Vision and Beyond: David Batchelder
David Batchelder: TIDELAND, Schilt Publishing, 2015
‘Vision and Beyond’, an essay written for David Batchelder’s book TIDELAND, Schilt Publishing, September 2015.
Vision and Beyond
David Batchelder made these photographs between 2010 and 2015 in the tidal zone on the beaches that fringe Isle of Palms, a small barrier island off Charleston, on the eastern coast of the United States. Unless you are an expert in geology or marine biology, you would not know this from looking at the images. Like much of our surroundings, these beaches could be many places in the world, and many more places in the mind.
The technique is simple but the results are infinitely varied. The camera is hand-held (a tripod would sink into the sand) and pointed downwards. The photographer keeps his feet out of the frame. The camera records and makes permanent a world in flux. The seawater soaks away, the sand slowly dries and the wind remakes the surface. These are appearances that never repeat. With every tide, unique shapes and configurations that no human could create are written and erased. It has been going on since before we were here and it will continue long after we have gone.
Batchelder has made thousands of images in this manner. That is a large number but compared to how many could be made, it’s a drop in the ocean. More to the point, making photographs like this is akin to beachcombing: you have to do a lot of it to get the real treasure. And of course, the longer one does it the more one’s sensibility is refined and the deeper one must go into the unknown heart of the project. To make this work Batchelder has, literally and metaphorically, kept his head down.
In 1962 the film critic Manny Farber made a comic but serious distinction between what he called ‘white elephant art’ and ‘termite art’. White elephant art is made in the self-conscious pursuit of transcendent greatness, in the channels where greatness is conventionally noted. The white elephant artist will “pin the viewer to the wall and slug him with wet towels of artiness and significance.” By contrast, termite artists get on with their work with little regard for affirmation or posterity. They are “ornery, wasteful, stubbornly self-involved, doing go-for-broke art and not caring what comes of it.” The work of the termite artist is an “act both of observing and being in the world, a journeying in which the artist seems to be ingesting both the material of his art and the outside world through a horizontal coverage.” He has a “bug-like immersion in a small area without point or aim, and, over all, concentration on nailing down one moment without glamorizing it, but forgetting this accomplishment as soon as it has been passed; the feeling that all is expendable, that it can be chopped up and flung down in a different arrangement without ruin.” Many of the greatest photographers were (are) termites. Think of Eugène Atget, for example, pursuing his affection for old Paris as it disappeared under the tide of modernity. In his own domain, almost invisible between the worlds of art and commerce, Atget did what only he could do. I am inclined to think of David Batchelder in a similar way, making his work because he wants to, has to, and nobody else will. Imagine him on that island, walking from his home on Seagrass Lane to the sands that sustain him.
So here we have a book, a large book, of Batchelder’s sustenance. You will make of it what you will. Indeed, I suspect that with such imagery ‘making something of it’ is unavoidable. Nature’s abstractness, typified by beaches and rocks, tends to provoke us to great extremes of reaction: the universal or the particular; the sacred or the profane; the precious or the pointless; the significant or the meaningless; the lofty or the low. It has something to do with the involuntary rush, the intuitive projection we make upon both nature and what seems abstract. It seduces our unconscious wishes into revealing themselves. Is it possible to look at these photographs without seeing something in them?
The New Yorker once ran cartoon showing a returning soldier being given a Rorschach test. One by one the doctor holds up those infamous cards of blotches and splodges and the soldier responds: “A woman’s breast. A woman’s face. The silhouette of a naked woman. A woman’s ass. Two women.” It is dollar-book Freud of course, but it would not be funny if the underlying principle were not true. Seeing is motivated. On some level we cannot avoid seeing what we, or some part of us, is given to see. We do not have the cold indifference of the camera’s glass eye, and yet we understand that if we recognize an image as a photograph we know the glassy eye did record at least something, without knowing what it was. So in our reactions we are forever caught. Something in us may want to see the cosmos or monsters, or dreams but we know we are looking down at a bit of a beach.
