Photo Essay: Passing Through the Valley
The California landscape photographs of Rob Larson
If asked, an attentive visitor at the Beauty Shoppe can probably tell you that work of the Pittsburgh photographer Rob Larson is monochrome, mixed-media and that it depicts the city. And this would not be wrong: the pieces currently hanging at 6014 Penn Ave are all that: images of the city, its highrises, muscular overpasses, telephone wires, articulated in black ink on a light tan ground, without indulging in midtones. The consequence is a pen-and-ink effect, like a single frame extracted and blown up from a graphic novel. Mounted on boards affixed to shallow wood boxes, they hover between image and object, radiating a deliberately raw, handmade modesty. (He uses a mix of spray paint, silkscreen, wheat paste and shellac.)
Which makes this new work, from Death Valley, all the more surpising. Gone are the intimacy, the craftedness and the worn urban texture. Larson keeps his attention on the formal principles at work in the landscape—he is, above all, a formalist—structuring them in a way that reveals his commitment to visual parsimony: strong lines, limited palette and regular pattern, but these photographs are expansive, luxurious and sublime.
But since Death Valley has the hottest recorded temperatures on an already hot earth, we may also ask what business we have looking at these images in formal terms. In any case, this question is not answered but left open by Larson’s pictures, which seek an alliance with the venerable American landscape tradition of Carleton Watkins, Timothy O’Sullivan, and Ansel Adams.