in Features | 01 JAN 99
Featured in
Issue 44


Miles Coolidge

in Features | 01 JAN 99

Unblinking, a series of open elevators stare out - empty, resonant chambers; cubes waiting expectantly. But perhaps this description makes them seem too poetic - after all these are merely deadpan photographs of corporate-looking lifts - yet more images of the myriad generic spaces endemic to the contemporary moment. They are marked, as so often, by an overwhelming sense of geographical sitelessness, a lack of rootedness; completely conducive to the workings of global capital.

Before the elevators, Miles Coolidge took similarly straightforward photographs of garages. Crammed full of a particularly American accumulation of stuff, these cubes also stared back at the viewer with the same uncompromising gaze: a continuous loop created by the quick drop of a shutter. Empty and full boxes, the two series of photographs play with the dilemma of space and how to fill it. The square garages and lifts become symbols for the white cube of the gallery. The back-to-back presentation of the two bodies of work recalls the game played in Paris by Arman and Yves Klein, in which Klein removed the contents of the gallery, calling the exhibit 'Vide'(empty), and Arman took the bait by filling the same space with garbage and dubbing it 'Plein' (full). This is a Modernist tension, between presence and absence, the white cube as empty frame, or the white cube as content. Coolidge's stark photographs certainly make use of the dominant modes of photographic Modernism: seemingly affectless, culminating in series that catalogue the formal beauty of everyday life - form subtly, but consistently, overriding content. But their tensile interest stems more from pre-Modernist concerns. For what is interesting about Coolidge's work is that underneath its cool technological polish operates a steady interest in, or investigation of, a more submerged history of pre- and early photographic image making.

For his most recent series, Coolidge photographed California's Central Valley in a panoramic style, each image printed roughly 25 cm high by 300 cm long. All were horizon-scapes printed on metal sheets that shimmered on the wall. The move from boxy photographs to panoramic vistas makes evident Coolidge's engagement with the history of photography. The panorama, a precursor to the photograph and an early manifestation of spectacle culture, was a mass medium in which images were viewed by a large audience in a forthright spirit of titillation and thrill. Many of the earliest panoramas were vistas rendered from high peaks (natural or man-made), that offered viewers an expansive horizon. According to Stephan Oettermann, in his eccentric compendium The Panorama: History of a Mass Medium (1997), the panorama helped shape a bourgeois vision of the world as, on the one hand, limitless, and on the other, bounded by the dual forces of perspectival vision and capitalism. The European craze for horizon, Oettermann suggests, was linked to naval voyages of discovery and colonial expansion. Panoramic horizons were a metaphor for a specifically bourgeois experience of the world. Coolidge's technically masterful pictures of California's Central Valley offer nothing but horizon. Low and flat, they uncannily evoke the hazy warm-air distortions of vision that occur on Highway 5, that banal behemoth of a freeway that cuts through the centre of the state. Coolidge's work captures the prismatic sulphuric light that falls endlessly on a perpetual cornucopia of summer foods - strawberries, asparagus, garlic, artichokes, lettuce, and citrus fruits - supplied nationwide by this mammoth irrigated valley (remember Chinatown?). Unlike their panoramic predecessors, these horizons are shot from level ground, not from a high peak, but, in the end, their dusty-footed point of origin may betray their class aspirations, just as the craze for high peaks betrayed those of the 19th-century bourgeoisie.

The mass-medium nature of the panorama carried over into the development of photography proper, as Daguerreotypes, tintypes and carte de visites became middle-class collectibles. Photography has always, it seems, had to struggle with its mass nature. This is surely why it has historically been neglected by art history, which steadfastly refuses to include it as part of a continuum of image-making, opting instead to see it as a threatening sideline. (At best one gets a 'History of Photography' survey, at worst photography is not mentioned unless as a reference point for the paintings of Degas and the technique of 'cropping'.) Coolidge's works bring us back to the beginning of the medium, either by flagging its pre-history - as in the panorama and the printing of images on metal - or by reproducing the medium's first subjects: still lifes and landscapes. His garages remind one of the still lifes or domestic interiors that dominated William Henry Fox Talbot and Louis Daguerre's early images. So too, the desolate streets of the 'Safetyville' series and the attenuated flat landscapes of the Central Valley mime the drab photographs of the static buildings that posed for the long exposures demanded by the early Daguerreotype. And the elevator, that cavernous box, appears camera-like; a cumbersome camera obscura, an enormous eye: the open door that the shutter will eventually close.

The stillness of early photography can be found in all of Coolidge's series: garages; elevators; desolate suburban streets; and the Central Valley. Each is marked by a definitive lack of movement, an overwhelming sense of immobility: no snapshot aesthetic here, no blur to indicate the passage of time or movement through space. And yet this stillness is paradoxical, for the immobile images always have a subterranean relation to movement. Elevators go up and down; Safetyville is the archetypal suburban town, designed around and dependent upon the automobile; and the photographs of Central Valley all appear to have been taken from the roadside. The locations, too, are marked by their transitory nature. Most people move through the Central Valley on their way to and from somewhere else (including the migrant workers whose exploited labour keeps America knee-deep in cheap produce). What could be more transitional than an elevator? Or garages that house cars, our homes away from home? Garages also hold the stuff that can't quite make its way to the trash but is not granted the permanent status of residency inside the house. Starkly immobile, Coolidge's photographs resonate perversely with the hum of America's car culture. The effect is similar to Catherine Opie's photographs of freeways and strip malls, in which she presents a double vision - an archaic past and apocalyptic future - of a de-populated Los Angeles, void of cars. But whereas Opie's works strike an uncanny note of emptiness, Coolidge's have the quietude of stilled movement, suspended mobility.

One of the ideological promises of American life is that of unfettered movement. Both literal and metaphorical, this promise is offered by the car, and more thoroughly, in the proliferation of 'choices' of career, neighbourhood, wardrobe or cuisine. These are all stand-ins, however, for the real promise of class mobility, particularly middle-class mobility - that path of incremental progression marked by such seemingly benign passages as the move from 'spaghetti' to 'pasta'. The history of photography, bound to class by virtue of its history as a mass medium, has historically helped create a vision of American identity that is bound up with movement. It was in large part the dramatic photographs of the great western expansion, which documented the laying down of the railroads and the landscape west of the Rockies, that gave rise to the myth and promise of a literalised class mobility. It tracked and imaged a historical moment of unbounded colonial aspiration that culminated in the very Central Valley that Coolidge offers again as a panoramic vista.

Yet in Coolidge's photographs we are continually confronted with absolutely bounded aspirations. Class mobility (the corporate logic of an ever upward moving elevator) is here offered as stilled, suspended in the moment before the shutter falls. In fact, its spaces and metaphors are exposed as formulaic, deserted: Safetyville as a middle-class ghost town. The opportunities to achieve colonial expansion and class mobility through westward expansion were all but extinct by the middle of the century. Now metaphors of horizons and vistas have been supplanted by the dreams of unfettered movement and infinite possibility offered by the World Wide Web and information superhighways, and, ironically enough, it is computer technology that is currently threatening the demise of photography, as the industry promises digitised images and cameras without film. Yet it is actual highways, populated, on close inspection, by trucks, that appear in the Central Valley series; old-fashioned photographs of old-fashioned roads. Technology may offer new metaphors for class aspirations, but these still photographs seem to suggest that class mobility remains incremental and bounded - perhaps now more than ever. In the age of unchallenged global capitalism, the information superhighway has yet to figure out how to deliver food.