Thomas Carr Photography


Photographer revitalizes notion of Romanticism By Judith Reynolds Special to the Herald , May 21, 2004 Just when you thought you had seen every possible photographic interpretation of the Southwest, along comes Thomas Carr. Over the last decade, the staff archaeologist for the Colorado Historical Society has emerged with a quiet yet unconventional view. "Presence within Abandonment" is a perfect title for Carr's exhibition now on display at the Center of Southwest Studies. Seventy square-format, black-and-white images present views of Western archaeological sites, abandoned mining camps, overgrown schoolhouses, empty interiors and darkened stairwells. If this sounds like Romanticism revisited, you're right. Carr, 39, has revitalized a photographic tradition that lies between documentary realism and expressionism. And he has done so in a fresh way. Although few figures inhabit the photographs, a palpable sense of life permeates every image. Human presence can be felt in a fading pictograph, an abandoned boarding house or a thin wire fence pathetically running across an open prairie. After this efflorescence sinks in, what is most striking is the absence of brilliant sunshine. A brooding darkness hovers over most of Carr's subjects. He prefers to shoot on overcast days, and if it's sunny, he darkens clear skies in the printing process. Overall, Carr works in the lower range of the gray scale. His is not the more common bright-to-brilliant mode of many Western photographers. Carr honors the great Ansel Adams by using the master's technical approach, the zone system. But you won't find one knockoff of Adams' bravura style - billowing clouds, sweeping mountain vistas, or that tell-tale shaft of light signifying a transcendent view of nature. Carr shows none of Adams' heroic bombast. As an archaeologist, Carr also generally avoids strict documentation. He has included a few somewhat sterile images for contrast, most notably a pedestrian full-frontal view of Cliff Palace, the most famous ruin in Mesa Verde. Look nearby to see Carr's meta message in "Spruce Tree House." Here human presence is evoked in a little underground space barely tipped by sunlight. Another pair demonstrates a similar contrast: "Animas Forks" pictures the Walsh House sitting on its barren hillside. Nearby a starkly symmetrical interior view out the bay windows gives us "framed" nature. "Grand Staircase, Hotel Meade" suggests one of Carr's photographic influences: Eugene Atget. Paris is a long way from Bannock, Montana, but across a century and an ocean, Atget's and Carr's silent staircases possess a similar sense of vanished human presence. Carr said in a telephone interview this week that he learned technique from Adams' genius and filtered Atget's artistic sensibility into his own portrayal of the Western landscape. Both influences are obvious to the careful observer. Carr's most dramatic push into artistic interpretation can be seen in a small, unassuming image of another stairwell. "Ludlow Death Pit, Las Animas County, Colorado" is seen from the bottom in total blackness looking up to light at the top of the stairs. Because of Carr's interest in the historical meaning of every site, he's provided excellent labels and reminds us of the Ludlow Massacre of 1914. Two women and 11 children died in a cellar when a government militia set fire to the striking miners' quarters. A companion photograph gives us a stark, above-ground picture of barren trees at the site. But it's the staircase photograph that brings the human story to the heart. This is a rich show technically and emotionally. Carr gives us a new take on our shared Southwestern landscape, something far afield from postcard optimism. Judith Reynolds is a freelance writer who specializes in the arts. Reach her through Herald voice mail: 247-3504.