22 January – 25 May 2015

American and Norwegian fine art photography are closely related. The Crossroads exhibition investigates this relationship by displaying a number of works by Norwegian, American and American-Norwegian photographers. Its starting point is the Norwegian photographer Anders Beer Wilse’s production in Seattle, before he started working in Norway. Wilse’s long stay in Seattle was a crossroads and, in this exhibition, Wilse’s photographs function as signposts in the Norwegian and American landscapes.

Suggestions of signs

CROSSROADS – from Watkins to Wilse from Wilse to Welling
22 January – 25 May 2015

I

American and Norwegian fine art photography are closely related. The Crossroads exhibition investigates this relationship by displaying a number of works by Norwegian, American and American-Norwegian photographers. Its starting point is the Norwegian photographer Anders Beer Wilse’s production in Seattle, before he started working in Norway. Wilse’s long stay in Seattle was a crossroads and, in this exhibition, Wilse’s photographs function as signposts in the Norwegian and American landscapes.

Anders Beer Wilse (1865 – 1949) is perhaps Norway’s most famous photographer, but he ran a large business in Seattle before he started working as a photographer in Norway in 1900. His production in the US and later in Norway is the exhibition’s jumping off point. It looks at how Wilse is placed at an intersection between American and Norwegian photography, one characterised by a pragmatic approach to photography – through the documentation of nature and culture – but also as a source of aesthetic experiences.

Photography by famous Norwegian and American artist articulates a strikingly similar approach to Norwegian and American art and culture, to urban life and rural life and to centre and periphery. They display an almost religious relationship to nature, as a place for mental and physical cleansing, at the same time as the landscape is also a place for aesthetic experiences. In tourism, the same natural world is used as the foundation of new businesses.

The selection of photographs is based on how Wilse worked when he was a photographer in Seattle. He depicted society at a moment of change, developing away from an economy based on primary businesses and towards modern industrialism. At the same time, the indigenous Native Americans were being removed and put on reservations. Wilse’s photographs of the US in the 1890s document these social changes in a way that places him in an American tradition, spanning from the great nature photographer Carleton Watkins to a postmodernist such as James Welling. This is a tradition that is equally occupied by aesthetic image production as it is by pure documentation.

Wilse’s photographic art also points towards postmodernism; his photography belongs to a tradition that regards documentation of the motif as part of the photograph’s being, or ontology. On this basis, a manipulated photograph is type of cheating with “reality”.

As an archive, the collections of photographs left by Wilse are an extensive, complete material. Many photographers have worked on investigating underlying structures and a visual grammar based on this exploration. Finally, the exhibition shows several similar projects, including photographer James Welling’s investigation of traditions for documenting railways; Wilse worked with this type of photography in the US. Welling’s photographic project on this theme is owned by Lillehammer University College, where it arrived as part of the art purchases associated with the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics.

 

II

In the early 20th century, photographic art moved from imitating the salon paintings of the 1800s to an independent art form. To achieve this independence, photography had to pay homage to the specific qualities of photography and not imitate painting. The best possible neutral, careful reproduction of the motif was the ideal for photography from the early 1900s, and then developed into what was practically a standard for fine at photography. Alfred Stieglitz (1864-1946) represents this understanding of fine art photography and this objective approach to the subject has had a great influence of Norwegian post-war photography. This applies to both the social-documentary genre and to landscape photography.

The documentary approach to photography was raised to the level of high art by the photographer Walker Evans, who was the first photographer to have a solo show at the Museum of Modern Art. In Norwegian photography we have a number of photographers who have worked in extension of this, where the three Norwegian-Americans Robert Robinson, Dan Young and Jamie Parslow are central figures.

 

III

American and Norwegian landscape photography has a shared approach to nature, in which nature is a source of renewal, recreation and meditation, and a natural resource that can be apportioned to achieve financial profit. Photographers have found aesthetic challenges in all forms of nature, not only in those regarded as beautiful.

After the 1960s, we can talk about the artists’ approach to nature, in which depicting changes and alterations in the landscape due to urbanisation become a central theme. A number of the photographs in the exhibition depict this as a new hybrid of urbanisation and nature. A social landscape, in which little has been touched by human hand, even if it never looks wild and natural. In American photography, this approach is represented by Robert Adams, Lewis Baltz and Ed Ruscha, among others. In Norwegian photography there is a whole generation of photographers with their backgrounds in the 1970s and 80s who worship this means of approach to nature and photography.

Øivind Storm Bjerke
Exhibition curator, professor at IFIKK, UiO

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