During the brushfires of 2008-09, when anyone who could stayed indoors, Youngsuk Suh (or “Young” as he is known among colleagues) was outside with a 4 x 5 film camera, recording images of places throughout the West that were engulfed in flames. Through the smoky haze, he photographed not only the visible features of the landscape, but also people in various pursuits of leisure and labor: bathing, hiking, boating, rafting and firefighting.
Contrary to appearances, these pictures are not part of an explicit environmental treatise. Rather, they are an attempt to get us to question received notions of landscape. Using the visual conceit of smoke, Young attempts to re-frame a variety of ideas about nature and culture that have run throughout American history. These range from the romantic impulse of Hudson River School painters to the socially engaged WPA-era pictures of Walker Evans, and from the fiercely polemical works of Robert Adams to the more open-ended existential studies of Richard Misrach. It’s also safe to say, given the preponderance of smoky vistas, that the artist’s Korean heritage and the traditions of Asian landscape painting play an equally strong role in this project.
As such, Wildfires is a conversation across history that, without asserting a singular viewpoint, touches on the ways American landscape is used, abused, perceived and enjoyed. Irony, alienation, majesty and an inverted sense of the sublime infuse the dozen medium-sized (36 x 46”) photos on view. Their most distinguishing feature, apart from a persistent scrim, is the peculiar quality of the foliage: it has a fuzzy, almost pointillist texture that lends the images a physical presence that would otherwise be absent. As for people, you really have to look to find them, and in the screen views you see here, they are difficult to locate. Nevertheless, they and their surrogates (animals and signs) are the content bearers in these images.
Squirrel, shot from a deserted vista point, shows the animal staring back at the camera with a “What, me worry?” expression, mocking Edward Abbey’s warning about the dangers of what he called “industrial tourism”. Gas Station, which has one of those machine-powered inflatable figures cowering in the background, feels like a scene created by extraterrestrials with a taste for clever graphics. The lone gas pump in the picture carries one of those colorful “eco-friendly” logos that corporate polluters use in magazine ads to assure us they’re the good guys. Taken two years ago, before the BP fiasco, it feels prescient.
Others, like Cigarette and Coffee employ the kind of simple ironies that have been staples of American street photography since Walker Evans. The first shows a firefighter in the midst of a smoke-filled scene dragging on a cigarette; the second is of a small roadside billboard for coffee. The heat of the beverage is represented by orange flames, a case of advertising foretelling real-life disaster.
All of this falls squarely into the New Topographics mode, a style of image making that originated the ‘70s and focused on the impact of development. Conversation is a photo of a parched desert landscape with three people walking along a sandy, tree-lined trail. At the top right of the picture we see a series of sprawling, low-slung concrete buildings, one of which is a Costco. Seeing these elements in the same frame feels slightly surreal and yet they stand as resolute facts — one of the hallmarks the New Topographics movement.
Elsewhere, Young explores the notion of the sublime as it was conceived by Hudson River School painters like Thomas Cole, Albert Bierstadt, and Frederick Church and the German romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Their impulse was to glorify nature by presenting it as something we could conquer and bask in. Later, photographers adopted similar techniques to promote tourism. But there was also a spiritual aspect, which Young, through the pictorial scrim of smoke, evokes to question the equation of nature and godliness. He does this by shooting nearly all of his people scenes (Bathers and a Dog, Bathers under a Bridge and Rafting) from high angles so that they are dwarfed by their surroundings. The result is an upending of a historic dynamic: Where the romantic painters made nature the object of an omnipotent gaze, Young, in the manner of Misrach, puts his attentuated subjects inside the picture, asserting that nature holds the upper hand.
Scale and camera angle are not the only things that draw us into these pictures. Given the toxicity of the air, one wonders if the people in Young’s pictures are real or whether the photographer inserted them after-the-fact. (The artist assures that the pictures are, in fact, “straight”; the only exceptions are instances where he overlaid multiple negatives to add more people to scenes than actually appeared in any single frame.)
Young doesn’t reinvent New Topographics, but he does give it a fresh spin. By showing people operating in the face of disaster as if nothing unusual were occurring, he gives us a psychological portrait of the American West that is both unsettling and true to life.