These recent photographs were taken in formal English and Italian gardens. The shape and mystery of these places are a natural draw for me as they offer glimpses of the rich traditions of garden making. I am interested in garden history and historical concepts of paradise, and aim for pictures that have a meditative quality to reflect the spiritual urges that inspired the earliest gardens some six thousand years ago. My images are not depictive. I use the land before me as a jumping off point, implying light or shadow where perhaps there was none, as a way to create my own path through the garden. In fact, by positioning the lens, cropping my prints, and using burning and dodging to guide the viewer's eye through a picture, I feel that I too am a gardener in a sense. I am after that "slant of curious light" that is the genius of a place
photographs & quote via bethdow.com
I like Beth Dow's work, because when looking through her book, you are not confronted with the presence of other people. The uniform style (including format of the images) keeps you in this fantasy world until you reach the back cover.
Aesthetically, Dow is great at composing frames that have a clear symmetry/vanishing points.
The idea that human try to tame seemingly wild nature and capture it's most organized form (in the most organized way) is what engaged me with her photographs.
The Typology of Jacob Love
Line of Flight, a body of work by Jacob Love, seemingly at first fits into a grand tradition of photographic typology: the meticulous documenting of 'the thing', an assembling of members of a common class or type. On closer inspection, however, Love takes the (intentional) banality of typology and turns it into a magical playground of both realized and failed potential.
For typology to work, it must force the viewer to discover new meaning in the seemingly mundane, scientific documenting of the everyday; things that are ignored or taken for granted. A new aesthetic must be forged and, in its forging, relationships must be built between the actuality of 'the thing' and the creation of a larger truth about how these categorized objects affect the way we view the world and navigate it. After all, the typologist is primarily concerned with the manmade and how our intervening in the world affects how we live in it. Typology plays an integral role in how we assess our impact on the world in which we live. We alter the world; we document the alteration, and then we measure how that change makes us feel. Does it improve the way we live our lives? Do we feel more content about the new world we have created?
The swimming pools ('the thing' in Love's work) of Line of Flight are a perfect primer for us to judge how we have changed and developed the world around us. Municipal spaces reflect the notion of beauty as a reflection of the beauty that its users should aspire to. Municipal spaces are a reflection of the dominant aesthetic of their era; a reflection of the beauty that their users should aspire to. This is especially true of leisure spaces, dedicated to the 'body beautiful'. By achieving physical perfection we may convince ourselves that we have attained emotional or intellectual perfection also. As Love describes elsewhere in the book, 'the pools, a "leisure centre", can be seen as a kind of sanctioned container for this constructive use of leisure. Exercise and a physical engagement in the world can help provide meaning and purpose in people's lives.' By classifying these leisure spaces, we are forced to deal with what perfection means to us and then judge how we fall short of our own exacting expectations. The buildings themselves can be seen as a historical reflection on the beauty of the time they were built. From the elaborate Victorian detail of Porchester Deep/What You Don't Know You Don't Know™ (p. 17 above) to the modern slickness of Kensington Deep/For Successful Living™ (p. 21), these spaces work as an aesthetic incentive for us to achieve the beauty that we link to our sense of perfectionism. After all 'we engage not only with the moment the photograph was taken but... with the memories of past cultures' (Cotton, 2004: 95). We strive to replicate the Utopian surroundings of the spaces we inhabit. The details and styling of the buildings may change (with what, as a society, we perceive to be aesthetically pleasing) but the intention remains the same.
This exploration of potentiality draws inevitable comparisons to the psychology of Abraham Maslow. In his 1943 paper 'A Theory of Human Motivation', Maslow explores the notion of self-actualization through his 'Hierarchy of Needs'. In order for us to achieve perfection, we must become self-actualized. We can only achieve this, however, once our 'lower' needs have been sated. But this proves problematic, as James Carrette argues in his article 'Psychology, Spirituality and Capitalism: The Case of Abraham Maslow'. This notion of personal betterment was inevitably adapted from psychology and used as the key motivational tool within business and eventually in the business of self-help. Maslow 'disguised visions of global capitalism behind a rhetoric of "health" and "human potential"' (2003: 90). Maslow's self-actualization is now only achievable through the attainment of wealth, power and possessions. This has stretched beyond the world of business and has gripped consumerist culture as well, where materialism is encouraged as a path to 'self-actualization'. This can be evidenced in the ethos of self-help publications like The Secret, with it's mantra of visualizing the possessions you want in order to attain them; if you visualize yourself behind the wheel of your new sports car, then you will have it. As Bob Doyle, a convert to The Secret, states: 'you put yourself in the feeling place of really being in that car. Not "I wish I could get that car" or "Some day I'll have that car"...' (Byrne, 2004: 84). This is a fact not lost on Love. Why else would he choose to subtitle each pool by pillaging the language of advertising copywriters, motivational speakers and pharmacists? 'Experts' helping us work tirelessly to be the very best we can be.
