Raised in the suburbs of Washington, D.C., scott b. davis first became interested in photography in the early 90s when he was compelled to document the wilderness. Looking for places that led him off of the map and into spaces unexplored, he began to dive deep into history. By the mid-90s, davis was working with 19th-century photographic processes and formulas like platinum and palladium printing with large format cameras. The artist, looking for ways to be more physically involved in photography, decided to pick up this practice in order to fail more and try new things with his practice. This led him to discover ways in which he could render new landscapes.
The east coast-born photographer, now capturing western landscapes, has always been interested in the American west. As someone who grew up surrounded by small hills and many trees, the desolate and vast land captivated the artist. He says in a Zoom interview with the gallery that the “extremes of hot and cold, the extremes of lightness and dark, the extremes of the plants and animals” all interest him in comparison to what he grew up with on the east coast. At this point, davis has lived out west for 30 years, but he’s still invested in documenting the wide-open space that surrounds him.
“Place in the Sun” at Catherine Edelman Gallery looks at the large moments of the west–like the mountains–and also hones in on the details, like the speckles that make up the sand in the Anza-Borrego Desert. The exhibit will be the last at the gallery–Catherine Edelman Gallery recently announced their closure after 33 years of operation. The lasting marks of davis’s photographs are symbolic of what will remain of the gallery, an imprint of photography exhibited in Chicago.
The gallery, which hosted 245 exhibitions, will transition into pop-up exhibitions at future art fairs and work with curators and collectors. However, the physical brick-and-mortar model of the space does not fit into the current reality of the pandemic.
davis creates a ghost of an impression of a landscape by coating a piece of platinum paper, trimming it, and putting it inside of a film holder of a large format camera. As a result, a negative image is created–a white-on-white landscape. Before switching to this process, davis was making very dark, minimalistic, night-based photographs. In a 2013 interview with Jonathan Blaustein, davis says that he was drawn to the landscapes of the western U.S. but that he’s interested in the unfamiliar. And many landscapes are becoming more and more familiar. The answer? Darkness. “I’m looking at the world and seeing how it’s transformed, the other 50 percent of the time. In the darkness. Once the magic hour happens, most people head off to the bar to knock back a drink. Not me,” he says. Now, like a switch on a wall, davis is exploring lightness.
With this new process, the paper negatives are even more limited in familiarity. The works in the exhibition are multi-panel pieces that include paper negatives and film photographs. Capturing a mountain or wild landscape is reduced and the monumental significance of the landscape is simply an outline of what is there. While in “Place in the Sun” we may be looking at a recognizable landscape, davis reduces it to resemble uncharted terrority. As he searches for this idea of the “unknown,” he takes the viewer along with him. Looking back on davis’s older work, we see darkness, and now seeing his newer work, we absolutely feel like we’ve found a place in the sun. Blinded by brightness, the details are erased by the whiteness of the exposure.
For example, box canyon, anza-borrego desert is from the half blind series in which we see a faint outline of two shapes. They look natural and organic in shape. They barely touch, just close enough to create tension. The five-by-four-inch piece is all white, with a darker grey background representing a negative image. Here, we can imagine what the positive image would look like. The sandstone box canyon twists and winds through the Calcite Mine Trail, which follows a four-mile-long old mining road in the California Santa Rosa mountains. From the same series, black mesa, western arizona creates a similar dichotomy. A battle between white and grey occurs between two shapes. The Black Mesa is on Navajo and Apache land. Its name derives from the appearance–which is dark–because coal runs through it. It’s clever, then, that the work is light and blown out in detail and texture. We see a glimpse of a tree to the left but the two frames are mostly texture-less and flat for a mesa that rises to 8,168 feet in reality.
The way in which davis displays his work in the exhibition is incredibly stimulating to look at. In notch, western arizona, he quite literally plays with the positives and negatives of space and in the process of developing the photos. Displaying a print and a negative side-by-side, davis also captures the absence of a triangular shape in a mountain landscape with a notch that would fit directly into the negative space.
Eventually, davis would build his own 16-by-20-inch camera. He describes it as something between a “woodworking project and a functional camera project.” He says the camera is incredibly heavy, which is imperative since he works in the desert, hiking and walking to his next destination in the sand. “I built the strongest and beefiest thing I could.” Working with a film-changing tent, he explains in the Zoom interview that he is drawn to the remoteness of the wild. “You know you can be alone and get into your own headspace. And get into the work you’re there to do.” Not only are the results of davis’s images meditative, but his process is too.
It’s easy to meditate on these photographs, uniquely displayed on the gallery walls in black and white. davis works with the contrast of the frames to create a lightness and darkness encapsulating each image. For so many of us, doom-scrolling and living in the hustle-bustle of a city, davis’s works slow us down, help us sit in thought, and offer a place of reflection within the brambles, brittlebush, and crevasses of the American west. v
“Place in the Sun” is on view until December 31. Catherine Edelman Gallery recently announced their closure after 33 years. They will close their doors on January 1.