AfterImage
April, 1981


Both photographs by Roger Vail. Left: Ship's Hull, Oakland - '76; right: Airplane Lights and Stars - ' 80

Roger Vail
at the Douglas Kenyon Gallery, Chicago, Ill
Jan. 16-Feb. 28
at the Keystone Gallery, Santa Barbara, Calif.
Jan. 16-Feb. 13

BY CAROLE HARMEL

IN HIS FlRST one-man show in Chicago since 1973, also held at the Douglas Kenyon Gallery, Roger Vail exhibited 40 large-format, impeccably-printed black and white images, mostly time exposures (often several hours) taken at night, from 1972-1980. In the face of an explosion of color and conceptual photography, Vail brings us back to the demands of an intense, personal confrontation with the individual frame. His subject matter ranges from idyllic nature scenes--horses in a lush countryside reminiscent of the paintings of John Constable--to pillars and wharves along the ocean, dark ships resting in brightly illuminated harbors, carnival rides spinning to create circles of light, refineries and tanks (I am tempted to say industrial sculpture) arranged and glowing like movie sets, or simply views of the night sky, with the tracings of airplanes and the delicate paths of the stars.

Beyond this ostensible subject matter, however, the more important concerns of Vail's photography are light and time. Explosions of light dominate these images, while at the other end of the scale, we literally see into the shadows. Darkness is given dimension: the black space of night is rendered in incredible range, for Vail manages to pull full tone prints from subject matter most photographers would find hopelessly contrasty. The deep black tones emphasize the play of light that weaves through all the images. Light becomes form, abstracted in calligraphic reflection in night water, or the archetypal mandalas of the spinning carnival rides. In Ship's Hull, Oakland--'76, a brooding shape in the left foreground appears to be splitting open, spilling a cargo of light into the reflecting waters.

Vail's other subject is time. Because of the long exposures, we are allowed to witness movements we would not usually see, such as the trace of the moon rising, or the path of a moving ship. These records of time give a further transparency, a numenosity, to the material world. One series depicts the pillars which support piers, huge constructions both architecturally functional and visually foreboding. But they are at once monumental and vulnerable, subject to the onslaught and infiltration of nature. The figures posed in front of these structures blend into the primitive architecture, rather than becoming the subject of the camera, in the sense of a psychological portrait. In Pillars, Santa Monica, Pier #1--'75, strong black lighting and long exposure blends the figures into the pillars, reminding us that the original basis for the pillar was the human body. The pillars take on a strong calligraphic form, suggesting the close relationship of alphabets to the human body.

In Vail's work, nature is freely mingled with man-made constructions: the lights of the planes in Airplane Lights and Stars, Sacramento--'80 become a supernatural occurence, mingling with the paths of the stars. In Petro Chemical Tank and Tower--'80, the night lights of the tank become a starry constellation. These persistent juxtapositions form what is perhaps the underlying metaphor of Vail's photographs; the dissolution of the material world into light and energy. It is the kind of "recording" which becomes transcendental, which leads us beyond the finite, the phenomena of things, into ideas or visions about things. Yet despite the romanticism of this quest, Vail's imagery remains firmly rooted in the real world. The dissolution is mitigated by precise form and an extraordinary restraint. Vail's images reach out towards extending of the vocabulary of the known, while retaining their grounding in phenomena. The tension results in a sense of exhilaration.

 

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