Each swimming pool, devoid of human presence, clearly depicts two distinct worlds: the actual, physical world of the pool, and the metaphorical, perfect world of the water's reflection. 'The mirror is after all a Utopia, since it is a placeless place. In the mirror, I see myself there where I am not, in an unreal virtual space that opens up behind the surface; I am over there where I am not, a sort of shadow that gives my own visibility to myself, that enables me to see myself there where I am absent: such is the Utopia of the mirror' (Foucault, 1986: 24). This is explored within the titles themselves, which neatly separate into the two worlds the visual space inhabits: reality (the pool's name) and the Utopia (the trademarked motivational message).
Like typologists before him, Love gives 'equal weight to... subject and... process' (Slemmons, 1991: 44) and allows meaning to fall somewhere in between. It is not enough for him to merely photograph swimming pools; the methodology of the approach is just as important in the creation of meaning. By literally turning the world upside-down, he emphasizes the two worlds that are vying for space in his pictures: the Utopia we strive for and the actuality of the lives we live. It is made impossible for us to dive into the perfect world of the reflection, but instead we are tempted by it as it hovers just out of reach above our heads. Of course, by doing this we are also held back from failure. If we could dive into the perfect reflection, our bodies would destroy it immediately. Instead all we can do is try to reach out to it and fail. The horizon line where these two worlds meet acts as a precipice between the reality of the viewer's existence and the perfection they strive for. By inverting the image the viewer is in danger of losing grip of their Utopia and falling into the mess of their own realities.
All of this is displayed in Iron Deep/The Feeling State of Already Having Acquired These Wants (p. 9). More is revealed in the reflection than in the 'real' world of the bottom of the frame. Within the frame, the mirrored Utopia is more perfect and rendered with more detail than the reality. Yet this detail has a softer sheen, provided by the calmness of the undisturbed water. The hard lines and harsh brightness of the reality are made more comforting in the reflection. But what of its inversion? The upsidedown reality, the space we can inhabit and walk through, is harsh and confusing; our reality is too difficult to navigate, too beset with traps and pitfalls and information we cannot comprehend for us to ever feel truly comfortable within it. It is much easier to look up at the calming beauty of our Utopia and dream. It is no coincidence that its subtitle is another mantra of The Secret: visualize ourselves walking through our Utopia and we will have it.
Accompanying the epic proportions of Love's swimming pools is a series of portraits of the pools' workers. But like Jeff Wall's Utopian portraits, Young Workers 1978-83, the sitters are merely constructs. They mirror the cultural diversity of Wall's work and by proxy the cultural diversity of the Utopia we are aiming towards, yet they do not function as individuals but rather as cogs in a larger machine. Their bodies have been sacrificed for the greater good of the communal body. This is enhanced by the hyperrealistic appearance of each sitter. Every tiny detail or flaw is highlighted, creating an intense hyperreality that makes their individuality too hard to look at (a device also employed in the pools themselves), forcing you to retreat into the whole. While all the flaws and stamps of individuality are made painfully clear in each portrait, the intensity of look up at our realized potential, as the workers do, and bask in its wonder, trying to forget the failure of the reality that lies at our feet.
But is this really the end we seek? Beset as they are with the doubt and fears of our own reality? If we view our utopia we can achieve it - this is after all what Maslow and his followers teach us. Yet Love, through his pictures, shows us the foolishness in this belief. Just because we can visualize something through photography, doesn't make it ours. As we visualize the mirrored Utopia of the pool's reflection, perhaps we should remember we are no nearer achieving it than if we had not visualized it at all.
This is the role of typology. We have built these shrines to leisure, altering perceptibly the world we live in. They play a fundamental role in the utopia we seek and the documents of them are a way of visualizing our future. When looked at in this way, typology itself can be viewed as a form of cultural 'self-actualization'. Through slavish documentation, we can visualize what we have achieved. Love's swimming pools, when viewed en masse, unsullied by human presence, perform this role. We see the grand architectural structures we have constructed and can glimpse the utopia in them. In photography we have the end we seek. Love has photographed them, presenting these types back to us so that we can fully assess the success of our endeavours.
(photographs via jacoblove.net. Essay by Damian Owen-Board in "Line of Flight" by Jacob Love, 2009)
So, whatever I say now, people will think I'm a brown-noser. Here goes nothing:
What I like about Jacob's work is the fact that while adhering to strick rules as far as picture taking is concerned, when turning his work around, it gets a completely new meaning. While Jacob's work clearly is a typological assessment of swimming pools, he found a new language to express himself through typology.