Lynn Davis’s photographs have more to do with the sculptural concerns of Judd, Serra and Brancusi than with the spectrum of narrative or documentary photography. Viewed through her camera, even the most famous landmarks, from Egyptian pyramids to buildings by modernist architects, lose their specificity and reappear in a new graphic context that is austere, contemplative—and often lyrical.
Unlike her previous exhibitions, which were gatherings of photographs of particular subjects, usually in remote parts of the world, this mini-survey of 22 works, titled “The Persistence of Form,” sought to highlight the formal rigor that unifies her work. Davis’s sculptural eye is manifest even in her early figurative work, like the cropped image of a man’s hand (Black Hand, New York City, 1978) aligned vertically in the picture’s center. This composition was echoed in a detail of a stone arch in Utah, a lighthouse, a Syrian monument and a Brancusi sculpture.
While other photographers might exploit the exotic aspects of far-flung locations, Davis’s approach is not romantic. Instead, in these large (up to 40 inches square) gelatin silver prints—purposefully square to neutralize the expectations that accompany a traditional landscape format—Davis seems to be seeking the essence of Minimalism. With the object and background playing equal roles, her only bow to mood is the subtle tint she may add in gold, selenium or sepia. The outright refusal to elaborate or amplify serves, paradoxically, to enhance the majestic nature of the motifs Davis portrays.
That the world is in a constant state of flux, of being built up or worn away—intentionally and unintentionally—is one of Davis’s ongoing themes. The pristine appears in the sweeping lines of Saarinen’s Gateway Arch or a close-up of an Oscar Niemeyer building, while erosion comes to the fore in the decaying structures of ancient eras. The extravagant shapes of icebergs have engaged Davis since the 1980s, and her most recent work (2010) examines the patterns etched by workers in the walls of active Carrara marble quarries. Her photographs are predominantly empty of direct human presence, with no markers such as clothing or vehicles that might relate them to a particular time.
The pieces in the exhibition were chosen to express the range of Davis’s themes, and the installation emphasized esthetic similarities between disparate subjects. One grouping compared grids of windows, while another found corresponding crescent arcs in the curved wall of a Philip Johnson house, an iceberg, the sail of a boat in Kenya and the roof of Le Corbusier’s famous chapel at Ronchamp.
In a busy world, Davis has located the still points. Her subjects, regardless of their heterogeneous origins, become mute, solitary objects for veneration and reflection. To learn that Davis is a student of Buddhism comes as no surprise, for these monuments are like many images of the Buddha, presented in different guises.
Photo: Lynn Davis: Chapelle Notre-Dame-du-Haut (Architect: Le Corbusier 1950-55), Ronchamp, France, 2001, selenium-toned gelatin silver print, 28 inches square; at Knoedler.