Published in Artforum, March 2012. To learn more about the exhibition, click here to visit the Edwynn Houk Gallery website.
Robert Bourdeau trained and worked as an architectural technologist before an influential encounter with Aperture magazine and its editor, Minor White. A ten-year friendship with that elder statesman of photography encouraged Bourdeau to pursue the medium and embrace the emotional expressiveness on which White placed so much importance. Now in his eighties, Bourdeau is best known for landscape photographs in which the subject fills the entire frame, a compositional choice that emphasizes texture and occasionally creates odd spatial effects. Two pictures in this exhibition, his second at the gallery, exemplify this style. Yorkshire, England, 1985 is a straightforward depiction of scruffy northern fields, yet a low stone wall that divides the image horizontally adds a sense of strangeness. The wall masks a slope so that the land behind it appears as if a giant hand is pulling it upward, drawing it parallel to Bourdeau’s lens. Ontario, Canada, 1981 guilelessly portrays logs floating in a placid river. Yet the graphic contrast between the lightly colored bark and the water’s dark surface creates a pattern that Bourdeau must have known would recall Jasper Johns’s then-new crosshatch paintings.
The majority of the two dozen photographs in this show, however, depict industrial sites in varying states of disuse and decay. Despite the modest size of his prints—none exceed fourteen inches on their longest side—Bourdeau’s large-format camera allows him to describe these scenes with remarkable detail. Pennsylvania, USA, 1995 is a frontal view of a cylindrical tank. A stairway that cuts diagonally across the composition is the only straight line amid swirls of corrosion marking the tank’s surface, which bring to mind Gustave Moreau’s fanciful Symbolist backgrounds. Elsewhere, Bourdeau seems attracted to pairs, as evident in the twin silos and boulders in Virginia, USA, 1993, the double tuba-shaped metal piping in Lorraine, France, 1999, and the nearly symmetrical balance of Saarland, Germany, 1999. The most dramatic image is Pennsylvania, USA, 1997, in which an X-shaped metal brace stands before another cylindrical storage tank. The brace crosses in front of cascading rust and piles of debris, as if Bourdeau wanted to negate the scene—an X, after all, is what you might draw on a contact sheet to mark the photograph you don’t want to print. That some of the background detail is reflected in a pool of water at the bottom of the image is a virtuosic touch.
The attention granted these hulking machines and metal surfaces may bring to mind 1920s-era photographic celebrations of the power of industrial machinery, such as those by Albert Renger-Patzsch. But Bourdeau’s series, made in the 1990s across northwestern Europe and the United States, is opposite in feeling: With Romantic melancholy, he documents the demise of the era that Renger-Patzsch’s New Objectivist images heralded, offering evidence of globalization’s effects on first-world manufacturing economies. Perniciously high unemployment has once again brought the erosion of traditional manufacturing centers to the forefront of international consciousness. Such dilemmas make Bourdeau’s depiction of the material ruins of these changes all the more relevant.