by Jody Zellen
(Craig Krull Gallery, Santa Monica) Although there are photographers today working in the tradition of Ansel Adams and Wynn Bullock, according to photographer James Fee that tradition of documenting the landscape is dead. "The beauty we find now has to be a different kind of beauty," he states. "Photography should reflect the present. . .I see the world as a darker, more mysterious place."
Fee's exquisitely printed, toned black and white photographs are poetic fragments on both the urban and the natural landscape. He is a wanderer and a traveler, photographing what he sees wherever he goes. In Photographs of America, an earlier 1994 series, Fee photographed that which reflected "our brutality to the landscape." He documented abandoned buildings, and the detritus of urban life, creating beautiful pictures where the central image pops out of a gritty and dark background.
In Photographs of America, Fee was interested in the "process of photographing change." In his new series, Road, he continues to investigate the process of decay and how both the natural and the urban landscape has eroded over time. Using the metaphor of the road, these photographs express both the freedoms and the confines of travel. They represent "the open road" as well as the "road to nowhere."
The photographs in the exhibition are all square, toned black and white images that range in size from 8x8 inches to 40x40 inches. The shift in size from intimate to mural scale drastically changes the impact of the work. On a small scale the photographs are intimate and poetic. When they are big, they become more ominous and threatening.
Identified only by a place and date among the many photographs on view are pictures from Lowell, Massachusetts and Hannibal Missouri. The references to Kerouac and Twain are not coincidental. Fee is interested in the literature and the language of the road. He is a traveler on the road of life. The life that Fee records is a series of fragments, unconnected places and people-less environments. The works are dramatically lit and carefully framed. They are at once recognizable and mysterious. That city. . .that building. . .it must be. . .but is it? How did he get that building at that angle? There is a picture of the endless road fading off in the distance.
This clichéd image, as photographed by Fee, includes a lone cactus interrupting the frame. The focus is on the foreground, and the textured dirt, rather than on infinity. Snowy factory towns are framed through the trees. Ships are photographed beached on the shore. Signs lead to nowhere. They point off the frame towards the unknown. Fee has photographed abandoned cars and abandoned homes. Yet who were the inhabitants of this world? A silhouetted figure appears in the street, surrounded by the dark and encroaching buildings. The figure has nowhere to run, nowhere to hide.
Signposts glow, building towers loom in an undefined space, the process of industrialization lurks. The where is less important to Fee than the feeling the image evokes. Whether it is a photograph of a sinking ship or an empty street, Fee's images refer to the notion of abandonment, of a time gone by, of an unpopulated world where nature and architecture coexist. Cars, boats and factories are all placed within the city, his frame of reference.
There is a dream-like quality to all of Fee's work. Often the photographs are out of focus or soft, and the negatives are stained to give the illusion of age. Yet they are images of the here and now. They represent the journey along the open road, a journey that looks critically at what we have done to our environment. These photographs document that truth, albeit a manipulated one. They represent an aspect of our world that is simultaneously beautiful and ominous.