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Frank Gohlke's World in Black and White (and sometimes color)
February 18, 2009

Frank Gohlke

Frank Gohlke, Chemical Brook enters the Sudbury River, Ashland, Massachusetts, December 1991, Chromogenic development print, Collection of the artist, © 1991 Frank Gohlke

On Thursday evening, January 29, photographer Frank Gohlke presented Stories in the Dirt, Stories in the Air, a program of selected readings followed by conversation with American Art's Curator of Photography, Toby Jurovics. The exhibition of Gohlke's work, Accommodating Nature, is on view at the museum through March 3.

Early in his talk, Gohlke gave us a glimpse into the artist as a young man in the 1950s, taking delight from the back seat of his family's car as it made its way through Wichita Falls. The fleeting world outside the window as the car moved rapidly through the countryside gave Gohlke his first taste of an ever-changing landscape.

Flash forward to the 1970s and Gohlke was part of a groundbreaking exhibition of landscape photography called New Topographics: Photographs of a Man-altered Landscape. The exhibition was seen in only three venues and apparently had an extremely thin catalogue, but the show made a major impact on how landscape photography was made and understood from that point forward. The show was the anithesis of both traditional black-and-white landscape photography as well as the dramatic photographs favored by the Sierra Club, which turn up the volume on the natural world. Referring to the sometimes unexpected and even mundane landscapes that appear in his work, Gohlke explained, "Part of the reason they're interesting to me is that nobody paid attention to them. I'd rather not go around with my eyes closed. I want to look at it all."

Gohlke’s reading was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience. It began with a question from the curator, who brought up a statement Gohlke had made several years ago when he spoke of landscape photographs being ultimately about loss. Yet at the same time, this seemed opposed to the way the camera can bring structure and order to a landscape, particularly the chaotic places where Gohlke has often found himself—in his home town of Wichita Falls after it was hit by a massive tornado, or Mount St. Helens following its eruption in 1980. The lively conversation that followed pointed to the complex nature of photography—that it often answers more than one question at a time, and that each of us brings our own set of experiences and expectations when we view an image.

An audience member questioned Gohlke's use of both black-and-white and color film, and was curious about how he decided which to use. "When I became a photographer there were only two colors, black and white. Color was a commercial medium. That changed in the 1970s when color became the new black and white. I just didn't want to jump on any bandwagon." That relationship changed later in the 1970s, he noted, and after spending four years photographing the heavy, gray landscapes of Mount St. Helens, Gohlke switched to color film as a way of taking a fresh look at the landscape. Today he shoots in both black and white and color, explaining that he approaches each medium differently. “I really love working with a view camera,” he noted, explaining that he processes each sheet of large-format film himself. With color film he uses a smaller format roll-film camera and sends the film to a commercial lab, which returns contact sheets of all of his images. Both the camera and the film choice affect how he sees the world and the kinds of images he makes: “I’ve got the best of both worlds.”

Throughout the evening, Gohlke's images were projected on a large screen. For a moment you could imagine that you were looking out of a car window with the ever-changing landscape passing by.

Posted by Howard on February 18, 2009 in Lectures on American Art


Wow, what an experience that must of been. I just saw an exhibit featuring some of Frank Gohlke's work. I would love to have the opportunity to ask him questions about why he chooses to shoot certain things. At least from your experience I know why he likes black and white.

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