A PASSION FOR DISAPPEARANCE

_ Victoria Z. Alexander



The photography of Debra Bloomfield first came to my attention four years ago in her collection of images of the Southwestern United States (2004).



1. Bloomfield. New Mexico Desert (2004)

Her second book of images Still: Oceanscapes presents a series of 60 images of the ocean (and sky) taken from one vantage point across a span of seven years (2000-2007). The collection possesses a deeply contemplative and often painterly quality. The images are made both for the artist herself ["my photographs have always been for myself and my work sustains me"] and an audience. They record a relationship between the inner world of an artist and one fixed point in her outer world. We can share these images to the extent that we can replace her inner world with our own in relation to the sea and sky and the place where they meet. As with Rothko's later canvases, while these photographs will never mean to us what they do to their maker, the meeting of inner and outer worlds is otherworldly (see especially images 7, 9-10, 22-25, and 46). This effect is only enhanced by the fact that the images are taken in the crepuscular period from just before sunset until just after sunrise. Bloomfield's photographs are the record of many lonely night observances during which she attempted to understand her own creative process: "My art is how I process my life" (130).



2. Bloomfield. L (2002)

While all the images in the book are of the same place this is not a collection of serial imagery. They are frozen and elongated moments of time passing through a place - patiently exposed studies of an (unnamed) geographic fragment of land along the Eastern coast of America. The "stills" tell a profoundly colourful story of change - the place remains the same - the time remains relatively constant from day to day (late evenings and early mornings), but the atmosphere and the colours never repeat. Each one of these photographs is a prolonged glimpse of a perfect singularity which will never return. Bloomfield's images are proof that the passage from one day to the next is not a circle but a spiral along which our eye follows the ever changing light. This image maker, a master of darkness, shows us how to see at night. Bloomfield's camera (she uses film, no digitalization), proves that darkness is not the absence of light. This is the brilliant illusion of her work that elevates it to an art form. Terry Tempest Williams, in an essay included in the book, writes: "each gesture becomes a gesture in the spectrum of reflected light" (6). This leads me to think that Bloomfield is very much a "light artist" and that books on that subject, if properly conceived in the future, will include her work - and that of other photographers (Bruce Chatwin and Jean Baudrillard come immediately to mind). Photography was never more the writing of light than it is here. All good light writers respect the darkness.



3. Bloomfield. M-01-06 (2006)

There is no effort to resolve the world in Bloomfield's photographs other than by poetic means. She takes a world that is given to her as enigmatic and makes it even more so (see Baudrillard, 2000:83). While doing this she focuses her lens on the meeting point of earth and sky. Despite the presence of incredible clouds and skylight her "oceanscapes" attempt to compel us to look on this side of the horizon of disappearances (where sea and sky merge). This lends to her patiently crafted images a feeling that one of our tiny ancestors made a dreadful decision to leave the oceans millennia ago. We, nine-tenths water, such awkward, fearful and violent creatures on land - are, as we know well, much more graceful when in our first ancestral home - the sea. On land we are not un-like a giant tortoise fumbling its way back to the water where a transformation of movement instantly takes place. "We are water. We are Ocean. We are home" says the poetry of Francis Ponge (9). On land we drown in technology and deserts of glass, steel, asphalt, and concrete.



4.Mark Rothko. Untitled. (1969)

While traversing the images slowly [a hasty passage only prevents the enigma from forming its mystery] I also found myself thinking of Rauschenberg's White Paintings (Images 1, 8, 26, and 43); the clouds of Gustave Le Gray's photography (images 18, 27-36, 42); the post-apocalyptic orange and brown landscapes of Odd Nerdrum's primordial horizons (image 2, 38, 49-50, and 56); Philippe Bourseiller's photographs of deserts (5, 6, 11, 52); and the paintings of Turner (images 13, 18, 39, and 57). Most of these artists preferred light, as does Bloomfield, in its most vulnerable state (125), and each of these artists often provoke the mysterious elements in their familiar. If I understand Bloomfield correctly, she paused in this place long enough to listen to what she had to say to herself about it's impact upon her. The place is allowed to speak for itself, to us, in the images.



