SUSAN DABOLL: PASSAGES

 

Much art criticism in recent years has turned towards the concept of embodiment as a particularly powerful metaphor for the feeling of physical presence that some works of art convey to their viewers.  Embodiment typically describes a viewer’s perception that a depicted object has a distinctly physical presence within the frame of a picture, but also implies that works of art call upon us to see them not just with our eyes but with our whole bodies.  The metaphor is one that has great sway in discussions of modern painting and sculpture because it describes not a historical phenomenon but an orientation—a desire to use the physical materiality of the art object to push viewers out of their comfortable mental spaces and into a physical relationship with a work of art.  My premise in this essay is that we should also consider some photographic practices—Susan Daboll’s work in particular—as suggestive of embodiment as well.  This is one of the key terms I use to approach and understand Daboll’s rich photographs of people and landscapes.

On the face of it, the metaphor of embodiment is all wrong for a contemporary photographer.  Modern photography as a medium is usually associated with a theoretically monocular, disembodied eye.  When we talk of modern photographs we often remember the photographer by saying “What an eye!” but most photographs do not elicit a physical memory of their maker’s stance, her motion, her craning neck.  We often take for granted that modern photography, even at its most beautiful, keeps the body at bay.  The unique contribution of Susan Daboll’s artwork—born almost certainly of her personal experiences and her appreciation for the hidden history of bodies in modern art—is that each photograph impels viewers to engage with it visually and physically.  Moreover, Daboll’s work prompts us to remember the artist herself at work, and this realization is the basis for our identification with her experiences.

fig. 1

fig. 1

In Susan Daboll’s most recent project, begun in 2004, she rode the train (not once but often) between Baltimore, Maryland and New London, Connecticut, with New York City as a through-point, and pointed her camera out the window to observe the passing landscape.  Her photographs capture much of the landscape that abuts the train tracks along this particular route.  This is the back view of that landscape, which more typically “faces” the street or highway just beyond view of the train’s track.  It is a particular quality of Northeastern American train tracks that they seem to tunnel a not-so-secret passage with unique views of the backs of houses, the edges of woods and the open sides of industrial yards. 

fig. 2

fig. 2

Although a highly skilled printmaker, for this project Daboll experimented with camera speeds and film speeds, and shot while the train moved at an irregular pace.  The resulting photographs are sometimes grainy, sometimes blurred and sometimes crisp.  Moreover, some of the photographs, such as A Landscape of Longing XIV (fig.1), capture the impression of deep space within the photograph and others, such as A Landscape of Longing VIII (fig.2), have an obdurate flatness.  In Figure 1, we look into the factory-dense distance—a rare but precious view from a train—towards pinpricks of light whose quotidian function is to illuminate factories, but which here double as guides into the deep space of the photograph.  In Figure 2, the passing landscape becomes a blurred green as the speeding train, the slow exposure, and the bright color conspire to keep our eyes right at the surface of the print.  Many of Daboll’s photographs from the series are slightly tilted, so that viewers have to look hard for several moments before the image becomes a familiar form.  The tilt of the composition is a regular but shifting feature of these photographs; it is the result of making exposures during a sometimes-bumpy ride.

fig. 3

fig. 3

The blur and grain in some of the photographs, such as A Landscape of Longing XVII (fig.3), does its work as well.  Throughout the series we viewers feel as though we are perched in our seats with Daboll, pressing eyes and nose to the same glass where she pressed her camera’s lens.  The alternating blur and precision is the photographic equivalent to one aspect of this adventure: speed.  As a group, these photographs suggest that Daboll has taken her viewers with her, physically and otherwise.  I cannot say why I remember the smell of an Amtrak car or the pitch of a seat when I look at her photographs from the series, or why I have such strong feelings about these memories, but I am sure that both have to do with the fact that in looking at her photographs I have an intimate memory of pressing my forehead to the window and watching the landscape roll by.  Like Daboll, Walker Evans also rode the train and described his experience photographically in Fortune in 1950.  For Evans, the experience was similarly synaesthetic: “TING TING TING TING TING TING TING” went the line of type he used to describe the sound of the moving train.  But his photographs from the trip were static; they were properly gridded and composed and taken from a still vantage point.  Evans and Daboll may have shared the urge to represent the complex sensory experience of the train ride through the Northeastern United States, but his inventive use of text and his rigorously geometric photographs give the game away: for Evans, the ride was already a relic.

