Gallery → Desert Light
This brief essay was written by Morris Berman as the introduction to the book “Desert Light.” The book can purchased, or an eBook downloaded for free, at Blurb.
I met John Trotter in 1967, in Baltimore, when we were both students at Johns Hopkins. Three years later, I was teaching in New Jersey, and John passed through on his way to Rome, where he would live for several weeks. It was during this time that he shot numerous rolls of black and white film; I saw the results a few years later. The photos were extremely realistic, so much so that they seemed to push the edge of something beyond what they actually portrayed. Simple, stark, is the best way to describe them. One, I recall, was of the window of an apartment, a window without any glass. Perhaps it was taken in a poor neighborhood, I don’t know. The photo had a kind of Zen quality to it: the absence that spoke of presence. You knew a life, a drama, went on inside that open window; you didn’t really need to know anything else. Read more...
That being said, I would have to add that the “Italian” photographs were nevertheless of a familiar genre. The best in that genre, to be sure, but certainly not new to the world of art. The same cannot be said of the pictures in Desert Light. The edge that John was pushing forty years earlier had been crossed; he was now seeing the world in a different way. I’m not quite sure how to characterize these shots, but “stark” and “simple” would not be adequate to the task. One might say they are like scenes out of a dream, but even that strikes me as rather prosaic. “Uncanny” probably comes closest to what I want to say here, in the sense that Freud meant it in his famous essay, “Das Unheimliche”—familiar, yet not familiar. Sand dunes that look like water; rocks that feel like they are alive; trees that cannot possibly be blooming in the desert, but are; light and shadow used to create what could be optical illusions; patches of darkness that seem centuries deep. In the case of the “Italian” photos, I would have no trouble describing them to someone else. With Desert Light, I would be reduced to something like, “You just have to see them.” The sand in Death Valley can simultaneously look erotic and have the flavor of the lunar surface. Or one might say that there is often a quality of being primitive and sophisticated at the same time. How a photographer can manage to pull that off, I have no idea.
I am also puzzled by the “aerial” quality of many of these photographs: they look like they were taken from an airplane, flying over the terrain—but they were not. And what is one to make of Plate 53, in which some radical force seems to be pushing up against a membrane, trying to be born? Or No. 25, that evokes the work of Mark Rothko and a stela from ancient Egypt (or is it Babylonia?)? Or No. 15, in which the artist has managed to conjure Brancusi’s bird in flight—or is it a fish?—out of the sand? There is an eye at work here that is startling; I found myself wondering what the streets of Rome would look like now, were John to go back there forty years later, camera in hand.
For that, I guess we’ll have to wait. As for the photos of Desert Light: well, you just have to see them.
©Morris Berman, 2010