Eugene Weekly : Visual Art : 9.20.07

Humanity (Or Lack Thereof)
Two mini photo exhibits explore location at the J-Schnitz

I only had to read one line from Frank Miller’s artist statement — “I don’t like most nature photography” — to convince myself to review his photography exhibit, “Trust,” now showing at the Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art. That’s because I don’t blame him; most nature photography is Ansel Adams Lite or, worse, eco-porn — portraying nature as a seductive pleasure ground. The handful of color photos in Miller’s show, all coming from his larger series called “Trust,” are hard to pin down as nature photography. It’s more accurate to call them portraits, but portraits of what?

Trust Sign, Oregon by Frank Miller
Ravaged Building by Roger Marshutz

Well, let’s take stock: crosses, flags, abandoned cars, powerlines, fences, blackberry bushes, clearcut hillsides, Trust Jesus signs, impromptu art installations, etc. Call it roadside ephemera with an American West tilt. Shot along roads in Oregon, Washington and Nevada, Miller’s landscape imagery is cast in bleak winter light: dull, gray and slightly menacing. (When Miller mentions in his artist statement that he feels at home in “gray areas,” he means it in many ways.)

But perhaps “bleak” is too strong a word. There’s great familiarity to these scenes — Westerners pass by them all the time but hardly acknowledge them. Miller takes notice using a tilt-shift selective focusing technique that only casts a narrow strip of the photo in focus, used to best effect in a photo like Tree, Nevada, which depicts a dismembered oak tree strewn with boots and shoes on its remaining branches. While the tilt-shift effect creates a swirling motion, evoking a swing carousel ride at a carnival, the empty shoes recall the ghosts of homesteaders who once populated the West, or those who still do.

The absence of people, of human warmth, gives the show a sense of pessimistic dread. The only print Miller “warmed up” is Trust Sign, Oregon, which he gave a light magenta tint. Miller also burned out the word “Jesus” in order to emphasize “Trust” in the Trust Jesus sign, but it comes across as overt manipulation not in keeping with the rest of the show’s untouched quality.

Ribbon, Washington, the only photo to hint at a blue sky (a glimmer of optimism!), features a waterlogged pasture, barbed fences and huge powerline towers — all indicating this is flyover (or drive-over) country. Nothing important is happening here. Nature, in Miller’s photos, is just somewhere to cross, to mark or to let be.

In contrast to Miller’s ghostly landscapes, Roger Marshutz’s collection, “Aftermath: Postwar Photographs of Busan (1952-54),” are brimming with humanity. Busan, now South Korea’s second largest metropolis (and current contender for the 2020 Summer Olympics), was devastated by the Korean War. But thanks to the city’s resistance to North Korean Communist occupation, the U.N. presence in Busan remained strong during the war, and reconstruction efforts began there before anywhere else on the peninsula.

Marshutz, enlisted to document these efforts for the Public Information Office of the U.S. Army, found extra time to wander Busan and snap photos at his leisure. What he captured was an urban population transitioning from the collective war effort to a more individual path: selling goods, providing services (such as fortune telling) or just wandering around in awe as life changed with each passing day.

The American footprint in Busan was massive and included more than just soldiers. Marshutz captured Koreans selling American products — Dole canned pineapple bits, Baby Ruth candy bars, Ritz crackers, Hershey’s chocolate, Pall Mall cigarettes — and flirting with G.I.s outside the “Paradise Café.” Counting cash has a man selling zippers, leather shoes and other miscellany just trying to eek out a living, relearning the ropes of capitalism after the brief threat of communism.

While Miller takes roadside photos, Marshutz prefers the urban street, capturing vivid snapshots as he explores what must have been an exotic and uplifting scene around every corner. Despite its clunky composition, Ravaged building is the centerpiece of the show for its obvious symbolism. Koreans, in the shadow of a formerly glorious building reduced to a shell, toil in the rubble. They are literally starting from scratch.

The pieces in this show are digital prints from 35 mm negatives and slides. This reproduction process works well in the black and white prints, but unfortunately the color prints lose resolution and clarity in the transfer, especially in the multicolored Girl selling snacks. An artist’s lecture by Marshutz was canceled, unfortunately, but you can still hear Frank Miller give a talk at 2 pm Sunday, Sept. 30 at the JSMA.

“Trust” runs through Sept. 30; “Aftermath” through Nov. 26.