Both artists’ photographs make use of an industrial landscape as their subject matter, even in the case of pictures that are almost exclusively pastoral, as many of Daboll’s are.  This is a landscape that Americans often remark upon with more than a hint of nostalgia in their voices—it is part of the great and masculine story of America’s industrial twentieth-century.  Never mind that the train is still in use, or that Amtrak sold over $1.2 million in tickets in 2005 and that the “Northeast Corridor” is their most popular route, the industrial infrastructure has largely passed from our collective imagination as an object of celebration and veneration.  It has become old.  It had already done so by the 1950s, when Evans was there.  For Evans, who at one point expressed the apparently life-long ambition “to photograph the present as though it were the past,” the project was an intense expression of nostalgia, and viewers have access to his feeling only partially, through photographs that most certainly do not take us along for the ride.  That seems to be the point for Evans: despite the fact that he could still board the train, the existential ride—with all its attendant feelings and sensations—is over.

Daboll’s photographs remind me of Evans’s, as much for their differences as for their similarities.  The mood in these photographs is reminiscent, not nostalgic.  The looking is deep and hard, and we feel we are with her across every mile of this landscape, recording it in our minds as she records it with her camera.  Reminiscence is primarily distinguished from nostalgia by its sobriety: it does not imply longing for the past, nor does it require rose-colored glasses.  Still, Daboll’s photographs are uncannily beautiful.  This simple fact is consistent throughout her career, but is particularly unexpected in this series, as the photographs are generally more beautiful than the subject matter they describe.  Daboll describes the role of beauty in her work as a kind of tool, a way to “make the experience [of looking] seamless.”  This poetic analogy begs a number of questions.  Why do we need to be eased into the photographs, and what experience do we stand to gain, if beauty is a conduit more than an end unto itself?  The idea implies a kind of journey (not unlike the literal journey by train described in these photographs) that one takes almost without thinking.  The journey that we take in Daboll’s photographs is ultimately mental, sometimes emotional, but we are brought to that place via our bodies and our senses.  That’s what beauty does here.  It holds us and becomes the ground for further contemplation.

These photographs describe one body’s passage through the post-industrial landscape as viewed from a moving train, and we are there, with her in a physically empathetic sense, but we are also present via our shared history and memory.  For every feeling and association that we have with this landscape--and for each viewer it will be different--the photographs evoke memories and associations with this landscape and its occupants.  A world-view is encompassed by a photograph like A Landscape of Longing XIV (see Fig. 1), it is heavy with the residues of hope that attended American industrialism.  We are still a country that builds and manufactures things, still a country that makes use of our factories, but their infrastructure inspires thoughts and feelings about the past, not the future.

For many American viewers, Daboll among them, this is the landscape of masculinity.  The artist is clear on this point: the post-industrial landscape is hard, it has grit and strength, characteristics strongly associated with a mid-century generation of working-class American men.  This is a world, not surprisingly, that was just starting to wane as the first waves of feminism began to rattle American culture, but during Daboll’s childhood and young adulthood the distinction between the hardness of men’s worlds, defined by their roles as providers, and the corresponding softness of women’s domestic worlds was clear and absolute.  One salient aspect of Daboll’s history is that although her parents accepted the stratified gender roles of the 1950s, those roles were never unambiguously embraced.  Thus, Daboll’s memories of her youth are of being caught between two worlds in a double sense: the worlds of gender roles on the one hand, and the worlds of cultural ideals versus the realities of family life on the other.