If there is a lineage for Batchelder’s work, it must surely include Alfred Ehrhardt’s Das Watt, a book of ninety-six black and white photographs of wet and rippled sand, published in Germany in 1937. Ehrhardt’s title does not translate easily. Sometimes it is rendered as ‘mudflats’, sometimes ‘tideland’, which is of course the title of the book you are holding now. Ehrhardt’s volume was a late entry in an important genre of inter-war visual culture: the typology or picture atlas. The better known examples include Karl Blossfeldt’s 1928 book of plant studies Urformen der Kunst (literally translated as ‘Archetypal Forms of Art’, but published in English as Artforms in Nature); and Albert Renger-Patzsch’s 1928 book Die Welt ist Schön, or The World is Beautiful. It is worth dwelling on the titling of such books, because we are dealing here with forms of imagery particularly open to interpretation. Titles can be very leading, or misleading. There are endless ways to read Blossfeldt’s close-up photographs, but he was interested in looking at how plants had solved many of the problems faced by artists and designers in the modern age. The perfect arch, the flying buttress, the reinforced corner. He wanted the plants seen, at the very least, as ‘archetypal forms of art’. But Renger-Patzsch’s Die Welt ist Schön is something of a cautionary tale. It is a book of one hundred photographs ranging across everything from plants, animals and trees to fabrics, architecture and industrial machinery (there are even a few taken on the beach). Although a bestseller at the time, Die Welt ist Schön has a slightly dubious reputation because some notable critics disapproved. In his classic essay ‘A Small History of Photography’1931, Walter Benjamin felt it showed the medium at its most conservative and complicit. The voracious and indiscriminate camera is permitted to eat up anything and everything, only to spit it out as aestheticized mush for re-consumption by equally voracious and indiscriminate viewers:
“The creative in photography is its capitulation to fashion. The world is beautiful—that is its watchword. Therein is unmasked the posture of a photography that can endow any soup can with cosmic significance but cannot grasp a single one of the human connections in which it exists, even where most far-fetched subjects are more concerned with saleability than with insight.”
How different it might have been had the publisher not insisted upon that title. Renger-Patzsch himself had wanted to call his book Die Dinge. Things. No ‘world’, no ‘beautiful’, just things, seen in and as photographs. The publisher hoped to unite everything with an aesthetic outlook; the photographer wanted to stare at discrete objects and phenomena that do not necessarily add up and cannot be reduced to beauty alone. Even the name of the movement with which all these photographers are associated, Neue Sachlichkeit (New Objectivity or New Sobriety), doesn’t really get at the strange delirium that comes from trying to be new and soberly objective. Images will not carry meanings the way trucks carry coal. They are too wayward for that.
‘Das Watt’ and ‘Tideland’ are commendably restrained titles: just a word to indicate the kind of place where the pictures were taken. But there are very real differences between the projects. Ehrhardt seems to have kept faith with the idea of the typology, with the promise of reliable visual evidence and classification. He was looking for representative types of pattern in the sand. Although he wrote of “flowering forms” he restrained from following that line of thought, lest his approach unravel. Notice how each of Ehrhardt pictures shows a single and uniform occurrence. He frames what he sees in ways that will emphasize order above all. Batchelder also gives us pattern but he is equally interested in anomalies and oddities, the things that upset uniformity. Ehrhardt sees the beach as a set of more or less predictable forces. Batchelder seems less certain, or just more interested in what cannot be predicted. Order makes life livable but surprise makes it worth living. This attitude puts Batchelder’s photographs closer to the orbit of that other inevitable force of the visual: surrealism.
One of the surprises of the 2013 Venice Biennale was a display of the collection of stones, crystals and meteorites assembled by the great French intellectual Roger Callois. They are among the most beautiful and fascinating examples ever found. Here we have circles, stripes, intricate lattices, crazed geometries and color combinations to outdo any artist. Callois called them l’orée du songe – the shore of dreaming – containing “algebra, vertigo, and order”. Famously, Callois was associated with the surrealists but in 1934 he split with André Breton, the movement’s leader, over the relation between art and science. Callois saw research and poetry as inextricably joined, one nurturing the other. He wrote to Breton: “I want the irrational to be continuously over-determined, like the structure of coral; it must combine into one single system everything that until now has been systematically excluded by a mode of reason that is still incomplete.”
We need not protect the poet from the scientist. Science is its own wonder. The more we discover about the world, the more wondrous and the more mysterious it becomes. True knowledge brings the realization that we are always grazing on the lower slopes of our own ignorance. What you can see if you look down at the beach, or down the Hubble telescope are wonders far greater than any burning bush. Callois wrote of his stones:
“They provide, taken on the spot and at a certain instant of its development, an irreversible cut made into the fabric of the universe. Like fossil imprints, this mark, this trace, is not only an effigy, but the thing itself stabilized by a miracle, which attests to itself and to the hidden laws of our shared formation where the whole of nature was borne along.”
