Ghosts in the Landscape finds healing in time exposures of Vietnam.
Thursday, May 3, 2007
In Craig Barber’s Ghosts in the Landscape: Vietnam Revisited, the hills and temples, the rice paddies and rivers, the hamlets and kilns, the streets and jungles of Vietnam are caught as if holding their breath to pose for the camera, in an unnatural stillness. Perhaps in the aftermath of some massive cataclysm, all the people are missing. But a bicycle leans against a palm tree, sacks of supplies sit at the door of a thatched hut, smoke seeps from a chimney, a wide straw hat hides among a pile of sturdy sticks. Here is a humanscape empty and full of portent within a landscape teeming with life.
Craig Barber was 18 and a soldier when he first went to Vietnam. A cocky young man with a bullseye on his helmet, his Vietnam was a charnel house where he left friends and dispatched enemies amidst the horror and tumult of war. The villages and jungles were an imminent threat, as were the people. Decades later, this was the Vietnam that still haunted him: The photographer was compelled to revisit the site of his disturbing dreams and find a way to peace.
He chose to record the landscape using the most rudimentary equipment—a homemade pinhole camera—a box with a small hole in it through which light enters and, over a period of a few minutes, exposes the single negative inside. The resulting images recall the antique daguerreotypes for which the subjects were required to keep endlessly still while the photographer controlled the light from under a thick black cloth: In these portraits, people posed with stiff formality, backs locked and straight, gaze levelly aimed at the camera. Often this time exposure seemed to imprint the character of the subject on the negative, the long gaze revealing the animating spirit within.
So it is with these landscapes, now showing at the Center for Photographic Art in Carmel. In an era when images shot in a nanosecond capture a whim, a fleeting moment, even a lie—when photographs that were once considered irrefutable evidence are now merely starting points for endless manipulation—Barber’s photographs are not only palpably true and trustworthy, they carry the suggestion of a deeper reality. Using this crude and virtually uncontrollable process that etches deeply everything that is still, it is the land itself that is most dimensional, while anything that moves—like people—floats indistinctly through the frame. Adding another layer of super-reality, Barber mounted twin and triplet cameras side-by-side to make an imperfect panorama from slightly-shifted points-of-view, resulting in a vertiginous godlike perspective when the images are printed together.
In “Somedays It Just Felt Relentless,” a torrent engulfs a street corner in Sa Pa. In this diptych, the photograph on the right follows the diminishing dimensions of a village-scape of shuttered shopfronts and plastic-wrapped walls as a dirt road recedes towards a hazy horizon. On the left, gleaming stone steps lead upward to a different path, marching toward a different horizon, while in the foreground a sodden wood structure opens darkly—is that a figure in a window? Barber uses the platinum printing process to wring every juicy tone out of black and white, resulting in luscious, rich surfaces.
In “Everything Has a Purpose” a corral is crosshatched by tall canes piled in curious precision against a network of fenceposts, their angular relationships accentuated by a mirror pattern of shadows; meanwhile, the village’s thatched rooflines create a jagged horizon as the lowering sky bursts into a black-and-white aurora created by the long exposure. For what ominous purpose are these stacks so precisely placed?
Worlds seem to intersect in “Generation After Generation.” Two angles meet at a pile of tiles in the foreground. The photograph on the left shows a dramatic escarpment falling into a reflecting pool framed by an ancient mud-brick kiln house that arches toward the stack of foreground tiles. On the right, the photograph begins at that stack, but now the perspective recedes toward the adjoining valley and a row of village houses. Did Barber try to see more than one side of each story?
“The Fisherman’s Cabin” is a primordial scene. On the left, a rustic canoe and a few fishing cages are sunning on a beach littered with sticks and rocks while the Mekong River gleams turgidly under a sky streaked with moving clouds. On the right, the beach meets the bristly thatch of a small dwelling nestled under thick, dramatically leaning palms. The palm fronds have been moving in the wind during the long exposure, and their blur, the blur of the clouds, the bristle of the thatch, the ribs of the boat, the ancientness of the beach tell of life-forms intersecting. In such a primeval relationship, what is most still is most endless.
GHOSTS IN THE LANDSCAPE: VIETNAM REVISITED shows at the Center for Photographic Art in the Sunset Center, San Carlos and Ninth in Carmel, through May 11. 625-5181.