In the opening years of the 20th century, around mid point in the Modern Movement, the American realist painter Robert Henri (1865-1929), instructed Edward Hopper along with his other students to be present in their paintings, not to paint what they saw but to paint how they felt about what they saw. A decade or more later Walker Evans read Gustave Flaubert’s (1821-1880), working philosophy: like God in Creation he should be everywhere felt, but nowhere seen. As a result, these two struggling, self-conscious artists became pioneering spirits; champions of the common place, the everyman, the American Scene.
Around 1908, Robert Henri and the Ashcan School Artists started the American tradition of Urban Realism, recording street and social scenes along with the vitality and plight of the working class. Then, around 1910 the metaphysical mood in art started up again, reminiscent of the 1750′s when Romanticism swept the world embracing spirituality, nature and individual consciousness over intellectual reason, industry and progress. The artistic mood shifted from an exterior ‘€œart for art’s sake’€ to an interior “art for life’s sake,” beginning with Giorgio de Chirico’s Metaphysical period, 1910-1920, then the Surrealist Movement’s The Manifesto of Surrealism in 1924, Edward Hopper’s House by the Rail Road in 1925, and culminating in Walker Evans’s documentary ode to three sharecropper families in rural Alabama, Let Us Now Praise Famous Men in 1936. It was a rebirth of self-awareness and psychological consciousness relative to the plight of the everyman, the regular Joe and the common folk caught in the never-ending wheel of progress, politics, industrialization and war.
Since I began photographing out in the landscape a little over a year ago I’ve been paying attention to the metaphysical dimension in nature relative to objects placed or found there. I’m also reading about transcendence and metaphysics as reoccurring themes in art since it seems, the collective conscious time and again reestablishes a bridge back to nature. There is so much historical information, art and writing relative to one man’s inspiration from nature versus another man’s desire to overtake it, including the art of Edward Hopper (1882-1967), the Surrealist Art Movement (1910′s-1960′s), the Hudson River School Painters (1825-1870′s), and the Romantic Movement (1761-1850′s), which includes the poetry of William Wordsworth, (1770-1850).
Metaphysics as a branch of philosophy attempts to explain our relationship to “that which is” the natural world. A perfect analogy came through a description of Wordsworth’s poetry: “observant, meditative and aware of the connection between living things and objects. There is the sense that past, present, and future all mix together in the human consciousness. One feels as though the poet and the landscape are in communion, each a partner in an act of creative production.”
Hopper, Evans, the Hudson River School and William Wordsworth returned time and again to particular types of places or scenes because doing so provided an opportunity to observe ordinary life in relation to “place,” its changing light, the objects placed or found there and the people who went or lived there. They sought the enduring human spirit in bucolic frontier and country settings, in vernacular architecture, in ordinary homes on ordinary streets, in cheap hotels, and roadside America and in everyday objects fashioned by human hand or industry that might make life just a little bit easier, a little bit more interesting, or a little bit more salable. Walker Evans (1903-1975), (my hero), was drawn to “incongruous surreal like street scenes, the poetic resonance of ordinary objects and the battered nobility.”
Last year I began photographing Americana and iconic objects, spending a lot of time at the newer and older Nyack High Schools, photographing the baseball diamond, the track and football field, the architecture and more, in relation to the upper and lower fields, the green clover covered expanses, the receding woodlands, the raking light and the shifting clouds, adding tiny unrecognizable human figures from time to time in a manner used by the Hudson River School, small, insignificant in vast atmospheric landscapes. Sometimes the light is so bright, everything looks surreal, including people. It’s easy to see why Hopper used light for psychological effect. He used it to pay homage to the everyman, who not unlike himself was seeking rejuvenation from the psychological toll of urbanization by spending time in the great out doors, on a window sill or otherwise, basking in the warmth of the sun, the most spiritually and emotionally transforming element in nature. For me, his paintings aren’t so much about loneliness and isolation as they are about contemplation and rejuvenation of the spirit.
My love of raking light and long shadows takes me over to the newer high school in the early evening when rabbits and groundhogs are feeding along the perimeter and the deer begin to exit the woods to graze nearby and further east in locations extending to the riverfront. Joggers jog, walkers walk, teams meet to practice their skills or compete, families come to spend time together and teens gather to hang and exercise with friends. Along the back perimeter a mature tree line runs west to east from upper to lower field divisions. Above the treetops at the eastern end the summit of Hook Mountain is ever present, enclosing the north end of Nyack, separating the Tappan Zee expanse from Haverstraw Bay further north. A part of Nyack’s cultural identity is attached to its serenely imposing form, similar to the metaphysical component the Hudson River School attached to their landscapes.
Alison Perry’s photographs will be on display at Johnnycakes Restaurant, 84 Main Street in Nyack, during the month of September.
A thematic set of images about ordinary life and maybe a hint of the metaphysical realm is beginning to take shape as older ideas get fleshed out and new possibilities present themselves. Since it’s important to unify objects to the landscape I pay attention to spatial relationships. In order to do that I render the scale of objects proportionally to the ground and backdrop, or pictorial space. The 35mm format and the lens determine the pictorial space, making it important to choose the right focal length. Wide-angle lenses generally decrease the size of objects, but increase the angle of view, while telephoto lenses increase the size of objects but decrease the angle of view. The former is traditionally used for landscape, the latter for close-ups and portraiture. Most 35mm cameras now have a built in grid overlay that can be accessed to help divide the field of vision into two equal horizontal rows of thirds. Based on the rule of thirds or the golden mean, a system dating back to antiquity, it helps one divide and proportion objects in space. A lot of artists continue to use the rule of thirds as standard practice, but not all. Long before the turn of the 20th century, the Modern Art Movement completely redefined the visual aesthetic, but then again, relative to art movements, what’s old is new again.
Alison Perry owns a Nyack-based photography business that combines architecture, landscape and formal space and strives to make personal art about time and place. Imagery is for sale through her website. She received BFA in Studio Art from SUNY Purchase and a graduate degree in Library Science from Long Island University. Previously, she worked in journalistic and editorial photography for several different national/regional newspapers in NYC, PA and CA. See examples of her work at http://alisonperryart.com/
Feature photo shot with Canon 17-40mm F4.0 lens EXP: 1/125 @ F8 ISO 800.
- Postcard From New York on NyackNewsAndViews
- Walker Evans bio at Britannica.com
- Romanticism defined at Online-Literature.com