The two photographers in the exhibit “Landscapes” at Howard Community College offer decidedly different viewpoints. Larry Chatman has a series that provides a street-level look at distressed urban areas, while Gary Freeburg offers imposingly panoramic views of Alaskan wilderness.
Chatman, who was born in 1951, and Freeburg, three years earlier, professionally came of age at a time when a lot of innovative landscape photography was being done in the United States.
This generation emerged in the 1970s, and it was not looking to take shots of conventionally beautiful scenery. Although photographers including Robert Adams, David Plowden, Lewis Baltz and Peter Goin had distinct subjects and styles, they often had a shared interest in documenting how this country’s wide open spaces were giving way to suburban housing, strip malls and the highways connecting them.
It’s a big country, however, and genuine wilderness still exists. Freeburg dramatically demonstrates this in a black-and-white series done in Aniakchak National Monument in Alaska. Snow-covered mountains, deep canyons, ice floes off of rocky shores and volcanic craters make for an awe-inspiring rugged landscape.
The austere beauty benefits from the photographer working in black-and-white, and, in a generational sense, it prompts one to think of some of the above-mentioned photographers, who also loved stark contrasts.
Chatman works in color for a series titled “Where We Live,” in which he documents urban neighborhoods that have largely emptied out. Abandoned structures often outnumber those still occupied, but life stubbornly goes on.
Such documentary photography deliberately prompts us to think about important economic and racial considerations.
Several of Chatman’s photos depict churches that appear to be struggling to survive. One of the most interesting photos is of a tired-looking street in which a hardware store sits next to a church called The House of Prayer, juxtaposing mundane and spiritual needs being met.
Another shot depicts a church called Love Thy Neighbor Christian Ministry. The name is an ironic reminder that all of Chatman’s photographs are devoid of people.
There are no neighbors to be seen. Most of the people who once lived around here are gone, and even those who presumably remain are absent from the photos themselves.
One of the most haunting of the church-oriented photos depicts the Church of God in Christ. Its door is open, but the metal security grate in front is closed, denying entry to what in any event seems like it might be an abandoned church.
Reinforcing a sense of neglect, a metal utility pole on the street is leaning rather precariously. The houses in other photos are often abandoned and are now being reclaimed by nature. Weeds and vines cover some and they are surrounded by vacant lots.
There is a really striking photo in which an abandoned house sits next to an identically designed house that is still occupied. Not only do people still live there, but they have held onto a sense of dignity. There is a fence around their tidy little front yard. There are potted flowers on the porch, and there’s an American flag hanging against the front wall.
Photos in which commercial structures are featured likewise range from vacant businesses to others that seem to be surviving. Although the exhibited photos do not have identifying labels indicating the city in which they were taken, the telephone area codes on some commercial signage indicate St. Louis.
It’s sad to see a boarded up soul food restaurant, because you think about all of the good meals and good times once enjoyed there. On a more amusing note, what looks like it might be a still-open auto repair shop has a sign in its window advertising that the shop also does computer repair. Anybody who can fix your car and also fix your computer deserves your business!