Reconstructing Images of the West
Ghost Lands: Pictures in Silver by William Van Beckum
at Gallery 263, Pearl Street, Cambridge
on display through 2/9/2019
This small, strategic collection of photographs seeks to stimulate a larger reflection about the contemporary use of images and our shifting relationship with the natural world.
Hero photo: Bears Ears. Sidebar photos: the artist; Bears Ears detail; and a view of the installation. Exhibit photos courtesy of Gallery 263.
Upon entering the intimate space of Gallery 263, the visitor faces a single large array of three hundred black-and-white photographic images grouped in a tight grid, as shown above. The remaining two walls display larger works that stand on their own. The contents of each frame are deconstructed and reassembled from source images appropriated from other artists. Many viewers will recognize fragments of iconic images of the American West—Van Beckum cites Ansel Adams alongside other masters including Carleton Watkins, Timothy O'Sullivan and Edward Weston—but might not realize that all of the images on display are of the striking landscape of Bears Ears National Monument in Utah.
Van Beckum's essential technique is to disassemble images using classical photographic techniques filtered through modern technology, “contact printing images found on social media from an iPhone screen onto silver gelatin darkroom paper.” As the title Ghost Lands suggests, this manipulation of the source material transforms natural forms into redacted apparitions. Cliffs and mountain ranges are stained or out-of-focus, cropped and dramatically angled, and vignetted within a black border. What at first appears to be natural in subject and theme is actually distorted and rendered artificial. Rather than bearing witness to these broad vistas of the natural world, we are now the creators and disseminators of their co-opted images. Although Van Beckum's precise execution and careful curation elevate his work out of the category of reactive performance art into a realm of true craft, his implied attitude toward technology seems to be largely aligned with similar critiques being channeled by contemporary media projects like Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror and Jiyeon Kim's Tinder Project. That line of social critique states roughly that our universe has been circumscribed by filters and screens, and recognizing our dual roles as creators and consumers is not a symptom of technophobia. This critique is timely in our current age of social media, but can be heavy handed. Van Beckum averts this risk with a clever twist by audience participation. Visitors are able to purchase individual photos from the large array for a modest price. When they do so, the image is removed from the wall. This literal subtraction mirrors the removal by the Trump administration of regulations protecting Bears Ears from the depredations of resource extraction, and of the removal activities of the gas, oil, and mineral industries themselves. The Ghost Lands exhibit brings to mind the iconic national parks posters reimagined by conceptual artist Hannah Rothstein that takes into account the impacts of industrial activity, climate change and deregulation.
Although a still medium, the photographs are altered in a process not unlike the one Van Beckum encapsulates in each frame. This reiterative redaction carries out a quiet and contemplative transformation of the exhibition as a whole. It also involves the viewer in a small gesture of social action, as twenty percent of the sales proceeds are being donated to the Bears Ears Inter-Tribal Coalition.
The Van Beckum exhibition serves as a counterpoint to the temporary collection of Ansel Adams' photographs on temporary view (12/18 through 2/24) at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. In this large exhibit, Adam's photography dialogues with the work of contemporary photographers handling landscapes and themes that were central to Adam's work. Ghost Land is a microcosm of those conversations, exploring the impact of image on our conception of the wilderness, conservation and ourselves.
About the artist: William Van Beckum is a Visiting Lecturer in Art at Wellesley College. He earned his BA at Emerson College and an MFA at Tufts University. His photographic work with appropriated imagery is meant “to explore anthropocentrism through the lens of landscape photography and social media.”
Morgan Richards was born and raised in St. Louis and living in the Chicago area during high school. She is studying French and the history of art and architecture at Boston University.
Back to Issue 22, 2019