A woman watering her lawn can be slightly sexy, but a silver butane tank can change a man's life.

John Divola, a photographer in chase of the sublime, discerned this as a graduate student in a ponytail, peddling his bicycle and taking pictures of tract houses and women with hoses, snippets of suburbia in the morning light. It was the shine of a butane tank, however, that led him into an abandoned house with a can of silver paint and a new way, at least for him, of infusing the artist into his work.

He painted shapes on walls. Black and white spots followed. The images left the viewer wondering: Who did this? Why? The pictures linked the photographer with his subject as if the two were at work on a deft conspiracy. Divola's photography — he has a multipart retrospective running in Los Angeles, Santa Barbara and Claremont — leaves the impression that he is in or has just left the frame.

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His photographs and conceptual art are organic to Southern California — beaches, deserts, cities, mountains, the tug of light and at times a desolation playing amid a land of endless reinvention where human bonds can be provisional and many define themselves through the parade of popular culture. Divola's work is a pause in the noise, an escape from the clamor.

He never expected to make a living from photography. What he was after, he said, was to tell himself on his deathbed that he'd found "something enriching ... a meaningful engagement" with the world. His tones and spatial dimensions instill a sadness, a longing to capture a beauty, whether a saltbox house at dusk or a black dog chasing a car, that to him remains evocatively elusive.

"I want [my photographs] to be seductive, but they're also about unattainable desire," he has said.

A tall man with a rumpled air, Divola, 64, has a long face and a gravelly, soothing voice, the kind one hears on the radio while driving across Nebraska in the pitch of night. His silver-brown hair is thick, almost plume-like; wrinkles arc back from his eyes, his hands are in no particular hurry. On the aging artist, he said, "You get older and you become a caricature of yourself.... It's almost impossible to transcend it."

He said of the retrospective: "I don't look at it as a summing up, but it's an ambitious presentation of my work.... I'm delighted."

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The son of an aeronautical engineer and a literature major, he speaks in sentences that can shift from "I'm inherently philosophical and interested in the existential" to "You're out there in the desert knocking around on a dirt road." He wonders if we can ever articulate what's within and without us, what we see, feel, experience.

'Complexity of experience'

Minutes earlier, Divola sat over coffee at a Venice café and told the man taking notes across the table: "I don't trust the abstract nature of language. You're going to write about this and it will be a bunch of words ... but it's not the thing. The complexity of experience cannot be manifest in language or really in a photograph."

Among his most characteristic works over the last four decades are "Zuma," which cataloged the months-long deterioration of an abandoned beach house used by firefighters for training; "Dogs Chasing My Car in the Desert," a collection of blurry and sharp images describing just what the title promises; "Isolated Houses," a series of single-room homes ("painted in Home Depot colors") that conjure lives and structures blending into yet simultaneously defiant of landscape; and "As Far as I Could Get," a collection that depicts Divola sprinting away — as if an aberration — from a camera set to click after 10 seconds.

There's a relentless quality to the man and his work. "For whatever reason I've become obsessed with this process," said Divola, an art professor at UC Riverside. He added that teaching keeps him focused and in context: "It's good to be around people who see it [photography] as a reasonable enterprise when everyone in the neighborhood may think it's ridiculous."

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In his review of the new shows, Times art critic Christopher Knight wrote that a "quietly emotional undercurrent is one element that distinguishes Divola's art from contemporaneous work of such photographers as Lewis Baltz and Joe Deal, who also charted the human transformation of the modern industrial era and suburban landscape. Photographically, California had long been characterized by the epic work of Ansel Adams, pictorial poet of Yosemite. These and other artists pulled the plug on that."

Counterculture influences

Among Divola's earlier influences was a cadre of 1960s-inspired counterculture friends at Chatsworth High School in the San Fernando Valley. "One of them lived a whole year without touching money. He made us pies," he said. "They were a group of very interesting people. I was the more conservative among them. I've always privileged logic."

After receiving a bachelor's degree from Cal State Northridge, Divola, who uses a range of equipment including a digital SLR and an 8-by-10 view camera, entered the master's degree program at UCLA. He studied with Robert Heinecken, whose unconventionality stripped away the aura of sanctity around photographs, urging artists to intervene to depict the crassness of a society inured to commercialism.