PORTRAITS OF THE ARCHITECTURAL LANDSCAPE
One of the great services of photography is to increase our awareness of the world around us. Paul Lurie embraces our awareness f the world around us. Paul Lurie embraces that commitment through his color images of the man-made structures – barns, silos and sheds – that dot the rural landscape of America’s Midwest. Choosing Door County, Wisconsin as his favored site, Lurie shows us how we can appreciate the beauty and power of ordinary things that we most often ignore when we speed past them on the highway.
With its capability of rendering object and environment in precise detail, photography can – in the best cases – show us views and aspects of things that we would and could never see otherwise. Once a gifted photographer has revealed the beauty and significance of something that we have seen a thousand times, yet have persistently overlooked, we return to it for the rest of our lives with a new and more perceptive vision.
Photographers who undertake the project of redeeming the neglected – one of Lurie’s influences, Aaron Siskind, called his version of it “redeeming the ruins” – are meditative in their practice. They generally prefer to shoot alone and take time with their subjects, settling into an experience of concentrated presence. Lurie is no exception to this rule; he takes his photographs in the solitude of early morning, when he can give himself over t the sensuousness of land and sky. When he comes upon a suitable subject, he enters into a relation with it as it stands in the environment, looking at it from different angles until he finds a way to represent it in its individuality. In Lurie’s words, his photographs are “portraits.”
Lurie puts technique at the service of his photographic aims. In order to capture the structural power of his subjects, he uses a Hasselblad Xpan 35mm panoramic camera, which doubles the frame of his images, permitting him to give his subjects a sweep that enhances their significance for the eye. In order to inform his subjects with bold lucidity, Lurie scans his photographs into the computer and makes inkjet prints of them that have graphic precision and saturated color. Lurie is a straight photographer, but he is also aware that photographic vision is not ordinary perception, but is sensitive to every technical choice. He has developed a practice that combines harmoniously his basic orientation of free meditation and the technical discipline that is required for realizing the fruits of meditation in images.
Lurie’s genre is the architectural landscape, which sets up a play between man-made structure and material environment that is reconciled within the comprehending structure of the photographic image. The range of possibilities for the architectural landscape is bounded on one side by images in which the building dominates the scene and overpowers its surroundings, and on the other by images in which the building is a detail of the scene that merges into enveloping nature. Between those two extremes where Lurie stands – are images in which man-made structure and natural environment are in a reciprocal relation that can enhance each element by opposition or by reinforcement. In Lurie’s case, the reciprocity of culture and nature is complementary – his sense of beauty tends toward harmonious integration rather than stark juxtaposition.
In keeping with Lurie’s understanding that his photographs are portraits, they give the man-made structure the lead or theme, and the environment the supporting role or counter-point. Lurie’s favorite subjects are barns – storage containers, the simplicity of which belies the elegant power of their design. He is interested in the entire range of barn forms, from old wooden ruins, through traditional buildings that are still in use, to the latest shiny steel structures. Lurie treats each of his subjects as a distinct individual, emphasizing its particular visual attraction. A partisan of presence rather than nostalgia or novelty, he takes each subject on its own terms, refraining from projecting sentimental associations on it.
In addition to the technical opportunities for visual effect provided by the panoramic lens, and the inkjet printer, Lurie determines is aesthetic by the season in which he photographs – late summer, when the fields, trees and scrub land have a rich mix of persisting greens and sere browns, tans and golds. This palette, which evokes bittersweet emotions, is given warmth by early-morning light, which endows Lurie’s prints with a restrained brightness that makes their saturated colors more inviting.
Cognizant of all the components of his compositions, Lurie varies his approach to conform to the demands of each of his subjects. In his complex study Broken Barn, the weathered and ramshackle ruin dominates the frame, drawing us into its variegated textures and crazy quilt of ruptures, which are bordered in the foreground by multi-hued brush and above by white puffy clouds suspended in a soft faded blue sky.
In contrast, for Long Red Barn, one of the two enlarged images in his series, Lurie stepped back to place the big, gleaming and immaculate steel structure on a manicured greensward, showing off its sleek industrial form.
Bechtel Barn illustrates yet another approach; the old wooden structure is set back and blends into a complex pattern of vegetation, ranging in tone from deep to faded greens mixed with browns and yellows.
In each case, Lurie has varied scale and angle to accord with his vision of the barn’s individuality in relation to its environments, and is sense of which view of it would bring out its distinctive beauty.
Although a multitude of elements, considerations and decisions factor into Lurie’s compositions, his images evince integrity and consistency of and with purpose. Each environmental portrait stands for itself as a distance and distinctive visual experience that invites us to meditate on its subject, just as the photographer did when he engaged it with thoughtful scrutiny and sensuous pleasure. We cannot see it exactly as he did, because we are looking at an image that has been created through stages, but we can recapture what he grasped of its significance.
Michael A. Weinstein