It all started with a waterfall I knew I’d seen before. Only this waterfall seemed to be coming through a window.
The picture, a double-exposure by Portland photographer Mike Vos, I’d found on his website after receiving a press release from Blue Sky Gallery about Vos and artist Kelda Van Patten being selected for residencies at the Sitka Center for Art and Ecology. Included in the press-release email was a thumbnail image one of Vos’s double-exposure photographs from his ongoing Dead Cities project. The image is a double exposure combining a shot of Snoqualmie Falls in Washington with a shot of a square window amidst a wall of lapped wood siding with a few stray bullet holes.
Of course this is the waterfall made famous by film director David Lynch in the opening credits to his landmark 1990-92 TV series Twin Peaks and its 18-episode sequel from 2017, Twin Peaks: The Return. I knew it well, not just as a Lynch fan and past interviewer, but also because nine years ago I’d made Snoqualmie Falls the subject of one of my own short films.
Yet even without those personal or pop-cultural hooks, Vos’s image was arresting, with its frame within a frame and its juxtaposition of clean-lined (if weathered) building and unruly falling water. Yet the transparency of the window and the falling water also somehow felt related. It seemed like a statement, a manifesto even: that, as Lynch continually explores, time and memory are transitory and mysterious.
Quite an impact for a photographer who wasn’t even showing this month in Portland.
Once I started thinking about Vos’s photos, however, I began to notice other artists exhibiting this fall who also combine images and explore overlapping ideas: the photo weavings of Dinh Q. Lê, Monuments and Memorials at Elizabeth Leach Gallery; and Gary Burnley’s The Known World at Blue Sky Gallery (both showing through October 2).
Camera As Instrument
As Vos explained in a recent phone conversation, the untitled waterfall-in-window image pairs Snoqualmie Falls with the window from an abandoned hotel on the Olympic Peninsula, but in a sense the two main features, or at least their specific identities, were less important than the concept. “I knew I wanted to shoot a window with a waterfall,” he said. But he was attracted to this particular window by the bullet holes. “The relationship I saw was about the inherent violence that’s necessary to maintain the civilization we live in.”
Vos, 35, has actually been a working visual artist only since about 2015. Before that, he had been a musician since his teens, a multi-instrumentalist writing his own songs and touring the world. But Vos began to feel he’d plateaued. In the past, when he’d felt blocked while composing, he’d switch instruments. So he began combining music and multimedia: creating his own images to use in performance. After touring, he found people responded most strongly to the visuals. So Vos set music aside and enrolled in a photography course at Newspace Center for Photography (two years before the center abruptly closed). There he fell under the tutelage of a former commercial photographer, Charles Purvis, from whom Vos learned to use a large-format 4×5 camera, which became his tool of choice.
“It really opened a new creative door,” he said. “A little bit like music, this camera changes the way I shoot. It really slows me down: to build a relationship with the landscape I’m shooting, and think about what kind of narrative it fits into.”
Double exposures, which Vos executes in-camera without the use of digital manipulation like Photoshop, is also about the long-term gaze and letting go. “There’s an element that gets added to it that’s more than just me, this level of chaos that’s out of my control. It almost feels like a collaborative effort,” Vos added. “I don’t know how well the exposures are going to blend in camera. When I get that film back, it almost feels like something I didn’t make.”
At the same time, early on Vos realized that viewers respond to simpler forms. “It’s easy with double exposure for the image to be too chaotic,” he says. “Finding a simple shape like a door or window or a certain type of building is easier to recognize and a lot more powerful. It gives you something to grasp onto.”
Imagining A World Without Us
Vos’s untitled photographs are part of an ongoing series called the Dead Cities Project. Its first chapter, Someday This Will All Be Gone, debuted at Pushdot Studio in February 2020, but the exhibition was cut short due to the pandemic. The next chapter and exhibit is scheduled for 2022.
In all cases, Vos is imagining a world devoid of people, where their ruins are slowly retaken by nature. “It’s not intended to be this sci-fi dystopian world,” he explained. “It’s more, ‘Let’s give the earth a chance to heal.’” Double-exposure photography was a way to show a kind of before and after. “In galleries, people would say, ‘That’s an interesting abandoned factory,’ but they wouldn’t take away the narrative. I started to think, ‘How do I tell this story without having to explain the context constantly, and convey the story in the image itself without words?’ This concept of wildlife returning was easier to convey when I was superimposing mountains and trees over the tops of abandoned buildings. People started to respond a lot more strongly to it, and to see there was a larger idea. It seemed like I struck a nerve with that.”
