You don’t have to know much about birds to see that Jean-Luc Mylayne’s big, quietly glorious color photographs take an avian view of things. This is not a matter of an on-high, bird’s-eye perspective, but of something hyper-alert, even a little twitchy—flighty—about the compositions, which alternate between super-crisp and totally-out-of-focus in ways that don’t conform to standard photographic procedure. Nor do you have to be an ornithologist to realize that Mylayne also stages a birder’s—or a predator’s—relationship to his subjects. Every photograph contains at least one winged specimen, which is sometimes front and center and at other times exceedingly well camouflaged—in one of the works shown at Gladstone, I searched in vain for a feathered friend.
Mylayne, who is French, travels widely in pursuit of his subjects; he has been taking photographs of birds for more than 30 years. Since he often leaves a camera in place for extended periods before the local fauna grow sufficiently comfortable with the equipment to come within range—he does not use telephoto lenses—he produces relatively few photographs, and prints each only once. The titles—e.g., No. 424, Janvier Février Mars 2007—specify how long he waited for each shot, but not the species of bird nor where it was photographed. These choices are telling: we are meant to see things as they would be without us, unencumbered by the names humans have given to the land or its wildlife.
As it happens, this exhibition presents the first images Mylayne has produced in the U.S.—they were taken in New Mexico and Texas during a two-year Lannan Foundation residency. The terrain is arid but often majestic, with sparse vegetation and distant hills shadowed a stubbly gray-blue. A few of the birds are extravagantly beautiful, but none, at least to a layperson, seem exotic. Many are brightly colored; some are a reticent brown. A quartet of related images shows various single birds atop a leafless shrub, each a bright sentinel in the foreground of a panoramic, big-sky-country landscape. In another four-print sequence, small wood-colored birds can be discerned, with effort, amid dry grass and strewn branches. One unrelated image is anchored by the fancy red-and-black cowboy boots sported by a mostly unseen figure; a pair of especially lovely, lambent photos features a bird with Easter-hat-worthy plumage drinking from a puddle. But what most demands—and distracts—attention in this work is the variability of focus, and the way some elements, generally bits of foliage, are made semitransparent to the scenes behind them.
Mylayne, who is self-taught as a photographer, has not been terribly forthcoming about his process; the explanation given for these irregularities is that he uses specially crafted lenses. Clearly, though, he has been an avid student of his subjects, whose visual acuity (which is far greater than ours) and patient pursuit of nourishment guide his stealthily commanding work.