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The photographs from the series, Sublime: The L.A. River (2015), chronicle the Los Angeles River, an urban waterway that runs through the Western metropolis. The impetus behind these images was not to document the current state of the 51-mile river that was once the lifeblood of the early settlers, now encased in concrete, but to present the river as  metaphor, highlighting the ebb and flow between civilization and savagery, the cycle of social and cultural development, and the descent into ruin and back again.

These multilayered photographs were constructed by means of  intentional aesthetic decisions involving the combination of dozens—and sometimes hundreds­­—of individual details­. The landscapes highlight the fraught relationship between the natural and the man-made.  A bucolic wildlife scene that is reminiscent of 18th century landscape painting is littered with garbage and personal belongings. Hungry coyotes roam the concrete riverbed, sniffing at elaborate homeless encampments. Blue herons quietly stalk nourishment in the shallow waters next to a shoot for a car commercial. The river, both disquieting and sublime, was my companion over the course of two years. These photographs are comprised of both original and historic imagery, inspired by a very real place that is ultimately revealed as unreal, perhaps even surreal.

CYCLES AND STRATA by Johnathon Keats


In the summer of 1867, the American photographer Carleton Watkins hauled a mammoth wooden camera through the wilderness of Oregon, taking pictures of the mountains. To prepare each negative, he poured noxious chemicals onto a glass plate the size of a windowpane and exposed it while still wet, developing it on the spot. Even then, his work was not complete. Because wet-plate emulsions are disproportionately sensitive to blue light, his skies were overexposed, utterly devoid of clouds. Back in his San Francisco studio, Watkins manipulated his photos to resemble the landscapes he’d witnessed. His finished prints were composites, completed with a separate set of cloud-filled negatives.

Nearly a century and a half later, Elena Dorfman – another American photographer porting a large-format camera – spent several summers in the rock quarries of Kentucky and Indiana, landscapes as dramatic as Watkins’s Oregon. Dorfman had none of the old limitations. Her digital Hasselblad instantaneously captured 32-megapixel photos in full color. But it didn’t satisfy her. In postproduction she created composites on her computer, layering as many as 300 images to obtain effects unlike anything seen in nature.

In one sense, Dorfman was doing the opposite of what Watkins achieved with his library of clouds. While his intervention made the mountain vistas more meteorologically accurate, she intentionally introduced physical impossibilities, from conflicting perspectives to rearranged geology, much as a painter might fictionalize a landscape. Yet in another sense, each photographer was artfully striving for truth about how we experience the world, laboring against the inadequacies of the camera. For Watkins, the constraints were physical. For Dorfman, they’re psychological, a discrepancy between photomechanical depiction and how the brain records what the eyes perceive. A keen observer of the world and her own perceptions, she understands that her pictures can be made to seem more psychologically real by making them less literally realistic.

Empire Falling, which Dorfman completed in 2012, stitched together conflicting perspectives much as the brain enlists saccadic eye movements to construct a single unified vista rich in visual information. In her most ambitious pictures, Dorfman took this power of synthesis to an extreme by transparently layering scenes viewed from completely different directions or up close and at a distance. In a single two-dimensional image, Dorfman presented the visual information we’d glean by exploring a three-dimensional landscape over many hours or days. If you look at one of her pictures for long enough, you might start to believe you'd actually experienced the place.

But Dorfman was seeking something deeper than an optical illusion – or pictorial travelogue – in her photographs of quarries. "Manipulating and reconstructing the landscape, I reassemble and layer the images emulating the natural process of stratum on stratum," she wrote in her artist's statement. In other words, she was photographing the layering of time. Dorfman's new body of work, Sublime, significantly expands on this concept by photographically exploring the rippled layers of history and memory along the fifty-two miles of the Los Angeles River.

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