Like poetry about love, landscape photography is a much-abused genre in which clichés seem inherent and inescapable. How many more sweeping images of cliffs, canyons and waterfalls framed by big skies, hurtling clouds and plunging rainbows must art lovers be subjected to? God only knows.
And, naturally, Southwestern desert photography is its own sub-genre, offering up a minefield of dusty formulas for the best artists to circumnavigate: old adobe churches, horizon-stretching highways and gargantuan tumbleweeds. In her new book, Four Corners, California photographer Debra Bloomfield eschews these tired expressions in exchange for spiritually informed moments of light, color and shape.
In her well-written postscript, Bloomfield confesses the reason that Four Corners reverberates with near-divine power. The death of her sister Bonnie in 1995 initiated a search for "the last breath of light," those final seconds at dusk when the sun finally slips into darkness. It was what Bonnie, dying of cancer, asked to witness at the end of each day. Clearly, this request provided Bloomfield with a different approach to landscape photography, and much of her work here benefits from the fading brilliance of the sun.
Another reason Four Corners offers a visual feast is due to Bloomfield's thoughtful juxtaposition of the exterior world with the interior spaces of several churches in New Mexico that she stumbled into. This merging of the physical with the metaphysical--seemingly two distinct projects--magically results in some of the most inspired contemporary photography you'll encounter. And if you happened to miss any up-close-and-personal opportunities to enjoy Bloomfield's work on the walls of Tucson's Etherton Gallery, this book is a necessity.
Four Corners, of course, is that area in the American Southwest where Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet--the only place where four U.S. states rub elbows. Using it as a title also heightens the symbolic power of Bloomfield's art, demarcating the boundaries of a room in which someone--the photographer? the viewer?--has come to pray in isolation. Indeed, there's a detachment at work here, a sense that the gulf between nature and humanity, between God and man, is somehow impossible to bridge, and that all that remains is to marvel at the cosmic distance.
"Chimayo Baby, Chimayo, NM" is a particularly remarkable photograph. An elegantly dressed "saint baby" rests in a display case inside a church, a lonely ray of light wipes itself across the doll's closed eyes like God's finger. Its hand is raised, pushing aside the gaudy little crown atop its soft, bare head. Instantly, we're transported to the saddest spot on Earth, where mothers of dead children go to pay their respects to the little ones they have lost.
"Medicine Wheel, Sedona, AZ" is another lingering image. Here, a dark, circular rock formation in a shallow pool of water is barely perceptible in the fading dusk, its presence so otherworldly that you expect angels to carousel around its rim at any moment. (If you've been to Sedona, then you know just how gorgeous the sunsets there can be.)
The richly imagined cross-cutting between landscape and chapels continues with perhaps the book's most violent piece, "Souls in Purgatory, Las Trampas, NM," a church mural showing the damned as they writhe in hellish flames. This is quickly followed by "Dead Horse, UT," a cloud-infested underworld that's as breathtaking as any passage in Dante's Inferno. Indeed, these two works serve as a reminder that the Southwest was our government's preferred spot to conduct nuclear tests not too long ago. Yes, there's spectral radiation simmering in the background of these photographs, and whether or not it's the result of divine occurrence or man's environmental clumsiness has yet to be confirmed.
As gloomy as things get, the strongest pieces are those that offer a glimmer of hope, like "Red Sky, Hopi, AZ." In it, a fiery sunset rips apart the sky in a way that mysteriously suggests rebirth, renewal, a muscle torn yet destined to heal and be made stronger. Or "Midnight Hopi, Hopi, AZ," where the last breath of light is an acetylene torch smoldering against night's relentless march. It's exquisite, existential and seemingly effortless; Bloomfield has done a rare thing by freighting her landscape photography with poignant, purposeful symbolism.
Don't take my word for it, though. See for yourself how awe-inspiring photography--and, particularly, photography of the Southwest--can be. Somewhere on the edge of a divine precipice sits the work of Debra Bloomfield, ruminative, remote, wracked by religious doubts, yet eager for the touch of salvation, whether from God or nature.