Reviewed by Judith Taylor
CRAZY FROM THE HEAT: A Chronicle of Twenty Years in the Big Bend, James H. Evans / University of Texas Press 2011
James Evans considers himself primarily a portrait photographer, and his most recent book is indeed a portrait of place with a “profound understanding of light, the people of the desert, and the desert itself.” With the publication of Crazy from the Heat: A Chronicle of Twenty Years in the Big Bend, Evans reaches landscape-photographer status.
Big Bend has been Evans’ backyard and subject since moving to Marathon in 1988. Today, he continues to be awed by the arid climate, its people and its landscape. His panoramic views emphasize the vastness of the region, the remoteness of place and the ruggedness of those who reside there. “No other photographer has the dual feel for the people and the land,” says photography dealer Stephen Clark.
In her introduction for Crazy from the Heat, Rebecca Solnit reminds us that photography is “always about time; the various cycles of geology and meteorology, the millions of years it took to make this mountain range and the few seconds during which the light broke through the clouds.” Such exploration of time and light are basic to Evans’ work. The starkness of desert plant life— agave, sotol, and ocotillo cactus— illuminated by moonlight conveys the dramatic, surreal imagery of the region. A dreamlike series created through time exposure, “The Camera Never Sleeps,” pushes this concept further as Evans records mysterious star trails streaking across night skies.
Evans’ photographs of the region’s inhabitants provide a glimpse of the grit and spirit required to survive in a harsh terrain. By avoiding set formulas in these portraits, he reinforces inherent individuality, zooming in on the intensity of Tom Lea’s face and capturing the personality of goats on a fence line. Photographs of “Chihuahua Races” and the “Marathon Motel” set the subjects within the context of living in this land; then, as if presenting close friends, Evans introduces extraordinary species portraits. The vanishing horned toad and the richly hued milk snake are just two.
The book designer, D. J. Stout, places the photographs in random sequence to emphasize narrative. For the most part, this approach calls to mind the connection between land and people. In the case of the nudes—female figures photographed alongside natural formations—the scattered placement is jarring. Grouped together they would be an intriguing study.
THE AMERICAN WALL: From the Pacic Ocean to the Gulf of Mexico, Maurice Sherif/ MS Zephyr 2010, University of Texas Press
In 2006, French photographer Maurice Sherif began walking the US-Mexico border, photographing segments of the barrier being built along the 1900 miles of shared terrain. In Volume I of The American Wall, Sherif has assembled one hundred photographs, each recording a section of wall at midday. Immediately, the starkness of metal barriers in the searing heat poses questions about place, people, economies and policies.
For Sherif, the photographs reveal both “the visible and invisible” of a building project whose “planning and design failed to consider long term environmental, social, and economic costs of “altering the borderwith a physical barrier.” Volume II in the set examines the impact of the wall through trilingual essays by noted activitists, scientists, and researchers.
Sherif presents a global perspective, one which we as Americans often push aside. The simple notation ascribed to each photograph documents the date, location, the segment’s building material, and the cost per mile. More startling than the photographs themselves is the cost of building the controversial wall, 3 to 7 million dollars per mile.
In Texas Monthly, Jim Lewis says, “the first notable thing about the border wall . . . is that the damn thing exists.” While he praises the essays and “the unembellished facts” presented in Volume II, he questions Sherif ’s photographs— his choice of monochromatic images, presentation format, and narrow lens. I disagree. The photographs themselves are intentionally unembellished facts; while Sherif points his camera at the wall’s structure—the visible each image conveys the invisible, that which Sherif calls “the haunting emptiness of a place once filled with life.”
Sherif is an artist. It is from this perspective that he approaches such an ambitious project. The large format book (15 x 12.5 in.) features Quadratone printing, a now rare process that uses four inks to create a monochromatic image on paper. The American Wall is a valuable historical document of our times. Congratulations to Sherif for keeping his lens focused on the wall as a structure and insisting that each of us evaluate the impact.
ALEXANDRE HOGUE: An American Visionary, Susie Kalil/ Texas A & M University Press 2011
Alexandre Hogue’s ability “to adapt and innovate resulted in a highly personal vision and style.” It is this vision, the complexities of the artist, his graphic articulation of the Southwest, and a career spanning seven decades that Susie Kalil details in Alexandre Hogue, An American Visionary.
The strength of the analysis is the personal contact Kalil had with the artist. In 1985, while curating an exhibition, “Texas Landscapes: 1900 – 1986,” Kalil made the mistake of describing the locale of a painting from Hogue’s Big Bend Series as “desolate.” Hogue suggested she strike the word from her vocabulary. Thus began an eight-year conversation between artist and curator which continued until Hogue’s death in 1994. These conversations, recorded on some forty tapes, are the basis for the insightful text of this important contribution to the study of 20th Century American Modernism.
Kalil stresses that she “wanted Hogue’s evangelical personality to come through … to let him speak.” is she achieves, meshing seamlessly the artist’s dialogue and her own commentary on Hogue’s maturation and influence.
Starting in 1926, Hogue painted extensively in Taos, New Mexico. There he found the spiritual validation that dovetailed with his own religious upbringing and beliefs. The landscape offered “glimpses of pure form” from which emerged an abstracted perspective. Pointing to “Irrigation—Taos” (1931), Kalil sets out to guide us through Hogue’s deep commitment to conservation. His visual statements about the Dust Bowl drew national attention along with controversy when Life Magazine published Hogue’s work. The artist was ahead of his time in his concern for the mark man was making on the desert landscape.
In the unfolding narrative, Kalil gives a broad view of Hogue’s visionary spirit and life experiences. She devotes a section to his “fascination with sharply defined, calibrated patterning.” Here Kalil’s analysis takes on a more academic tone as she delves into the calligraphic compositions—exuberant, playful, yet rigorously formal—produced in the 1960s.
Kalil rounds out her assessment of Alexander Hogue in a chapter titled “The Big Bend Paintings,” stating purposefully that “wisdom from maturity and insight, from experience … led him back to his origins.” Reverently, the author confirms her belief that Hogue is the preeminent artist to consistently capture both the look and feel of the desert landscape as well as its psychological character.
The book is aligned with a retrospective on Alexandre Hogue organized by the Art Museum of South Texas, Corpus Christi. Its final stop is the Fort Worth Museum of Science and History where it is on view through November 27, 2011. The exhibition and Kalil’s comprehensive book introduce the artist’s work to a new generation and seek to establish Hogue as a major 20th century American artist.