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The Reality of Unreality 

In the beginning, photography was known for its capacity for precise realism, as well as for the compactness of the photographic image. The original daguerreotypes were tiny, jewel-like images produced by large-view cameras. By the 1930s, all that was reversed as tiny Leica cameras gave us much bigger prints. Of late, big-view cameras have returned, but as facilitators of the really big prints that have become fashionable over the past two decades, photographs with the presence of large paintings.

The Germans, specifically Bernd and Hilla Becher, Andreas Gursky and Thomas Struth got the ball rolling with their stark, clinical, oversized images of industrial landscapes and modern life. Over time, Struth evolved more lyrically, and American Doug Hall's big, gorgeously matter-of-fact prints seem to have evolved along a parallel trajectory. Is he a knock-off or a doppelganger, or does it even matter?

The first thing you notice is that his prints are immaculate, beautifully rendered landscapes and interiors, and, as with Struth, their effect is oddly meditative. Helena, Wife of Constantine is a view of a seated statue in a museum, seen obliquely from the rear. The walls are lined with Roman busts, so Helena seems almost to be having an audience with her disembodied minions. Everything is precisely in focus except for the semi-distinct blurs of a man and a girl, probably tourists walking by, only slightly more aware of the camera's presence than the white marble Romans.

Unlike small cameras that are raised to the photographer's eye, view cameras often capture their images less obviously, so bystanders tend not to notice, even in heavily peopled scenes like Wild Blue Yokohama, a view of middle-class Japanese families at a beach. Yet here, even though there are beach blankets, umbrellas and clear, blue water, the surroundings are obviously fake. Look closely and the whole scene appears as fabricated as a movie set, an indoor beach that looks as if it has little or no connection with the natural world. By contrast, Gene Autry Rock, Alabama Hills, California, a Western vista as striking as a Remington or Bierstadt landscape, is clearly a real place. Yet even here questions arise, for it turns out that this particular spot is a famous location for the filming of numerous Wild West movies over the years, a bit of information that immediately alters our sense of what we see, causing us to consider how our expectations might affect our perceptions. It's a grand natural vista, but knowing how often it appeared in movies changes its meaning, its sense of place.

Such postmodern ironies underlie Hall's images as well as those of the German photographers his work so often resembles, and it would be easy to view such efforts as a critique of economic systems that somehow transform everything into commodities. But in the case of Hall and Struth that is a suface consideration, for underlying their efforts is a salient lucidity, a sense of wonder at the world around us. Rather than telling stories, Hall's images elucidate the mysteries of existence and perception: the way a swatch of light illuminates the wall of a once-modern government building in Brasilia, or a forest of skyscrapers in Sao Paulo. Rio Negro, Manaus, a view of a stone breakwater with a concrete walkway to a turret-like structure in the water, is emblematic. The placid water reflects the pastel Amazonian sky to form an atmospheric continuum broken only by the orderly horizontal lines of the walkway, the vertical turret-like structure and a lone palm on the breakwater. The result is Zen-like, one of those meditative moments of epiphany when all things appear in relief, as if seen for the first time.

Yet Hall's Shiniuku South, Early Evening, a view of Tokyo's shopping district crawling with people, is not wholly dissimilar even though the chaos of commodification continues at full throttle as shoppers and office workers peruse shops, restaurants and street vendors. Even here, in this Asian Brave New World, the camera's eye remains impartial, offering wonder or irony, or both. In these images, Hall's vision and technique are impeccable. The ambiguities he presents are the ambiguities of life itself, those shades of gray so abhorred by zealots, but which in fact provide the only true and lucid insight into life as it is lived.

click to enlarge In Doug Hall's Shiniuku South, Early - Evening, the camera's eye remains impartial, - suggesting wonder or irony -- or both.
  • In Doug Hall's Shiniuku South, Early Evening, the camera's eye remains impartial, suggesting wonder or irony -- or both.
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