5. Odd Nerdrum. Moren (detail) (1983-4).

When we look at Bloomfield's images of this unnamed sliver of the earth, it is useful, I think, to keep in mind that it isn't only the place that is speaking to us through the image but an inaccessible secret which Bloomfield is seeking to uncover in herself: "Oceanscapes is about an internal place... a reflection of what was happening inside of me... I didn't move, I let the landscape move in front of me" (127). Such is her relationship to this place as it is (if we are lucky), the kind of personal relationship each of us have with one particular place. Places are especially rich when they provide time to think and reflect outside of the real time of our networked cities. As for the "place" we meet in these images - appearing differently as it does in each one - we are reminded that the real world does not exist except behind the veil of appearances. I have also had this experience among the rapidly changing colours of the earth and mountains of the Southwestern US - and I imagine that she did as well when seeking out the images which appeared in her earlier book.

All good photographers understand something remains inexplicable in every good photograph - and this is a master photographer. But perhaps there remains one secret in these images even to Bloomfield herself. She never mentions the sky and clouds in the artists statement or the interview which follows at the end of the book.



6. Gustave Le Gray. Great Wave at Sete (1857)

II. The Secret Life of Clouds

The intense life of clouds is one of the natural treasures of the earth (Baudrillard, 1990:141).



7. Bloomfield. J (2002)

Among the greatest natural treasures are clouds - those soft vessels of light and water in a transient state. Their intensity is at its most apparent when the clouds in question hang over the sea. We know fragments of the land in ways which we can never know the sky or the enigmatic clouds which dwell there temporarily and always. It is a great wonder to me why Bloomfield never speaks of the clouds which occupy a large part of this book of images - perhaps they are her secret reason for taking the images - secret even to her. Someone might suggest that her next book could be a collection of skyscapes but she has already given us such a book in this one.



8. Bloomfield. W (2003)

You probably will not be very far into the book (for me it arrived with image 13 - W, 2003) when the images call to mind the awe inspiring beauty in the painting of J.W.M. Turner. In the interview Bloomfield says she has cried in front of Turner's work. Bloomfield, this woman of long and repeated night vigils, admires the man who had himself strapped to the mast of a ship in a violent squall for four hours so that he could experience what he was about to paint (129).



9. J. W. M. Turner. Hastings (detail) (c 1835)





10. Philippe Bourseiller. Timet Dunes (Ténéré, Niger).

Oceanscapes are not unlike desert horizons. Here Bloomfield's photography takes us close to the meeting of the Sahara and the sky in the photography of Phillipe Bourseiller (Coulter, 2007). Coulter establishes that Baudrillard had a passion for being in the desert which is matched by Bourseiller's passion for photographing it. Bloomfield too has a passion for this small desert-like fragment of the planet which she photographed repeatedly - linked to a passion for her art and a ardent effort to discover the secrets of her own process. Clouds are also a great secret in Bourseiller's images. He too focuses his lens low but the clouds intervene powerfully as often as they do in Bloomfield's images. They differ in that her passion for one place is greater than Bourseiller's. One can only imagine the desert images he would make if he were to focus on one place for a prolonged period of time. In this we may think about how Bloomfield asks the nomadic photographers of our time why they move about so much. Perhaps the best answer comes from another image maker who Bloomfield immediately brings to mind - Hiroshi Sugimoto.



11. Hiroshi Sugimoto. Sea of Japan From Rebun Island (1996)

Sugimoto has traveled the world taking enigmatic (mainly black and white) images of oceanscapes. His minimalism serves to highlight the maximalism with which Bloomfield approaches the sky.



