Pity the poor art photographer. No other medium has been so thoroughly victimized by its own success. Invented by visual artists in the early 1800s as a shortcut to getting an image on the page, photography and its offspring—motion pictures, video, infrared and X-rays among others—have become the dominant, often the first way we humans view the physical world. Two centuries later, probably not one photograph in a million is a bona fide work of art. The artist who uses photography must therefore contend with what may be the worst possible assumption on the viewer’s part: that the photograph gives a viewer a direct, unmediated experience of its subject matter. The better the shooter, the less he interferes with encountering the object of the camera’s gaze. Alternatively, artists who use cameras often resort to inventing subjects. If no known subject matter is recognizable, the audience has no choice but to notice what’s left: presumably the process of making the photo. This is the dilemma into which Amanda Moore steps with the mythic stride of a true western hero.
Many artists feel pressed to display their recent work every few years. Moore, who was the subject of a profile here exactly a year ago, has shown new work, often doubling as curator, every few months since. This month, in addition to galleryuaf, she will have a show in the Garage Gallery at the Kimball in Park City. It’s partly the sheer variety of her media, which include traditional medium-format color prints, plastic camera distortions, fisheye bubbles, and Polaroid snapshots—in fact, just about everything but today’s ubiquitous digital scans—but has more to do with a voracious visual appetite for her particular idea of place. Her project is nothing less than to fill out, if not completely replace, the mythic image of “the West” with one rooted in reality. Not that the myth doesn’t exhibit something huge in our psyches, but the human need to confabulate—a psychological term meaning to fabricate imaginary experiences to compensate for lost memories—robs us of a true reflection.
A good example is Moore’s recent exploration of Highway 50. In 1986, Life magazine, a journal of mainstream American visual opinion, declared there were “no attraction or points of interest” along its 287 miles. Yet Moore insists otherwise: “It is truly one of the prettiest drives I have ever taken. . . .we had heard great things about it but it really exceeded my expectations.” She brought back 300 photos in various media, one third of which were digital files. Moore’s attitude toward digital is complex, a blend of awareness that the new medium cannot do what the older ones can and curiosity about what it might do instead. Considering the expensive materials and time spent setting up for a conventional photo, it’s not hard to imagine Moore using her digital as a kind of sketchbook: perhaps diagramming contexts and closing in on details to help her recollect and better reconfigure her negatives as prints. She also notes that the casual snapshots her digital SLR permitted were a relief from the labor of her usually exacting process. They were “fun.”
Any photographer will have reams of images that end up filed after scarcely a cursory glance. In this case, though, Moore chose to take another look: “to see these pieces for what they were and not for what they weren’t.” The nine she chose to show represent a striking departure from her previous landscapes. Those were cool: middle-distance shots of structures showing their ages and their accidental histories. What made them compelling was their very presence. Susan Sontag, when she had lived half a century, published such an unvarnished and unapologetic portrait of herself with the comment, “This is 50.” She did not say, “This is me” or “This is me at 50.” So do Moore’s photos—meticulously composed and flawlessly lit to inexorably convey the sculptural mass and vast space surrounding their subjects—show the result of the unwilling collaboration between human aspiration and implacable nature.
But these nine images, each a warm, affectionate detail shot up close, display the kind of humor and appreciation that only comes with familiarity. Consider “Louie’s Lounge,” in which we see the lounge’s curtained front window frosted by a layer of dust. At first, its point seems to be to mock Louie’s motto: “Where the Fun Is.” But a closer examination reveals a dense palimpsest of messages, names, and drawings inscribed by fingers in the dust. “Nate was here.” “Lea + LEO.” Whatever social drive brings places like Louie’s into being evidently transcends the economic vicissitudes that befall them. “Patriotic Window” materializes the way many of us felt during or just after the recent political season about the struggle of ideals to communicate through circumstance. Moore does more than just capitalize on the gift of a visual metaphor, though. Any of us might have captured the window with a cell phone camera, but by including the adjacent door with its heavy padlock she invokes both the barriers and the possibilities of penetrating the surface of things.
Moore’s powder is dry and her humor droll, but attentive viewers are likely to laugh out loud at some point. The arrow reading “Entrance” is painted on a narrow bit of wall between a window and the door it points to, conjuring up a confused would-be entrant who must be prevented from trying to walk through its bricks. The dilapidated shutters falling off of “Al’s Hardware” extravagantly display but advertise the mortality of Al’s merchandise. Second floor doorways promising a sudden fall are a staple of rural Utah houses, but why does the “Colonnade Hotel” need two, other than to suggest a cartoon face? And just what is “Concrete Lumber,” besides a short poem?
In these light-hearted images Amanda Moore finds details that make her larger project more intimate and accessible. But she is no less serious that they, too, represent “the true west.” And she continues to gently but firmly insist that we see it through her eyes, and know that we are seeing it through her eyes. These are her choices, presented with an optical and cerebral clarity only she can give them. There are works by three photographers in the gallery, but no signs are needed to pick hers out. Western mythologist John Ford famously said, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Many artists agree, but Amanda Moore does not. Those inclined to agree with her should hoof it over to galleryuaf, and make plans for Park City.
Amanda Moore’s images of Highway 50 are at galleryuafin a group exhibit titled Scenes and Structure. Also on display are photographs by Laurie Bray and Rachel McKinnie. Moore will exhibit her Blue Sky Topographics at the Kimball Art Center, June 12 – July 26. You can view her portfolios online at her website.
Geoff Wichert has degrees in critical writing and creative nonfiction. He writes about art to settle the arguments going on in his head.