Vos grew up skateboarding and surfing in Santa Barbara before moving to Portland in 2004. Particularly as a skater, he grew accustomed to seeking out abandoned locations to ride. Fellow skaters have often given him ideas of not just where to skate but also where to take photos. But Vos’s biggest inspiration comes from Alan Weisman’s 2007 book The World Without Us, which encourages us to see a process of human decline that has already begun. Vos even had a dialogue with the author after sending Weisman his work.
“He said, ‘You don’t have to imagine a world that’s crumbling. It already is,” Vos explained. “You just have to go find it. It looks like you already are.’ He’s right. almost every major city has large, abandoned places.”
All of which made one of Vos’s other most arresting images, featuring a massive, nearly 500-foot-tall cooling tower from the Satsop nuclear power plant near Elma, Washington, a natural. In the double-exposure image, the trees seem to be saying that even a structure this large can be swallowed up in time.
The Satsop plant never opened for business. Drowning in debt, the project was mothballed on the eve of its completion. Vos is certainly not the first to photograph this mammoth building. One cooling tower provided the backdrop for the 2014 movie Transformers 4: Age of Extinction; another tower appeared in 2017’s Transformers 5: The Last Knight. But the symbolism of its backstory was irresistible.
“We as humans have built these places that we think are too big to fail. Something as ambitious and gigantic as this, they probably thought it would provide so many jobs, so much power, that there’s no way it was not going to work,” Vos explained. “For it to not even open is surreal in a way, but also a little bit telling. We can’t even think about our civilization failing.”
Weaving Time and Memory
While Vos is relatively new to photography, artist Dinh Q. Lê has been exploring a different kind of double-image making for well over two decades. And while their approaches and motivations differ, each one’s work makes me appreciate the other.
Lê was born in 1968 in Hà Tiên, a Vietnamese town near the Cambodia border. At the age of 10, with the Cambodian-Vietnamese War raging, his family emigrated to America by boat, but two of Lê six siblings were lost along the way. The artist received art degrees from the University of California, Santa Barbara (perhaps even crossing paths with Vos) and later the School of Visual Arts in New York; in the latter’s MFA program, Lê first began the technique of cutting and weaving together photographs.
“He started doing the weavings because it was a way for him to take these multiple narratives and weave them together: his different personal experiences,” said Elizabeth Leach Gallery director Daniel Peabody. “But also his aunt had taught him grass-mat weaving. But it’s not necessarily a traditional weave structure. He’s making choices about which images to bring forward. You see different kinds of loops to make sure different details come to the fore. It creates this incredible texture. We always present them framed, but I get the privilege of handling them unframed. And they are like fabric. They have this fluidness to them.”
The multiple narratives Peabody mentions in Monuments and Memorials start with images of Angkor Wat, which Le actually photographed years ago and returned to during the pandemic, while Vietnam (where he now lives again) was under quarantine. “He’s this American citizen who lives back in Vietnam now. He’s been watching from afar the reckoning we’ve had with monuments and memorials, and what’s being glorified and what’s being taken away. In Cambodia, Angkor Wat is even on the flag,” Peabody said.
Woven in and out of those images are what at first appear as differently shaded geometric abstractions: solid bands of color that begin to destabilize and erode the pretty pictures of Angkor Wat monuments. Yet these portions of the photo weavings actually depict portions of the walls and floors at the Tuol Sleng Genocide Museum in Phnom Penh. “He talked about how during the rainy season, Angkor Wat’s volcanic stone goes into a more yellow, golden, orange color, and that that’s related to the color of the walls at the Tuol Sleng museum, as well as the bricks,” the gallery director added. “The brown and yellow are the two colors of the checkerboard floor, because it was an old high school that they had converted to a prison.”
If some of these squares are showing light on masonry at different times today, it makes the work about the passage of time in different ways: through the course of one day and over years or centuries. “It’s about time,” Peabody agreed, “and it’s about memory.”