12. Bloomfield. K-06 (2006)

III. A Passion For Place

Bloomfield accepts the arrival of night-time the way our artifical culture cannot (replacing as it does the natural cycles with a functional continuum of office towers lit throughout the night, see Baudrillard, 1988:50). Bloomfield rises above the monotonous comfort of the rich society she lives in - one that is as afraid to see the lights go out as was the primitive hunter (Ibid.:51). She does not photograph during the brightest parts of the day - for good reason - day is the reverse of night - what we find seductive at night is often only vaguely so by day. Bloomfield's sacrifice of the day to the night has been abundantly rewarded. Almost all of the photographs have no people in them: "I tried very hard not to include people in these images... to eliminate the people" (129). Despite only traces of humanity in the images (a distant ship, a flag marking a shoal) these are mainly images of the world in our absence. As Bloomfield puts it: "I'm trying to get to this place, how does it have a life beyond me?" (129). Baudrillard's poetic writing often comes in my mind when contemplating these images: "Have we not always nurtured the fantasy of a world functioning without us?" (Baudrillard; 2005, 101).

You need passion bordering on obsession to watch over a small patch of the earth, as she did in her frequent night vigils over a period of seven years. With Bloomfield it is a passion played out between dusk and dawn - an obsession which simultaneously points to a failure in the contemporary world. It is a failure which remains beyond Bloomfield's distant horizon - where sea and sky meet - and the beginning of the horizon of disappearance (she only allows us to glimpse the city once, through a storm, in image 58 - Cityscape (2006). Otherwise her images all contain a sublime horizon line - the magic line of disappearance beyond which lies the city. It is this line of differentiation which inhabits the other fifty-nine images and is central to the elegant things they are. Beyond the horizon of disappearance we glide before turning the page where another magnificent meeting of ocean and sky pulls us further away from cities and into the contemplative crepuscular views of ocean and sky.

References
Jean Baudrillard (1988). America. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard [c1987] (1990). Cool Memories, 1980-1985. New York: Verso.
Jean Baudrillard (2000). The Vital Illusion. New York: Columbia University Press.
Jean Baudrillard (2005). The Lucidity Pact Or, the Intelligence of Evil. New York and London: Berg. Debra Bloomfield (2008). Still. San Francisco: Chronicle Books.
Debra Bloomfield (2004). Four Corners. University of New Mexico Press, 2004.
Philippe Bourseiller et. al. (2004). Call of the Desert: The Sahara. New York: Abrams.

Gerry Coulter (2007). "Baudrillard In The Desert" in Izinsiz Gösteri (Number 157, December): http://www.izinsizgosteri.net/asalsayi157/gerry.coulter_157.html

Victoria Z. Alexander is a freelance writer on theory, the arts, and photography living in Strasbourg, France. Victoria's recent article "Not everything is as it appears. A review of FOTO: Modernity in Central Europe - 1918-1945" appears in Euro Art (Spring 2008): www.euroartmagazine.com/new?issue=138&page=1&content=155

Her essay, "Evil Breathes Deeply Here: Odd Nerdrum and Baudrillard's Challenge to Art" appeared in Big, Red and Shiny: An Art Journal. Number 68, September 12, 2007: http://www.bigredandshiny.com/ cgi-bin/retrieve.pl?section =articleandissue =issue68&article.

A book review of Alan Fletcher et. al. The Art of Looking Sideways. Phaidon Press, 2001 called "Stir Fried Puppy and Other Cool Memories of a Hot Designer" appears in Volume 5, Number 1 (January 2008) of the International Journal of Baudrillard Studies: http://www.ubishops.ca/ baudrillardstudies/vol5_1/v5-1-alexander.html. An obituary: "Remembering Jean Baudrillard and his World" appeared in Izinsiz Gösteri in April 2007): http://www.izinsizgosteri.net/asalsayi137/victoria.alexander_137.html.  

 

Victoria Z. Alexander victorialexander@yahoo.co.uk