerned with equilibrium, graphicness, surprise in scale, disintegration and the void. The photographs are minimalist exercises, less immediately emotional than the color work, though they share formal concerns and intent. Order from Chaos is like Stravinsky. Winters: 1970-1980 is like Bach. With the easily transportable 35mm camera, Ketchum went into the wilderness to witness these natural events in a landscape that most would find too hostile to enjoy aesthetically. He transforms it into images that join a primal lyricism with a masterfully realized formal beauty.
As in Order from Chaos, Ketchum uses direct treatment of the subject, no manipulation and no cropping. There are few horizons and the flattened picture plane makes the graphic quality of the work even more poignant. In "View from a Summit: Visibility Diminishing" the surprise in scale where we discover, upon close observation, that the dark objects in the lower right of the frame are full grown pine trees, makes us see the image graphically and shakes up our idea of space.
The use of black and white photography to render these tonal landscapes is wonderfully apt, as is the graininess of the 35mm film which complements the snowy world perfectly. This is demonstrated in the beautifully atomized "Snowfall". As in the color work, the non-monumentality of the subject and non-specificity of place relieves us of any narrative considerations or preconceived notions. With fewer biases, our vision is freshened.
Ketchum's use of negative space or voids, the flattened picture plane, the vertical movement of the composition and the elemental graphic minimalism are reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting. In the same way that he uses color and texture in Order from Chaos to create depth, Ketchum uses graphic texture, atmospheric "panels" or curtains and negative space to represent different planes of depth, as in the perfectly poised image, "Approaching Storm."
In Chinese painting, leaps in depth through undefined voids created a feeling of immeasurable space. This sense of limitlessness was heightened by the use of clouds, mist, light and weather conditions to make the voids between differing depths more vague. In "Peak, Above a Cloud" and "Distant Wall through Snow and Clouds" this technique is used so skillfully that we are left doubting what is presented us: an image unimaginable before this viewing.
Also, the lack in Chinese painting of a single arbitrary horizon allowed the artist to freely adjust the levels of the terrain. The absence of horizon in "Avalanche Lake Basin (Cirque Headwalls in a Blizzard)" is one of the elements that allows Ketchum to create a sense of disequilibrium, which, combined with his fluid use of negative space, gives the image its forceful thrust.
Because the Chinese used voids instead of painted skies dotted with clouds, the artist had to calculate the quantity of void needed to balance the forces of movement or to establish an equilibrium of tensions. This task is more difficult than the western balance of clouds and earth across a horizontal axis. In "McPartland Peak" Ketchum achieves this perfectly, with the mountain existing on the same plane as the sky. The image has a magical aspect as this (we know it is) solid, unscalable mountain in a harsh landscape appears to be made of ash, as if it might blow away at any moment.
As in Order from Chaos, there is a concern and delight in elucidating what the Chinese termed, the "eternal flux of all things." The living quality in the Chinese rendering of static objects hinged on a rhythmic abstraction of form. In "Chute Detail" there is a wonderful rhythm of vertical movement set up as the line of trees embedded in rock are set against negative space which is then broken by a disappearing wall of sparse rock. The complexity of this image brings the eye back again and again for perusal.
The mystery of the spirit of nature was implied in Chinese landscape by the disintegration of form. In "Distant Wall through Snow and Clouds" this disintegration and reintegration gives the image a sense of an enchanted, appearing and disappearing world, as well as a syncopated movement. The obliteration of form also works dynamically in "Descending Ice Clouds" where the planes are in varying states of intactness.
Another formal affinity Ketchum's work has to the Chinese is their inclination for using a design made up of a contrast of two and after that, preferentially, a group of three. Ketchum chooses the elements of two in "Visual Haiku" and three in "3 Trees" out of all possible variables. The starkness and force of these arrangements gives both images a potency as well as a rare, poetic lucidity.
In "Sheer Wall" there is a likeness to the use in Oriental painting of a high tilted background so that the eye can move freely vertically as well as horizontally. Here we can delight in the graphic pleasure of texture as we wind our way up through the image, dappled and brindled, lush and satiny. The lack of hierarchy of subject (here, as in Order from Chaos) gives the parts of the picture plane a rhythmic likeness akin to the Eastern idea of consonance.
In Chinese landscape painting, since no ground plane stated a physical connection between forms held down by gravity, the forms often seemed to be floating across a background or a void. This quality of floating can be found in Ketchum's color work as well but is most obviously and dramatically used in "Two Domes in a White-out." This is a daring image as Ketchum is bold enough to play with a line and a mass in a formal exercise exploring the Oriental idea of balance. It is virtuosic, utilizing all the elements discussed here, yet fusing them into an image filled with supreme energy and grace.
Though slightly more traditional than Order from Chaos, Ketchum's black and white work goes farther than the work of photographers like Jackson, O'sullivan and Fiske as well as Adams. They would not have conceived of an image like "Two Domes in a White-out," nor do they seem to have chosen and used such a singular, formal idea as their subject matter. The Chinese knew that each situation in nature had to be treated as a unique occasion, an unusual meeting of different forces. With a passionate love of the natural world, Ketchum's work exploits and exalts nature's tendency to offer up limitless surprises, pleasure, and so apparently / inspiration.
Essay © 1984 Cathy Colman
This essay, and all 24 images of the portfolio may be viewed on-line at www.robertglennketchum.com.
These prints and portfolios are exclusively represented by The Wach Gallery.
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