We can see Batchelder’s photographs in a similar vein – poetic and scientific, and gifted by the miracle of the camera’s powers of analogy. Callois’ stones preoccupied him for decades and at the end of his life he was still struggling to define their significance. “I can scarcely refrain from suspecting some ancient, diffused magnetism; a call from the center of things; a dim, almost lost memory, or perhaps a presentiment, pointless in so puny a being, of a universal syntax.” This is what seduces all collectors of nature.
Callois’ finds came from the splitting open of rock that reveals the forms within. There is a parallel with David Batchelder’s eyes being the first to behold those visions in sand, and his camera preserving slices of sight for future contemplation. Yes, it is a crazy notion that in rock or sand, revealed by a stonemason’s cut or the snap of a shutter, are intimations of big questions, and yet we are pattern-seeking mammals whose greatest gift and greatest folly is to look for order where there may be none. The tides come and when they go they leave suggestions, or phenomena we cannot help but take as suggestions. All the while the big rocks are being worn down to smaller rocks; the rocks to pebbles; the pebbles to sand, and the sand to silt. The silt will collect in the calm of the deep and over millennia it will be compressed into rock all over again. That may be the ultimate pattern, but as the artist Ben Shahn once put it, “You cannot invent the shape of a stone”.
Around the time Callois was assembling his stone collection, the English artist Paul Nash was taking photographs, sometimes for their own sake, sometimes as studies for his paintings. In 1951 they were published posthumously under the suggestive title The Fertile Image. Nash had a way of using the camera to preserve those flashes of recognition, or misrecognition, when he saw something extraordinary in nature. A fallen tree resembles a horse. The roots of another tree resemble stone, which in turn resembles Laocoön, the classical Greek sculpture thought by Gotthold Ephraim Lessing to be one of the great works of human civilization. But it’s a dead tree, in a field in Dorset, England, on an indifferent day. Wayward imagination leaps the dull facts of life. Or rather, the dull facts are the essential prompt for the wayward leaps, through the hoop of the camera’s frame.
“Valid photography, like humor, seems to be too serious a matter to talk about seriously. If, in a note it can’t be defined weightily, what it is not can be stated with the utmost finality. It is not the image of Secretary Dulles descending from a plane. It is not cute cats, nor touchdowns, nor nudes; motherhood; arrangements of manufacturers’ products. Under no circumstances is it anything, ever, anywhere near a beach.”
These words were used as a wall text in an exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art, no less. In truth, Evans adored the coast. He was a keen swimmer and made pictures near beaches throughout his career. So why put a distance between the beach and ‘valid photography’? Perhaps it was the ever-present lure of the cliché, the beach as stage set for organized pleasure and populist photographic ritual. But not all beaches are like that, and none of them are like that all the time. Or perhaps Evans had in mind the clichés of the camera club: sunsets over deserted coves, crashing waves, the child’s forgotten sandal at dusk. While it is true that clichés are truths worn out by use, invariably they cluster around those things that are not so easy to comprehend. The clichés of the beach are there to tame something wild and profound, but they never really achieve it: even when we are sat on the sand with family, friends and ice cream, something in us senses great planetary forces, beheld in our insignificance.
And so David Batchelder continues to pick over his beach, Beckett-like, never knowing quite what will be encountered. Indeed, this book may turn out to be a snapshot, a record of his project at this moment only. The images continue to accumulate, thanks in part to the ease of the digital camera. He writes:
“The very large number of images I have been able to make, made possible by the ease of digital imaging, has been critical to my being able to break free of the quotidian view of the beach. I had made hundreds of prints of the beach… a lifetime of photographs in the film era, before I was truly free of the forces of memory and subconscious seeing that are naturally at work […] Would Edward Weston’s vision of Point Lobos have grown into a landscape beyond his early conceptions had he been able to make many thousands of photographs there, if the digital had allowed? […] What would Frederick Sommer have discovered in the landscape of his vision, had he not been held back by such a cumbersome, emulsion-based process? What if he had been able to readily make thousands of images of the desert rather than a few dozen?”
Of course, one always can argue that labor and cost exert the necessary discipline on an artist, without which the art soon gets flabby. But the digital is with us and we must work with the new possibilities and pressures it exerts. More to the point what interests Batchelder is precisely what lies beyond discipline, beyond rationality:
“My ability to see has grown because I have been able to make and see many thousands of photographs, nearly two thousand proof prints and 1200 finished prints. My vision has grown as a result. I see so many interesting things in the sand now that were there before, but beyond my vision.”
That is a humble confession. It is also a generous invitation. These are photographs for your vision. And beyond.