There are numerous arresting, odd, and luminous images in the new exhibition of black and white photographs by Geir Jordahl, on view through March 4, 2008 at Modernbook Gallery in Palo Alto, but one of my favorites is perhaps the most ostensibly obvious. It depicts Pont du Gard, the famous Roman aqueduct in the south of France. It wasn't the three-tiered engineering marvel itself that caught my eye (as a first-rate tourist destination and World Heritage Site, Pont du Gard is one of the most photographed objects on the planet) or the photograph's composition (even the most hurried snapshot by the rankest amateur is organized enough to place the sky above the bridge and the Gard River below). Rather, it was the realization that I was looking at a determinedly horizontal structure in a deliberately vertical format that took me by surprise.
In fact, all of the 129 photographs in the new book titled Searching for True North, whose publication coincides with this lovely little exhibition of the same name, are vertical panoramas, which Jordahl creates by simply rotating his Panon Widelux camera 90 degrees before clicking the shutter. The eye quickly adjusts to this new vertical version of what it had only moments earlier assumed to be a horizontal truth, and then, having embraced the new reality, it lingers on that aforementioned sky, which we must assume entered Jordahl's camera bright and blue before leaving his darkroom a mottled atmosphere, splatter-painted in a thousand shades of gray. The eye surrenders: There's so much more here than it usually has the pleasure of meeting.
Turns out that's one of a handful of modest, but definitely not trivial, aims of this cohesive collection of photographs spanning 30 years of travels around the world: "The images in this book are about seeing the world beyond what is in front of our eyes," Jordahl writes. At the same time, he's drawn to "...places united in their celebration of the Earth and its interaction with human-made elements." Which brings us back to Pont du Gard, a veritable sandwich of sky, human ingenuity, and river. Jordahl wants to have it both ways. On the one hand, he has no qualms about confounding us a bit by delivering a horizontal subject in a vertical format. The hidden textures his camera reveal add more fuzz, reading more like visual representations of emotion rather than mere marks of style. On the other hand, he likes to put us in places that are familiarized by human context, satisfying our ocular expectations of singular and even well-worn locales. As a viewer, I like being in the middle of this gentle tug of war.
The theme of surface and what lies beneath permeates most of the show's other photographs. View near Carcassone, France, 2001 features a glaring white stone town on a hill, bathed in sunlight and framed by undergrowth, river, and the branches and leaves of what appears to be an enormous sycamore tree. The light on the town is so unnatural and the sun filtering through the leaves is so strange that at first I wondered if I wasn't looking at a negative. In fact, I was looking at an image shot with infrared film, as were most of the photographs in the exhibition and book. In the same way that Jordahl turns panoramic photography on its ear (that's about 90 degrees, right?), he turns the use of infrared film on its head. Infrared film reverses many of the tones you expect to see in a picture. Thus, even Jordahl's choice of film forces the viewer to look at the place being depicted through fresh eyes.
The book's cover photo of Canyonlands National Park, which is otherworldly enough without being upended by both camera and film choices, contrasts searing sandstone cliffs with a sky that appears to be filled simultaneously with stars, jet contrails, and the outline of a nebulae. Of course, it's just the sun-drenched sky over Utah, but why write it off as such? Why not elevate it to the place it could be, the place we wouldn't normally perceive? What's refreshing about Jordahl's work is that, in an age when we've become numb to the guilty pleasures of Photoshop, there's nothing inherently fake about these pictures. Yes, the artist's bag of tricks includes infrared film and panoramic cameras, but what we see is precisely what those tools and materials deliver, no more, no less.
That leads me to another seductive aspect of Jordahl's work, the things he doesn't show us. There are, for example, quite a few pictures of trees in this show, which are more natural subjects for vertically formatted photographs than, say, bridges. But I can't recall a single tree photo at Modernbook that clearly documented the tops of any of them. It's almost as if glimpsing a view of a tree's crown is not the point anyway; it's the view of the impending ascent, the journey to find true north, if you will, that really matters.
Searching for True North continues at Modernbook Gallery through March 4, 2008.