Changing the Conversation
After setting out to write about Vos and Le, when I encountered the work of Gary Burnley it became clear that while the topic here is double-exposure, there’s something about the rule of three.
Burnley is a collage artist, but his work is principally a marriage of two visual languages: classical paintings and historic photography, principally of Black citizens.
“The discipline of portraiture has historically been a grasping at social status and economic power, giving permanence to the idealized visions of beauty it describes. But Burnley imbues the medium with a doubly disruptive capacity, juxtaposing and overlapping imagery from different periods and sources, and softening their discrepancies with circular cutouts,” Chicago photographer and writer Robyn Day explained in an essay for New York’s Elizabeth Houston Gallery about Burnley’s work, accompanying an exhibit there opening in February of this year. “Reframing an Ingres, Courbet, or Coypel, he populates their canvases with those who have been left outside the art historical canon, centering the lives of Black women, men, and children at the core of cultural dialogue.”
Burnley, whose solo show at Blue Sky Gallery comes after being named in a Top 50 selection at the local Photolucida festival in 2020, was born in 1950 in St. Louis, Missouri. After earning fine-art bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Washington University and Yale University, he’s been a working artist since the late 1970s. But Burnley’s artwork was particularly shaped in part by his experience returning to his hometown in the late 1980s as one of six artists chosen to be part of a design team for St. Louis’s new light rail system, the MetroLink, which opened in 1993.
“In travelling the city scouting station locations and routes, a flood of memories from my youth would come to me in the evening,” Burnley explained by email. “After the project was complete, my studio work took a more intimate and personal turn. I began working with the bits and pieces of the memories that had returned. I have been working with collage in one form or another since, almost 20 years.”
His recent photo-collages come after years exploring historic stereographic cards and artwork, which helped him conceive a kind of otherworldly language marrying Black portraiture and classical imagery, all underscored by the notion of how people recognize images and their connotations differently. Burnley said he was after “an unpredictable, magical, real but not real, there-but-not-there quality. Instead of using two versions of the same image to produce a 3-D effect, I began combining contrasting images to produce another kind of hybrid image.”
The Blue Sky exhibit’s title may be The Known World, but the work, Burnley added, “is as much about exploring worlds I don’t fully understand. I intended the title to imply a geographic metaphor. Black Americans learn to navigate the boundaries of worlds with both clear and not so clear borders. Identity is a key component in Western history’s understanding of representation. Black Americans grow to accept the duality in our experience, the hidden ghosts of contradiction lurking in how we are seen and how we view ourselves. My interest in collage, in physically joining images and portions of images, is ironically to see myself, my identity as one, complete and whole.”
Abandoned buildings dissolving into the encroaching natural world; the idealistic, awe-inspiring landmarks that societies build versus the brutal subjugation they carry out; humble photo-portraits from a marginalized community cut into beautiful historic paintings commissioned by history’s most affluent power-holders: What do Vos, Lê and Burnley’s artworks have in common, besides juxtaposing two types of imagery?
For starters, they seem united by the violence implied in the imagery: the bullet hole in the window, the torture of political prisoners, the exclusionary mistreatment of Black Americans. Yet all three artists find a kind of earned beauty, perhaps in part by exposing types of darkness to the light.
Of all things, I’m reminded of something that movie director Gus Van Sant told me in an interview for the Christian Science Monitor many years ago, on the occasion of his 2002 film Gerry. Though it starred two familiar Hollywood actors, Oscar winners Matt Damon and Casey Affleck, Gerry was the first of three straight films in which Van Sant explored long takes that were the antithesis of blockbusters, throwing hundreds of shots in succession at its audience. The director recalled the advice a film professor back at the Rhode Island School of Design had given him: “Cutting is a violence.”
In that way, perhaps the juxtaposition of two basic images or image types in these double-exposures, photo weavings and collages is not just about the combined effect or the riffing of one image off another, but the transition itself, which can be violent but can also lead us to some kind of greater truth.
In recent years we’ve seen Portland and America at their best and worst, with unprecedented threats and disruptions to daily life and storms of misinformation threatening to drown out the real story. But these times also bring opportunities for breakthrough. Each artist is talented enough alone to merit our entire gaze. Yet taken together, the work has a collective, propulsive momentum: a waterfall that crashes through the bullet-ridden window.