Annotated Grandeur at Foothill Galleries
Greg Donley’s photos of awe-inspiring places beg for consideration from several different perspectives. They’re compelling for their content, of course, which comprises some of the most sensational geography on the planet. But their form is inescapable, defining, and a really potent way of getting to the point. A collection of them are on view in Annotated Grandeur, March 13 – May 10, 2019 at Foothill Galleries of the Photo Succession.
Landscape travel photos like this have been a long-running pursuit for Donley. This particular collection includes images from the New River Gorge in West Virginia, Bryce Canyon, The Grand Canyon, The Niagra River, and a few other places.
The images are 6 inches tall, but the widest measure just shy of 10 feet, which is nearly twenty times as wide as they are high: a long way from the “golden mean.” But through that extreme form, they take up the challenge of communicating the huge experience of the landscapes they represent, and they comment on the difference between looking at pictures and being there, and the impossibility of taking it all in through the window of a lens. The images are photo montages, overlaying several dozen digital photos with a degree of transparency and creating the effect of double exposure, repeated all the way across each image.
With their patchwork quality and Donley’s annotations–a mix of fact and commentary, which you can only read by getting up close—they also relate to the function of memory, and the way artists –especially photographers—use their work as memoir.
The annotations serve as a kind of tour guide for the visitors, and perhaps add another layer of memoir for the artist. They include straightforward information, such as the specific elevations of cliffs, or the amount of time measured in the years that a river took to cut a canyon to its current depth, or the fact that at Horseshoe Falls in the Niagara River all the water from the Great Lakes falls over the edge of the Niagara Falls (“right here!”), or compelling details of several incidents in which daredevils attempted to go over the falls in barrels and other similar vessels (Charles Stephens, 1920, in a 600 pound oak barrel. Only his right arm was recovered.). The annotations also editorialize about the situation in the way that tourists might appropriately marvel (“Holy shit!”), or otherwise communicate the urgency of being in the moment (“Sorry, I can’t talk right now”).
That extreme horizontal shape is a form Donley invented for himself in an attempt to capture broad landscapes by printing an entire roll of film as a single image. The genesis of this project was at an antique store on Larchmere, where he found an old medium-format, manual camera that used rolled film. Donley started randomly advancing the film and taking pictures to capture wider landscapes—at first shooting straightforward panoramas, with each image capturing one-eighth of 360 degrees. He set up long trays in his basement to process the film and print the entire roll at once on a single, long sheet of paper.
After those first experiments, though, he turned gradually to digital media–first by scanning analog pictures to combine them, and before long shooting the pictures digitally, even sometimes with a phone, and combining them that way, too—but sticking with the extremely wide format, and its allusion to the idea of printing an entire roll of film as a single image.
The shape makes some questions inevitable: how does form affect creation, and how does it inform the work that results? A lot of people first encounter the idea of artistic form when they study poetry and are assigned to create a haiku, or a limerick or a sonnet. In those cases it is hard to get beyond the idea that creation within a form is about making something fit into the shape with satisfactory grace.
In the case of Donley’s photos, though, form is less a restriction than a means of amplification: their overwhelming horizontal nature implicitly notes the vast scale of what they attempt to capture, and a makes comment on the futility of doing justice to such landscapes with photography.
The shape creates some challenges in the presentation, and thinking about those continues the exploration of what the dimensions of this form mean. Printed at their full width on any conventional page–whether in a magazine or on the screen you are using to read this – these photos would be perhaps half an inch tall or less, and impossible to appreciate or even understand. But cropped so as to present detail—enough to make the text legible, for example—the grandeur of the expanse is lost. That in itself becomes a commentary on the enormity of their subject. Just as photos can’t do the Grand Canyon justice, there’s just about no medium in which these could be reproduced so that they can be appreciated. Donley’s website solves the problem to some degree with a Flash player presentation that allows zooming in and scrolling along full width, but even that emphasizes the point: You can’t see it all at once. The best solution is to go see the works themselves.
Annotated Grandeur: new photomontages by G.M. Donley
Foothill Galleries of the Photo Succession
2450 Fairmount Blvd., Suite M291
Cleveland Heights, Ohio 44106