Sunday, February 12, 2006

Linda Butler

As I mentioned, last Thursday evening I attended a lecture by Linda Butler at Johnson museum. Her show of black & white photographs, documenting China's monumental Three Gorges Dam project, is on display there through March 26th. The exhibit, made up of images sampled from her book Yangtze Remembered: The River Beneath the Lake, is traveling around the country. (Here is a radio interview in which she covers many of the same topics as she did last week.)

The engineering project, as she told us, is meant to serve three purposes: to provide hydroelectric energy, to help shipping, and to control flooding problems. She emphasized that it will help certain commercial and government interests at the expense of many others, particularly the locals. It is intended for completion in 2009, and she plans to return to China for a set of follow-up pictures.

I was impressed by her even-handed approach to the politics of the project, both in her talk, and more subtly in the variety of her photographic subjects. There were three broad themes: the grandeur and feeling of timelessness conveyed by the natural landscape, the perseverance of the local people and their cultural traditions, and the relentless force of modern development. The selection of pictures conveys the appealingness of each of these individual themes, but also the (aesthetic, moral, and political) ambiguity of the overall situation. It seemed clear from her talk that her main sympathy was with the local people and the land. Her actual depictions of new development however
pictures of large scale engineering sprawl and model-like (as she pointed out) "new cities", are often quite beautiful. By way of contrast, a picture showing the facade of a squalid apartment building shows the harmful (if picturesque) side of the old cities. Indeed, she spoke of a real need for modernization. However, she stressed that the Chinese government needed to take greater care, so as to minimize the displacement of traditional ways of life and the degradation of the environment.

Butler also talked briefly about the technical aspects of her project, mentioning her use of a digital camera to take "sketches" for more polished work, done mostly with film. She showed samples of these
some in coloremphasizing their lack of unusual ("artistic") perspective. Failing to spark debate, she admitted to doctoring an image using Photoshop, potentially controversial in work with a apparently documentary purpose. She said she wanted to remove the atmospheric distortiona product of rampant air pollution as well as mist and fogso as to more closely match what she claimed was her own subjective view of the scene. I suspect she has some reservations about placing her work in a documentary tradition. (Although mostly self-taught, she was introduced as a student of Ansel Adams, probably best known as an artistic landscape photographer.)



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