Early works by Daboll address these issues directly: as a young artist in the late 1970s Daboll wrestled with the painful memories of her childhood (she was too tall to be the stereotypically “darling girl” associated with 1950s femininity, she was too much a girl to be her brother’s playmate) and found the emergence of “second wave” feminism confusing; it presented a model of gender at odds with the lessons that she had learned about femininity, masculinity and sexuality as a child and adolescent.  Daboll spent much of the late 1970s and 1980s working with images of women’s bodies.  At first she used her own body, and then later she created a series of lyrical photographs using models which reworked familiar female narratives from classical mythology and renaissance painting.

fig. 4

fig. 4

During this period she made a photograph that precisely defined the concept of embodiment that would characterize her later work.  While helping a friend choose a wedding dress, Daboll made a photograph of her friend dressed in a slip and waiting in the shop’s narrow dressing room.  The photograph, Mother’s Closet I (Fig. 4), a life-sized black-and-white print, depicts her friend from the back. Virtually all we viewers see in the image is the elegant u-shape of her slip and the round shape of her behind.  It is a very intimate picture, improbably sensuous, and the high-contrast printing process brings out the contours in her form, making the mundane dressing-room context virtually invisible.  Instead, the body has an unusual fullness, a roundedness associated with sculpture instead of photography, and the partial view of this woman’s body puts us almost inevitably in the place of a small child who is not tall enough to see its mother’s face.  This woman is the archetypal mother of mid twentieth-century America: in elegant underclothes, physically proximate but just out of our reach.  We long for her.  It is no wonder that for Daboll, this photograph harkens back to her own experience of seeing her mother dress for parties.  As redolent as this photograph is of a specific memory in her own life, Daboll allows that making photographs so rich in personal memory is ultimately freeing.  As the image becomes a locus of shared memory—I have a mother too, and remember her body and my relationship to her body quite similarly—its deeply personal associations lose their sting.

fig. 5

fig. 5

In 1995, during a residency at the New York artists’ colony, Yaddo, Daboll began photographing nature, and shortly thereafter began making landscape images.  These landscapes, unlike the current train series, were strongly associated with the concept of the feminine.  The photographs from this series, especially those taken in Central Park in New York, and, later, in Greece, are vividly colored and softly focused, and are not organized around the horizon line, such as Urban Landscape XXV (Fig. 5).  The effect of these three facts is that each photograph produces a feeling of envelopment: these photographs are not mere visual fields that allow our eyes to dance across the surface.  Instead, we are within the composition.  When taking the photograph, Daboll lowered her gaze and that of her camera so that the lens of the camera was at a more acute angle towards the ground (not perpendicular, as is usually the case); by adjusting the depth of field, foreground and background appear to merge and the entire composition seems to shimmer at the surface of the picture.  The horizon line is de-emphasized because it no longer divides “here,” where we are, and “there,” beyond the picture.  Instead, the landscape becomes a physically encompassing environment, like a maze.  The children’s story “Alice in Wonderland” is called to mind, and not by accident: Daboll wanted these photographs to have a fairy-tale-like quality.  Our partial line-of-sight renders the landscape magical.

Perhaps it is because these photographs elicit physical sensations and tap into our capacity for bodily empathy (with the photographer and with the subjects depicted) that they retain for Daboll and her viewers such strong and polar gender identities.  I do not mean to imply that we see or perceive male or female bodies in these landscapes; nothing so literal as that.  Instead, the land itself has characteristics we respond to as gendered—as embodied—by hard lines and soft curves.  These are visual perceptions, of course, but they are powerful enough to convince us that we feel them as much as see them.   Daboll describes her own awareness of the gendered quality of the landscape by reference to a 1955 photograph by Robert Frank, View from Hotel Room Window, Butte, Montana.  She saw this photograph as a young artist and it has clearly influenced her work.  The photograph depicts Butte, Montana, as seen through the frilly curtains and a windowpane.  The city beyond the window is a small-scale urban grid, but the severe layout of streets and houses contrasts sharply with the curtain ruffles that literally frame the image.  For Daboll, the photograph combines the hard-edged, literally man-made industrialized landscape with a wholly different interior landscape: soft, curved, contingent.  These two poles between hard and soft are the principles of masculinity and femininity as they operate in her photographs.

Daboll’s train photographs mine the territory of gender and landscape, but my own feeling about the work is that gender and landscape in these photographs cannot be understood without recourse to a series of interlocking concepts: memory, the waning American enthusiasm for industrialization, and improbable forms of beauty.  All of these concepts are made available to us as viewers because we enter these photographs as highly sensate bodies: we look at them and we are within them.  They become our world.


Jessica May

July 2006