Following a short introduction by the American Art Museum's Curator of Photography, Toby Jurovics, photographer Frank Gohlke discusses his body of work spanning more than 30 years. His photographs capture the tension between humanity and the natural world, exploring how people adapt to the forces of nature both great and small, even within the confines of their own backyards.
TOBY JUROVICS: I’m Toby Jurovics, curator of photography at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, and I’d like to welcome you to our presentation of “Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke.” Through the exhibition we traced Mr. Gohlke’s work for almost 35 years. Mr. Gohlke’s photographs are spare and elegant; they speak quietly and yet they also speak with great affection for the American landscape.
Traveling from his hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas, to Minneapolis, across the high plains, the volcanic landscapes of Mount St. Helens, the Sudbury River in Massachusetts, and far beyond, Frank Gohlke captures a landscape that is often unruly and sometimes destructive. Throughout the exhibition we see a constant theme of tension and affection for the landscapes that surround us.
Frank Gohlke’s photographs touch on the most complicated themes of American photography from the past 30 years – he finds a landscape that is not pristine, yet one that is also not beyond our reach. He shows us how we can find a home in the places that surround us.
“Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke” was organized by the Amon Carter Museum in Fort, Worth, Texas. It’s on view at the Smithsonian American Art Museum from December 5th, 2008 through March 3rd, 2009.
The following is an interview with Frank Gohlke done in Fort Worth, Texas on the occasion of the exhibition.
FRANK GOHLKE: Why do I make photographs? I think when my patience with English literature as an academic study ran out, photography just felt like the best thing I’d ever done. I just liked it. I like the whole process, the walking around with a camera without any purpose in mind except to respond and going into the dark room and doing all that magic stuff.
There was just a very congenial kind of activity and it made me feel as if I were doing something important, I don’t know why… but it just felt like me and it felt important. If you’re going to take the landscape as your subject you’ve really got to know what has come before and what the assumptions on which it was based and make choices about it. You know, what do I use and what do I discard from the past?
I mean, I think that’s what any artist does. The landscape work that was being done by a lot of people who were influenced by Adams and Weston and then Minor White and Caponigro, just seemed really dead to me. I mean, all the conviction had gone out of it. It was just, they weren’t responding to the world anymore, they were responding to an ideal of photographic excellence that came purely from other photographs.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s I… you know, a lot of people couldn’t ignore anymore what was happening to the places they grew up in. They were changing toward greater and greater uniformity. You can’t ignore the problem of increasingly unindividuated scenes and trying to assert some kind of human distinctions within it, so there was that continual tug which is one of the things that makes photography so much fun and so interesting… between the world you’d like to see and the world you have to look at.
Why would you take a photograph of that house? I grew up in a town where there were lots of houses like that so it was a kind of nostalgia-tinged exercise and also because visually it does one of those things that architecture traditionally has done which is to affirm an order different from the order of nature, which makes us feel as though we have some control over how the world looks.
What’s fascinating in that picture to me, you know… just the individual touches that make it different from every other house on that street and just something about the dissonance between the kind of grand claims of those trees – which seemed as if they should be flanking some kind of, you know, classical temple – and the modesty of the house whose presence it is announcing. I used to describe it in all kinds of whimsical ways, like the exhaust from a vegetable rocket.
I like being required to pay attention. An example of that would be my dissatisfaction with the kinds of reports that I read in the mass media about Mount St. Helens. Maybe I want to go out and see for myself, you know? I knew that wasn’t a story that came anywhere near the complexity of the event, so in part it was kind of corrective and I suppose in some way there has been that admonitory aspect: ‘Don’t forget about this. Look at this. This is not as simple as you think it is.’
Life’s inherently messy nature is utterly indifferent to our notions of order and yet we keep trying to make things as orderly and predictable as we can and ultimately each one of us fails. Sometimes that failure is comic and sometimes it’s tragic and sometimes it’s neither one. It’s just a fact, and I think part of what one tries to do as a person who makes images, however you make them, is to make that image pull as much of the viewers’ total experience, conscious and unconscious, learned and instinctive, as possible to create these semblances of life.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and G Streets, NW)
For more than 30 years, Frank Gohlke (b. 1942), a leading figure in American landscape photography, has explored the ways Americans build their lives in a natural world that rarely fits within a traditional pastoral ideal.