by Shannon Egan, PhD.
Noelle Tan: Photographs
Noelle Tan’s photographs of an American landscape do not conform to the longstanding tradition of picturing rugged lands and sublime vistas. Rather than focusing on the stereotypical majesty of particular iconic views – monumental cliff faces, windswept plains or Rocky Mountain peaks—Tan’s photographs represent a different kind of vastness and sense of place. In her series entitled Drawings (2003-2005), a faint row of telephone poles, tractor trailers fading into the background, or almost ethereal seagulls hovering near the edges of a picture punctuate expansive white grounds and invoke a new way of thinking about the American landscape. A body of formally different photographs, Untitled (2001-2002), also can be seen as a new take on the representation of exterior spaces. But here, the lightness turns to darkness, and Tan presents a similarly difficult exploration of these seemingly empty landscapes. Photographed in the dead of night, diffuse artificial lights barely illuminate the peculiarly quiet outdoors in Untitled.
Tan took the photographs in Drawings and Untitled along her trips across the country, from her home and studio outside of Washington, D.C. to San Francisco. Her travels thus call to mind the quintessential American road trip, which was a rite of passage for many prominent American photographers. Timothy H. O’Sullivan and William Henry Jackson journeyed west to take pictures of the land in the nineteenth century, followed in the twentieth century by photographers Edward Weston in 1930, Robert Frank in 1959 and Edward Ruscha in 1966. Tan’s trips follow a comparable path as her precedents, as she likewise is drawn to the open skies and almost limitless stretches of land. While her photographs relate to this tradition, she is not venturing on great geographic surveys to photograph America’s “Golden West,” laying a territorial claim or defining the country through its picturesque sublimity as Jackson or O’Sullivan. Her experience on the road perhaps better approximates Frank’s or Ruscha’s more everyday visions of the West, as her photographs focus on un-picturesquely modern rather than the majestic. Instead of depicting the sublime grandeur of nature beloved by nineteenth-century artists, Frank and Ruscha photographed highways, gas stations, luncheonettes, and motels along their car rides. Tan’s subjects—trucks, billboards, beach shacks, train cars, and picnickers—are in a sense equally quotidian. Yet, the subtle details and ambiguous depictions of space in Tan’s work do not compare to the wide-angled seeing, assertive recording, and logical and rigid mapping of these older photographers. Ultimately, her photographs are more restrained, more ordinary and even more subtly sophisticated than the detached sterility of Ruscha’s gas stations or the somewhat harried commotion of Frank’s crowded scenes.
The next wave of Western landscape photography, as seen in the work of Robert Adams and Henry Wessel in the vanguard exhibition New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-Altered Landscape of 1975, focused more intently on the apparently banal. Intended to present a new vision of the American West, these photographs took the suburbs and new man-made developments in the west as their subjects, with tract houses and new grid-like and gridded structures abutting once pristine and awe-inspiring landscapes. Tan’s photographs share with the New Topographics artists an interest in ordinary scenes seen from a car window: a freight train moving across a desolate landscape, a slightly humorous sign stating “Welcome to Bun Boy Country,” bleachers and parking lots, a double-wide mobile home. Her tone, however, does not seem as deadpan or wryly critical of an un-idyllic expansion of industry and development in the late twentieth century. In contrast to both the sublimity of O’Sullivan and the banality of Ruscha, Tan offers a more meditative, existential, and otherworldly poetics of place. The areas are ghostly and haunting, as if she depicts a kind of dreamscape rather than a geological survey of the land. Because of the expansiveness of the Drawings and evocative darkness of Untitled, Tan aesthetically and conceptually revises the longstanding genre of landscape and its staid pictorial conventions.
