Sharp shooters hit the mark
Two shows at the DeCordova show power of the photograph
LINCOLN — Barbara Norfleet has had as varied and vital a career as anyone working in photography today. She greatly enlarged and broadened the photographic holdings of Harvard’s Carpenter Center for the Visual Arts during her three-decade-long tenure as curator there. Her photography students have included Susan Meiselas and Alex Webb. In Norfleet’s own work, she’s tackled subjects as diverse as upper-crust WASPs, animals, insects, and military installations.
That last project provides the basis for “Barbara Norfleet: Landscapes of War,’’ which runs at the DeCordova Sculpture Park + Museum through Aug. 29. The show comprises 20 small triptychs (they’re 5 1/2 inches by 17 inches). Each consists of hand-painted floral postcards from the late 19th century flanking a black-and-white photograph from Norfleet’s military project, “Landscapes of the Cold War.’’
Those she took in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Sixteen examples are on display. They’re bigger (20 inches by 24 inches) and, of course, lack the botanical add-ons. These original images are very powerful. They have a parched, imposing grandeur. Norfleet took most of them in the desert West, and they’re like Dr. Doom reimaginings of Ansel Adams. There’s also a display case with documents — correspondence, newspaper clippings, a map — that underscore the absurdity of so much effort being put into the construction and maintenance of what are now post-Cold War dinosaurs.
The title of each triptych is a designation of area: “65 square miles, 1988,’’ for example, or “1350 square miles, 1991.’’ In “339 square miles, 1990’’ a soldier in combat fatigues holds a large shell or canister. The image is situated in such a way that he appears to be watering the flower next to him — or perhaps applying herbicide. In breaking the frame, he seems to have traded soldiering for gardening. This is funny. He’s down on one knee, as if genuflecting (to the canister? the flower? the photographer?). This is even funnier.
The flowers lend a deadpan wit to the triptychs. They seem to mock what’s in the middle. The military hardware becomes so many swords sheathed in Laura Ashley scabbards. The postcards domesticate and shrink the hardware. The postcards also serve to frame the central image, making the triptychs look like a kind of window. This effect is especially striking in “1350 square miles,’’ which shows a dwelling in a simulated town at a test site. It’s like looking at an abandoned farm from a neighbor’s house — part of an exurban development, say, that went under in the current recession.
The titles being formulaic underscores the fundamental interchangeability of the subject matter: the conceptual uniformity of technological warfare. The titles being geographic reminds us that these pictures are versions of landscape. They represent actual real estate (emphasis on “real’’), a fact easily overlooked because of their often-otherworldly appearance. People go on about Area 51, in southern Nevada, the super-secret site of all sorts of “X-Files’’ spookiness: UFOs and extraterrestrials and, who knows, Elvis’s desert hideaway. Far more astonishing — far scarier — are the well-known places Norfleet photographs here: Los Alamos, Alamagordo, Lawrence Livermore, White Sands, the Trinity site.
The names verge on epic poetry, verbal monuments to technology — and death. Norfleet’s original pictures offer a visual equivalent. Stunning and majestic, they communicate a simultaneous sense of horror and respect. Make no mistake, there is magnificence here: the demented heroism of military-industrial splendor. To record is to judge, and no one would ever mistake Norfleet for a Pentagon publicist. Yet it’s hard to imagine anyone not being at least a little awed by the sight of these sites.
Part of the power of the show is how the images comment and expand on each other. Furthermore, being able to see how a triptych can differ from the original print it came from is fascinating.
The most obvious form that grouped photographs take in a collection is the portfolio. The DeCordova has long emphasized portfolios in its photographic holdings. It has 1,400 photographs in its permanent collection, more than 300 of which are in portfolios.
Leslie K. Brown, who did such excellent work for nearly a decade as curator at the Photographic Resource Center at Boston University, has put together a terrific primer on photographic portfolios, “Out of the Box.’’ The deadpan literalness of the title is very funny, since that’s just what the pictures in a portfolio come in, a box.
Boxes, as we know, come in all shapes and sizes (colors, too). So do photographic portfolios. The range here is very great. Frank Noelker’s three black-and-white animal studies could hardly differ more in appearance from the four examples from Stephen Brigidi’s “Angels of Pompeii’’ — color photographs of winged figures from wall frescoes in the Roman city. Both are gorgeous. The latter also demonstrate, with their accompanying verse texts by Robert Bly, how well photographic portfolios can lend themselves to collaboration with writers.
Portfolios can be the equivalent of anthologies. The one put together by the PRC in 2008 offers the work of 16 photographers, their images unrelated in theme or technique, yet characterized by consistent excellence. Another such omnibus portfolio, put together by Providence’s Silver Bullet Gallery, includes Bill Jay’s truly amazing portrait of Weegee. Jay makes that slam-bang tabloid master look like a just-deposed Roman emperor: godlike, excessive, depraved. Out of the box, he’s up on a pedestal.
Mark Feeney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.