Between 2004 and 2005, I fell in love with a beautiful highway. Not by choice, but by regular contact. I was on it everyday. The 60 FWY of southern California is an eight-lane blacktop that cuts straight out into the desert. You move fast on it because everyone else is, all of you trying to outrun the impending rush hour where 85 MPH drops to 5 MPH. My usual run was from Interstate 15 all the way to Mt. San Jacinto clocking in at just under an hour of road time. I had it memorized knowing where each turn was, each necessary lane change, and where I was most likely to have to apply the brake and drop the speedometer from 85 to 5. Behind the wheel of my big purple mini-van, I slid down those lanes with a kind of manic pleasure, and I took joy in the ebb and flow of it all as I burned another gallon of gas and headed east.
But my love affair with the 60 was a singular one. It involved just the road and myself. And only occasionally when I was dead stopped and paying the price for not outrunning rush hour would I glance over and see the other drivers. Isolated but together, there we were.
I guess the nature of contemporary society may have first emerged on the highways. I’m writing this on an airplane right now, and as a technologically evolved example the two passengers next to me are hardwired into the plane and their laptops via headphones and data cables. And here we are now, isolated but together. The thing I do, and I doubt I’m alone in this, is eavesdrop. I spend more time peering at my neighbors screen than mine. Or when I’m stopped in traffic, I’m looking at the other drivers more than my dashboard. And what I see are individuals who are perhaps unaware, but are nonetheless individuals. What I appreciate the most about Bobby Scheidemann is his ability to reveal this individuality in the simplest of ways.
In the contemporary world of rapid-fire photography where anyone with a phone is a photographer and no moment is exempt from capture and circulation via the Internet, the mistake I made when first viewing the works in “Together at Sunset” was to approach them as a routine commentary on that phenomena. From the photographs I had seen earlier at the Austin Art Pavilion, I was fairly certain these were fabrications of highway toll or streetlight cameras reminding us in the 1984 vein that Big Brother is ALWAYS watching.
But watching what? If this show has a connection with Orwell, it answers that question. What does Big Brother keep his eye on?
Us, of course.
And the way he keeps an eye on us is through an autonomous lens that records automatically, without hesitation, but not absent of selection. Sure we are told things like TSA screenings are random, but we all know better.
Scheidemann’s approach follows this same method, but he’s after a much different conclusion. When I spoke with him, he explained that his approach to taking his anonymous car portraits entailed sitting on an overpass of I-35 and shooting photos until his memory card was full. After this, he edited the photos down letting the “empathy” come through each image.
That empathy came through in the half smirk of a reading passenger, the tired eye rub of a driver, and the clever smile of someone catching Scheidemann with her own camera, or any of the other faces in the photographs. I’m not sure if “empathy” is the right word. I’m just going to call it human, and understand that to be human is to be together but apart, collectively sharing while also distinguishing each other from each other.
Scheidemann realizes the role I-35 plays in this. That highway is a main artery for Austin as it carries people to and from the city center, and undoubtedly people spend considerable time on it. However, in that very role it also demands each commuter to be isolated from others. Cars are not communal.
This idea is reflected in both the compositions of the photographs and their exhibition. Absent of anyone else in the frame, each photo is tightly cropped around either a singular driver or a singular passenger. We are given an isolated person confined to the rectangular dimensions of the image. As for the exhibition, each photo is evenly spaced from the others along the gallery wall. This creates the curated illusion of cars stopped in traffic. Each one is in an ordered gridlock with the others.
I-35 runs through the rest of exhibition as well, whether in the haunting images of the high-rises which can been seen from it, or metaphorically in the images of the tire being tossed into the puddle. These are photographs of the road in all its paved glory, and it is explored through the varied lenses of photography. The anonymous portraits echo photographers such as Walker Evans. The large squirrel with its curious attention references the realm of kitsch. And the splashing tire is recorded in a manner akin to John Baldessari’s, “Throwing Four Balls in the Air to Get a Square.” The show is a curious and successful paring of asphalt and art.
As I talked with Scheidemann, he recounted a moment when he was taking the car portraits that struck me as pertinent to the overall exhibition. He was standing on the overpass at work with his camera when a police officer approached. Apparently, someone had called in and was worried Scheidemann was going to jump. After explaining himself to the officer, the policeman told him to be careful because people down there (he looked rather depressingly at the cars below them), “don’t pay attention.” An obvious theme of this show is the prompting of its viewers to do just that and take notice of the world around them. In this act of looking, our own smirks, smiles, and tired eye rubs become revealed to us, and we remember that we are never completely isolated from each other no matter how many lanes of traffic keep us apart.
-Images (not in order):
Posted 18th May 2015 by Arnold, H.C.