Since the beginning of photography, few subjects have provided such reliable drama as the world's oceans and sands. Ever shape-shifting, they are the ultimate symbols of time's vast earthly canvas, nature's indifference, and man's insignificance in the face of eternity. Yet beyond--or perhaps in spite of--their metaphysical dimension, the oceans, beaches and deserts of the world have also been ideal photographic backdrops for figural and architectural studies that affirm the human form and spirit at play, at rest, and determined to leave some lasting imprint.
As the photos in this exhibit make abundantly clear, the best photographers keep rising to the challenge of fixing in time the unfixable fluidity and impermanence of these two elemental forms. For even the calmest ocean vista is a study in ceaseless change that the photographer manages to freeze, poetically, yet with no illusion of capturing more than a moment's--at best, a day's--weather. Likewise, great photographic images of sand dunes, represented in this exhibit by the likes of Brett Weston, are studies in the purest monumentality, in natural, wind-crafted architecture, studies that insist on the fleetingness of their subjects as the very source of their aesthetic power.
Indeed, the countless tourist and early formal photographs of Egypt's pyramids and great Sphinx--memorializing stony monuments in the sands of time--serve well enough as visual metaphors, modern stand-ins for what the poet Shelley had already immortalized in words a century before the photographic era ("Round the decay/of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare/the lone and level sands stretch far away," from "Ozymandias").
The images in this exhibit, on the other hand, oppose any cheapening or sentimentalizing of the sight of water or silica, refusing to court cliché where lesser photographers have done little else.
Instead, the photographs of, for example, Emmanuel Souguez or Percy Loomis Sperr, both from the 1930s, amid the first flush of large-format photographic modernism, chart the abstract beauty of ocean and sky, creating tours de force of tone, composition and painstaking exposure in the course of opening our eyes to the sheer power of natural phenomena. And camera masters diverse as Edweard Muybridge in the 1870s, and Michael Philip Manheim, a century later, would explore similar confluences of water and coastal rock in crafting artful, detailed portraits of the tides.
Where the human intersects the elemental, these photographs offer tremendous variety --from the surreal narratives of a postmodern genius such as Arthur Tress to the dottings and silhouettes of South Vietnamese figures in the sandy landscapes of Van Huyn. In between, modernists such as Helen Leavitt and the playful eye of Monsieur X were quick and candid in capturing the human form happily at play on the beaches of the 20th century.
And stark, atmospheric studies of sea and sand, or of boats in majestic moonlight, are unforgettably achieved by such artists as A. Aubrey Bodine, Stanko Abadzic, and Mitch Dobrowner. In all, these images are sure and straightforward in their goals, yet touched with all the complexity and refinement we expect of first-rate photography.