While Western photographers frequently grounded their images around a large, monumental, recognizable landmark, such as Cañon de Chelly or Monument Valley, Tan’s photographs reveal no unique landmarks and barely demarcate a horizon line, flanked above and below by groundless white space. Many early photographers had difficulty dealing with the big skies of the West and would compose photographs around mountains, trees, or rocks to frame the photographs according to compositional standards. Tan purposefully rejects those rules as well as the search for a sublime picture of nature. In Tan’s photographs nature, rather than being seen as geographical evidence of Manifest Destiny, always relates instead somehow to the manmade. Rows of palm trees appear as orderly as the telephone poles. Shade trees flank the bleachers at a park and comprise the well-manicured landscape of a golf course, but never grow wildly into dense forests. The landscapes are stark, often bleak, but never unpopulated. Birds fly near the edges, ghostly traces of small figures appear and disappear into the whiteness; golfers don’t venture far from their golf carts. Beach shacks, small houses, picnic pavilions and mobile homes reveal subtle traces of their occupants and the curious ordinariness of their everyday lives.
Tan not only questions the limits of landscape as a traditional genre, but also the pictorial nature of photography itself. Because the photographs appear overexposed and strangely whitewashed, photographic detail in the Drawings is lost and something one must seek in the vastness of the compositions. “They challenge the viewer to question what it is they can actually see in the photograph,” according to Tan. “Instead of using a full palette of grays to become a ‘photograph,’ through the use of white space and black space, they resist becoming, tempting the viewer to associate what little is discernable - scatterings of trees, people, birds - or pieces of a building, a road, a wall - with pencil drawings or charcoal sketches.” The Drawings look like drawings and, as such, contest the inherent properties of photography itself: clarity, accuracy, legibility and the ostensible truthfulness that the photograph is presumed to reveal.
In addition to challenging one’s expectations of the medium and the nature of its “photographic-ness,” Tan’s work also considers the conventions of constructing pictorial space. Because of their uniformly white foreground and background planes, punctuated by a faint, but unmistakable horizon line, Tan’s Drawings invite one to see these planes as ambiguously flat. Details of trees or telephone poles are recognizable and convey the subtlest sense of three-dimensionality, but the area of white can be seen as an abstract monochrome, an untouched sheet of drawing paper, or a depthless expanse of sky. Drawing II, in particular emphasizes its departure from conventional photographic composition. Where one would typically look for and expect to find the subject of the composition, the center of the picture is vacant. The identifiable parts appear as if in one’s peripheral vision. The trashcan and the public bathroom entrance on the far left are in the sharpest focus and also cut off by the edge of the picture frame. Tan blurs the forms of the people standing to the right of this structure. As one’s eye moves across a lacuna of white along the implied horizon line, another trashcan comes into focus, along with a sheltered picnic table and small charcoal grill. These few elements give a sense of a general location, a public park, but the larger scene, comprised of the many particular details one expects to see in a photograph, are absent. The subject of the work then is not simply a setting for a leisure and recreation, but rather how it is or what it is we see when given the merest of clues. The photograph asks the viewer to consider how negative and positive spaces are balanced in a photograph, how and where one expects to see lightness and darkness, and how one “reads” an ambiguous or slightly illegible composition. Ultimately, the Drawings, because they are precisely not drawings, inquire what the material and visual limits are of photography, or in other words: When does a picture become a photograph, or a photograph a drawing?
Photographs typically rely on light entering the black box of the camera to capture and fix its photographic image. Where the Drawings series relies on a fairly extreme contrast between white and dark, with an emphasis on lightness, the Untitled series exhibits a contrary extreme of darkness with a minimal amount of light entering the scene. While Tan’s cameras, methods of printing, and choice of gelatin silver prints are all traditional means of making photographs are traditional, she purposefully, bravely, and beautifully rejects the rules of photography, with its recommendations for shutter speeds and exposure ranges. Neither body of work presents the balanced range of middle-gray tones, the conventional standards for producing a measured and evenly lit scene. Traditional black and white photography usually presents a relatively wide range of gray values, but Tan uses a narrow tonal range to make the photographs almost either entirely black or white and to challenge the pictorial rules for visibility. Because of such technical experimentation, Tan’s work reveals incredible aesthetic feats of capturing nocturnal lighting and close-value printing.
