on Odyssey, photographs by Linda Connor (Chronicle Books)

Linda Connor is known for trekking around the world in search of places and people that either represent -- or could be made to represent – the spiritual and mysterious. The lamas and gurus say our souls are transcendent but our minds and bodies traffick in a world of illusions. Similarly, the camera seems to claim that the world is visible, while the photographer claims to pursue the invisible. At least Linda Connor does. She says elsewhere, “I am challenged by using the most presumably factual of mediums, photography, to produce images that, though full of facts, are about the unknowable.” It is uncertain to what she is referring as “unknowable”: her subjects or her photos. In any case, they’re both unknowable. The former are not to be confused with their images, and the latter (like other people) can never be fully known, only recognized.

connor11_0.jpgFor Odyssey, Connor selected 133 photographs produced over the last thirty years. It’s a most moving and gorgeous retrospective. Connor uses a large-format view camera, the kind with a light-safe bellows between a soft-focus lens and a film holder. In Connor’s camera, a single sheet of 8 x 10 format film fits into the holder. Once back home, she creates her prints on printing-out paper, exposing the 8 x 10-inch negatives with the sunlight in her garden. Therefore, her prints are the same size as her negatives, and are so presented in Odyssey. (At a recent exhibition of Himalayan images at the Haines Gallery in San Francisco, she showed prints as large as 40 x 50-inches.) She then tones the prints with gold chloride. She says, in one of two “conversations” with Robert Adams and Emmet Gowin, “Imagine I am out in my garden with eight or so negatives in their print frames – since the light is different depending on the day, clouds, time of day, season it seems to mje insane to try to time the exposures. The print of course gets darker the longer it is in the sunlight. You can see how they’re coming along by peeking in. It’s a lot like baking cookies. It’s easy to let them go too long.”

connor10.jpgConnor, now 65, was trained and influenced by two master photographers at the Rhode Island School of Design and the Illinois Institute of Technology in the 1960s – Aaron Siskind and Harry Callahan. Lynne Warren, in the Encyclopedia of Twentieth Century Photography, writes that Connor’s early landscapes of the American Southwest resisted the dual influences of conservationist ideals and critiques of corporate and suburban development. “While her photographs insinuate a mythology that is symbiotic with New Topographics photographers’ ideal of conserving geological areas, her images tend to be strikingly personal and evocative … Whereas earlier work was mostly romantic, collaging dream-like vignettes in exterior environments to invoke a type of reverie, from the 1970s onward her work shifted to capturing the petroglyphs and other Native American spiritual sites of the American West and Southwest.”

connor8.jpgThus, Odyssey represents her maturation. Her photos still “invoke a type of reverie,” but she now gives up constructing the dream-like and instead courts the light, working with the deliberation and crisper approach of her mentors. The combination of beauty and specificity, massaged by technique and a wonderfully selective eye, flatters her audience by eliciting warm and considerate feelings: we recognize ourselves as appreciative. It’s been said many times that her photos are “reminiscent of 19th century landscape photography.” But also, there is something of the grand empire’s noble plundering about her project, digging about the tombs to satisfy the pretensions of museum-goers back home. Critics and commentators go out of their way to evaluate Connor’s work by way of her spiritual intent. Here again is Lynne Warren: “Most of her photographs are about the modern traveler in search of religious grounding, the reason for the pilgrimage being enlightenment or the search for the sacred, which is not necessarily revealed by the photographer. Her photographs capture these sites as potent moments for significant experience rather than merely securing the picturesque.”

connorxx.jpgLinda Connor may go hiking for enlightenment, but this fact is entirely irrelevant to my encounter with the image. Walker Evans famously said that his goal was to make pictures that are "literate, authoritative, transcendent." One may regard an Evans photo as transcendent or timeless, but no true artist makes transcendence part of a workplan. Why would any artist even think such a technique (if it existed) desirable? “Invoking reverie” is something an artist does with intention and wile and luck. It does not flow impersonally from a (presumed) state of higher consciousness. I prefer Gary Winogrand’s ars photographia: “I photograph to find out what the world looks like photographed.”

connor3.jpgThe two “conversations” in Odyssey are alternately irritating and informative. When attempting to communicate in ways other than with their cameras, photographers show a preference for inflated concepts and insufferable sincerity. Connor says at the outset, “I really wanted to avoid theories and abstractions, so it seemed to me that a conversation was the best way to approach the work.” Adams and Gowin then roll out the abstractions. Actually, it’s Connor who provides a welcome antidote to the psycho-religio babble. She says, “I actually work quite quickly and I am hardly in a meditative state of mind. Generally I am fumbling and struggling with the camera or film holder. I seldom use the light meter and don’t believe it when I do. These are not graceful moments … I’m often excited by many of the things I photograph but that’s no guarantee that the picture will capture that. The pictures really kind of reveal themselves in the proofing process.” Yes, and the gold chloride application provides yet another effect quite separate from the actual experience. “I am not on a ‘spiritual quest’ or journey,” she continues, “though my photographs seem to be more spiritual than I might be.” And why is that? Because they’ve been touched by the gods? She says, “You’re always framing part of the truth.” What part are you not framing?

connor7.jpgEmmet Gowin quotes Frederic Sommer’s definition of art: “the sensuous apprehension of what we do not yet understand in the presence of nature.” The deficit of understanding, framed beautifully, is the pathos of Connor’s work. The urge to produce beauty in her garden is an act of assertion – of taking an utterly unique step to find another view of the incomprehensible. When I look at her photos, it’s the urge that I feel. Connor has shot in India, Tibet, Ethiopia, California, Zimbabwe, Hawaii, Cambodia, Nepal, Egypt, Turkey, Sri Lanka, Indonesia, France, Utah – the variety suggests an unslakable thirst.

connorxxx.jpgIn his Journal of the Fictive Life, poet Howard Nemerov wrote, “The camera … pries into secrets, wants everything exposed and developed. The camera wants to know. But if my hypothesis is correct, this knowledge is dialectically determined to be unsatisfying, so that there can be no end to the taking of pictures. Everything known becomes an object, unsatisfactory (not what you really wanted to know), hence to be treated with contempt and forgotten in the illusory thrill of taking the next picture.” Connor’s work, determined to affect the emotions, is designed to prove the opposite – that the camera knows what little it knows, but something in us sets aside the contempt for the limited “facts” of the image-object and attempts to find there instead some proof of our own transient spirits.

[Published December 2008, 176 pp., 135 tritones, $50.00 hardcover]

Photographs above:
1 -- Coptic Monastery, Egypt, 1989
2 -- Blind Musician, Kashmir, 1985
3 -- Apollo, Mt. Nemrut, Turkey, 1992
4 -- Sacred Text, Ethiopian Church, jerusalem, 1995
5 -- Hollowed Tree and Girl, Ethiopia, 2006

Appreciating Your POV

This review and your others on photography are different from any others I can think of on the web or elsewhere for that matter. Maybe because you work in another medium you're able to get a distance from the standard critical language about photography. I like your irreverence not that you have berated Linda Connor in some way. Actually I sort of agree that photographers (I am one) are apt to puff up their language when they are re sometimes better off just letting the images speak for themselves.

Linda Connor

Hi, Ron, thanks for introducing me to this photographer. When I first started looking at these photos, I was reminded of the Polish photographer Anna Beata Bohdziewicz. She's the woman who did that recent cover of the new translation of the Zbigniew Herbert poems. He's lighting a cigarette? Anyway, I thought you might like to see some of her pictures. Here's a link: