This Week In Photography Books – Uta Barth.
by Jonathan Blaustein
Just now, not three minutes ago, I saw a hummingbird. Clomping down my dirt road in flip-flops, I was lost in thought. The first few paragraphs of this column were dancing through my brain; synapses firing, mentally banging on my keyboard. A hundred yards from my computer, and already I could hear the rhythmic song of plastic on plastic.
Then, I saw the whizzing wings out of the corner of my eye, hovering above the most beautiful orange/red wildflower. I stopped dead, turned my head towards the little creature, and watched. Of course, you can’t see the wings move. Everyone knows that. But the blur is hypnotic.
Suddenly, I could hear a magpie squawking. Then, two different bird calls joined the chorus. Next, the sound of the Rio Hondo behind me, whoosh, whoosh, gurgle, gurgle. A symphonic moment, all thanks to Nature.
Of course, the sounds were there all along. I just didn’t hear them, as I was too busy listening to the voices in my head. Ironically, I was planning to write about the intersection of Nature and religion. I had it all worked out.
Then, I saw the hummingbird, and everything disappeared. I was left with only my immediate surroundings. My mind cleared, and I felt much better than I had the moment before. Now, I’m writing a different column than I would have otherwise.
If you were trite, you might say I had my “Moment of Zen.” (Thank you, Jon Stewart.) To all the urbanites out there, I’ll tell you this: I know it sounds cliché. Mountain guy writes about hanging out with the birds, while your background noise consists of honking horns, cursing neighbors, ice cream trucks, and jackhammers working on the roads. (I think they were hammering on Canal St. the entire time I lived in NYC.)
Or, maybe you’ll think something else. “Wow, that sounds amazing. I wish I could live in such a pretty place.” I tell you, we have problems here just like everyone else. Violence and poverty and addiction and wildfires. And you can’t get a decent slice of pizza to save your life, even if you have mad cash like Mikhail Prokhorov.
With respect to the idea of Zen, though, I think it’s worth taking a step further. Art communicates information. (For once, I state the obvious.) Information is a general term: it can mean ideas, of course, but also emotional energy. We’ve been through this before.
Most of time, we tend to focus on the Art that shakes us: dynamic, baroque evocations of Environmental disaster, sexual trafficking, or death. Things like that. Everyone’s always talking about whether Art can change the world, or how images of War are so important for our general body of knowledge. All true.
But how often do we talk about Art that will simply change your mood? Is there value in a photograph, if it only slows you down, soothes your mind, and hijacks your brainwaves away from anxiety or fear or exhaustion, if even for moment?
Minimalism and abstraction have been around for a long time. (The former was popular in China 800 years ago, and the latter evolved in painting a Century ago.) Personally, I tend to prefer my minimalism Sculptural, in the Donald Judd or Carl Andre style. Minimalist photography is not normally my thing.
So I was pleasantly surprised to see Uta Barth’s new book, “to draw with light,” recently published by Blind Spot. Slowly tease the simple hardcover out of its matching slip-cover, and the world’s noise begins to melt into the background.
The volume is broken down into three sections, each displaying a very narrow range of imagery. The first, my favorite, connects to the title. Curvilinear, wave-like forms of white light are depicted on luminescent, white curtains. Again. And again.
One person’s seductive beauty is another person’s “boring as hell,” but hear me out. One minute, I was stressed out about having to write this column, not sure I had the proper creativity-juice-cocktail today. The next moment, my mind was still. I felt better.
The photos are unquestionably beautiful, and simple, lacking any over-arching socio-political message. If you asked the artist, she might not discuss the Zen qualities, the hint of Buddhism. Or perhaps she might. It doesn’t matter.
The other two sections are similar. The second depicts white light on white studio cabinets. The final returns to the curtains, this time interjecting solarized images with the normal ones. Not my style, as I’ve seen a few too many student-cell phone-solarizations to find the tactic worthy of such a major artist. Little matter. I’ve had my few minutes of peace for the day, and have emerged thankful.