Tuesday, July 19, 2011
Dana Mueller on One One Thousand
The New Orleans-based fine art photography ezine One One Thousand is featuring at the moment the work of Dana Mueller, a Massachusetts-based photographer whose journey as an artist has taken her from cold war East Germany to Boston, Massachusetts and now to a cotton field in rural North Carolina, near Elizabeth City.
Mueller's portfolio is called The Devil's Den, and it is so rich in strong images and yet so rife with conceptual ironies as to be worthy of some serious reflection about photography as an artistic medium at the present moment.
Let's just say up front that photography is a complex medium of artistic practice that in its fullest sense combines artistic intention, technical skill in realization, social structures of presentation, and an audience for its reception that is a mix of personal history and taste as well as a socially-constructed understanding (or understandings) of what constitutes art and history and culture. Individual images reside at the intersection of all these elements, and we make meaning of them by responding to them or bringing them together in our own experience.
Now lets consider the image above, an image shot in a cotton field in eastern North Carolina sometime in the late spring, on an overcast day, when the leaves of the cotton plant are lush and green, when the blossoms of the cotton plant are just coming into bloom.
This is an elegantly maintained cotton field. There are no weeds in the white earth that separates the rows of cotton.
My guess is, looking at the pristine surface of these cotton plants, that it has recently rained, and the rain has washed away the dust that swirls up from that white earth in cotton fields like this one, and perhaps also washed away the traces of the insecticide that has been sprayed on these plants to protect them from the boll weevil and other destructive insects that would make the practice of cotton farming even more hazardous and risky than it usually is.
Soon the blossoms will turn into the fruit of the cotton plant, the cotton bolls that will contain the seed, and the plant will surround them with a hard husk that will burst with white fibers that today will eventually be harvested by a mechanized cotton picker, run through a gin that will separate the seeds and husk of the cotton boll from the fibers and and the fibers will be collected and sent off to cotton mills that will turn the fibers into cloth, perhaps curtains or upholstery, or perhaps clothing, perhaps blue jeans, perhaps shirts or pants or coats, or perhaps even flags that symbolize national and cultural identity.
But that time is some months off in this image, which exists now at a moment of seeming tranquility, from which signs of time's passage are mostly absent from the plants themselves, locating them in a kind of timeless place, an image made up of lines and shapes and organization and color. Except for the poles sticking up against the overcast sky that remind us there is electricity in this landscape, one can easily imagine this image being made anytime in the past 250 or 300 years.
Formally considered, this is an elegant image, with lots of compositional things working for it, with the rows of uniform green divided -- and complemented by -- the whiteness of the rows of soil that divide them and enriched by the whiteness of the occasional blossom, a whiteness that will be picked up in the whiteness of the house on the horizon line.
The photographer has placed the camera at a point in the cotton field so that the rows of cotton plants draw us in from the surface of the image into the field, and through the field to the grove of trees toward the rear of the image, where the trees to some degree will shelter the house they surround from the merciless Southern summer sun.
But of course not the workers. There is no shelter for the workers. If you are from "around here," you know this is the "land of cotton," and so this image comes as a haunted landscape, a landscape populated by the ghosts of slaves who were bought and compelled to work this land, to grow cotton, to chop the weeds and tend the plants and to do the hard, back-breaking labor of picking it and getting it to the gins and the mills. And it is also haunted by the ghosts of their children who worked this land in their day, in the day of Jim Crow, on this land haunted by its past.
Especially it is haunted by those ghosts because it comes to us in a portfolio called The Devil's Den. Because -- whatever else the phrase "Devil's Den" might mean to Mueller or someone else -- around here the Devil's Den is a place near Gettysburg, PA, on the site of a battle which was the high water mark of Southern efforts to defend the right to buy human beings and compel them to work in these fields and to grow and pick this cotton. So the ghosts that haunt this field include the ghosts of the hundreds of thousands of men who died to preserve or to end the practices that once filled fields like this one with the workers who were compelled made it productive.
So that's my context for reception of Mueller's image, and so this image is to me at once a reminder of that past and also a romanticizing of it, an evocation of Southern history and a distancing of us from it, an image that is both evocative of time and yet drained of the dust, the heat, the labor, the grit, the sweat, the agony, the suffering, the rage, that are all fully part of it. Art can evoke; art can distance. Art can enable us to look; art can help us forget.
But here the real ironies start to kick in. For Mueller, this is also a haunted land, but its haunted by a different set of ghosts. What has brought Mueller to this cotton field in eastern North Carolina has nothing to do with Southern history, with the Devil's Den in Pennsylvania, with the tortured legacy of slavery, when cotton was king and life was cheap. Indeed, Mueller imagines labor in this field as a "caring, benign work with the land," which of course means she has never worked in a cotton field, or seen it done.
Mueller comes here on a different trail, on a different journey, following ghosts of a totally different set of horrors and devastation and rampant cruelty. Mueller seeks traces of another war, World War II, and the ghosts of her people, her ancestors, and their legacy of violence, destruction, and genocide. For it turns out that a significant number of Germans were taken prisoner in World War II and were brought to prisoner of war camps in the eastern USA (over 400,000 by the end of the war, it seems), and especially, it seems, in the American South.
Mueller has sought in recent years to find traces of their presence in her adopted country. Her concern has been to address "exile, German identity, memory, history and landscape" by photographing "sites related to the WWII German Prisoner-of-War experience in the US."
As she puts it, "There is an irony where these German soldiers, both high-ranking Nazi officers and foot soldiers, were tilling the fields, cutting the lumber, picking apples, taking care of the American soil. This caring, benign work with the land stands in complete contrast to the horrific actions by Nazis and German soldiers in Eastern Europe of that time, such as Hitler's scorched earth policy."
I'm not sure the German prisoners who worked in the cotton fields fields of eastern North Carolina had caring or benign feelings about that land or their work, but let that pass. What is more intriguing is Mueller's sense of her goal in photographing this landscape. "I wanted," she writes, "to visually evoke the dualities that have characterized the German people over centuries, a people that are capable of both tremendous progress and destruction."
Further, she notes, "Romanticism has played a role in understanding the relationship of Germans to the landscape. In some photographs the land is overgrown appearing in a kind of primal state, suggesting the return to the original forest. It also suggests a fascist aesthetic of purity promoted by pre-war German culture. Innocence and purity can be seen as a natural desire to regress after one has become corrupted."
The ironies multiply. Mueller's images -- when seen by these Southern eyes -- themselves romanticize a landscape haunted by the history of slavery; to her these images foreground the way romanticism promises an escape from one's sense of one's corruption through fantasies of regression into a primal state, escaping into fabrications of innocence and purity.
Well, that's what Southern white folks did after the Civil War, combining fables about the purity of antebellum Southern life with the violence of Jim Crow and the Klan.
We can talk another time about whether (or how) a back story or a concept can elevate the subject matter of a photograph of an ordinary place into something special or unique, but for now, thanks to Dana Mueller for following her relatives to the cotton fields of eastern North Carolina, and for giving us some language and images to think not only about her predicament but ours as well.
And thanks to the folks at One One Thousand who put Mueller's work in their publication and in their editorial remarks on this portfolio remind us of the resonance for Southerners of the phrase Devil's Den but don't try to speculate on why Mueller might have chosen it for the title of her portfolio. Good to help us wonder.