Everyone's complaint about the urban landscape in Los Angeles is that there is none, and it's quite true: the kind of density and compression that takes a mere agglomeration of buildings and turns them into a 'city' is missing. John Humble understands this condition. Focusing almost exclusively on the metropolitan landscape of Los Angeles for the past 18 years, Humble's impressive output of colour photographs does for LA by day what Brassai did for Paris by night. Despite their geographic specificity, though, what makes Humble's pictures intriguing isn't the way they create a sense of place about the city, but how they capture its sense of dislocation.
A classic image from 1995 shows a low-slung building stranded on an empty boulevard. The upper half of the print gradually thickens into an unblemished expanse of deep blue sky. Giant lettering in fluorescent pink across the windows not only announces the building's function as a thrift store, but also perfectly accents the salmon-coloured stucco which, along with a healthy dose of turquoise trim, makes the whole thing look like a lost child wandering the streets in a ragged party dress. But then, almost everything Humble photographs looks either lost or out of place. In other pictures, powerlines, huge transformer towers, smoke stacks and grunting industrial infrastructures are often shown erupting right next door to trim little one-family bungalows with neat rock gardens in the front and stately hedges of Italian cypress in the back.
On the surface, Humble's newest work looks radically different, but a case can be argued that it's driven by the same underlying theme of placelessness - only more so. 15 different views of the sea, all composed the same way with a horizon line roughly one quarter of the way up from the bottom, yet all entirely different in mood and atmosphere, greet the visitor. The first thing one has to assimilate is the blatant familiarity of the subject. From Winslow Homer to Jaws, no sense of 'place' has been more laboriously constructed than the sea. Nor is Humble unaware of how much the ocean-front contributes to the particular ethos of LA, usually in the most clichéd of ways. What makes this photographic essay so enjoyable is precisely the way the photographer throws a conceptual lasso around all those precedents and redirects their meaning without compromising any of their visual energy.
Viewers are re-oriented toward the expectations they bring to bear on the pictures by one jarring piece of information. It's found in the collective title of the exhibition: 'Lifeguard Station 26'. What looks like a vast range of seascapes are in fact all views of the water and sky taken from the same spot on the beach. All that changes is the time of day and season - Humble worked on the project for over 12 months. The range of resulting views is vast indeed, covering everything from the kind of gun-metal grey sea in which the violent surf seems to burst with invective, and before which you'd expect to find Captain Ahab bursting right back, to the sensuous swells and mango coloured skies of either a lover's paradise or an advertisement for cheap flights to Hawaii.
The camera-work is straightforward, but the images are about a kind of theatricality, about a scene which re-clothes itself as constantly as an actor and plays out wildly different dramas on the same stage. The final impression is not just one of flux, but of masquerade and an almost wilful refusal of identity. In a sense Humble points his camera at absolutely nothing: empty sky, unbounded ocean, unoccupied horizon. An infinite number of different points along the coastline would have offered similar views. Even the one indicator of locale - Lifeguard Station 26 - is merely an anonymous bureaucratic denotation. As with his photos of urban LA, Humble doesn't rectify a sense of placelessness, but in an act of gentle negotiation between camera and subject, makes it perceptible.