Despite the large expanse of matte blackness that one sees at first in the Untitled photographs, Tan presents a surprisingly wide range of tonal variations. Akin to the actual experience of seeing in the dark, the viewer’s eyes move—like moths on a summer night—straight to the light. Once one’s eyes adjust to the darkness and start slowly to move away from the area of brightest light, a surprising amount of detail can be seen. In Untitled #3, for instance, after one sees the bright line of light—an airplane coming for a landing over the Pacific Ocean—a lifeguard stand in the middleground and in the foreground, tire tracks and footprints in the sand and a sign indicating the rules of the beach, come into view. What at first appears as almost total darkness slowly becomes a close study of how it is and what it is that one sees at night. Also taken on a California night is Untitled # 7, where concrete slabs keep rocks on the hillside from spilling out onto the road. The photograph depicts a relatively shallow section of road, and the telephone pole takes on a figurative role with its glowing head-like orb and its wires stretching to the left and right like arms. In the center of Untitled #11, a well-lit bath house puts the palm trees encircling the structure in silhouette. While the darker parts of the picture at first appear, like the others, to be absorbed in complete blackness, after careful looking, one notices the lighter line of waves reaching the shore in the middleground, leafy brush in the foreground, as additional palm trees emerge almost strangely and suddenly. While Tan places a pictorial emphasis on the artificiality of light, as seen on telephone poles, airplanes, buildings and trains, surprising details nonetheless make their way through the relentless darkness of the photographs.
The sense of occupying these places evokes feelings of vulnerability and isolation. The photographs reflect a silence and stillness in what ordinarily are loud, active, populated areas. Perhaps it is Tan’s own process of taking these photographs—as a woman alone in somewhat public but empty areas in the darkest hours of the night. In these moments of stillness and solitude, Tan heightens her perceptions of her surroundings and adjusts her sight to the darkness. The photographs invite the viewer to be attuned to Tan’s photographic experience, specifically to the isolation and eerie calm of unoccupied public spaces, the enveloping darkness, and the frequency, intensity and location of light.
Unlike the night photography of twentieth-century artist Brassaï, with shadowy figures hanging about on Parisian streets, or Night (2001) by prominent contemporary photographer Jeff Wall, coincidentally made the same year as Tan’s series, the Untitled photographs are astonishingly unpopulated. Parking lots are empty, roads are quiet, and no one emerges from the buildings, parks, or trains. While Wall’s photograph similarly makes the act of looking difficult and also approximates the way one’s eyes have to adjust to darkness, the figures that resting in middle left of the photograph unsettle the viewer more blatantly that Tan’s subtle night scenes. Without the overt evidence that one is looking back, her night landscapes allow for a kind of prolonged, watchful looking. The landscapes by day might be ordinary and banal, but by night, Tan reveals a compelling strangeness and beauty to how each location fends off the darkness with a bit of illumination.
The white lightness of the Drawings and the dark night of Untitled evoke feelings of isolation, solitude, and remoteness in many of these expansive and shadowy landscapes. What connects the two series is the act of traveling through these landscapes and trying to find one’s bearings whether it is noon or midnight. The photographs address the physical and conceptual act of seeing and specifically acknowledge that perhaps one cannot ever fully see all that surrounds him. The blackness of Untitled, like the whiteness of the Drawings, makes the works difficult to decipher. While the subject is always relatable and recognizable, the backgrounds envelop the representational elements in almost complete abstraction. “While Untitled and Drawings may differ visually and in content,” according to Tan, “both challenge customary expectations of photography. They function in a singular manner, interacting with conceptions of photography and photographic processes.” Instead of seeing a complete photograph, a truthful record of every detail and fact that appeared before her lens in Tan’s photographs, typical photographic vision is obscured. One searches the dark or desolate landscapes for a light, a recognizable form, or a place that can be identified. Her photographs are not for lazy lookers expecting to find conventional modes of accuracy, immediacy, or clarity. Fortunately, Tan rewards this careful vision with complicatedly beautiful pictures of open spaces and paradoxically calm and unsettling nights. Her photographs take one along roads that require a heightened perception and openness to see both the new and the known, an experience once sought by her predecessors traveling west and found in Tan’s rediscovered landscape.