“Land of the Free” A New Take on an Old Theme

Sarah Lee

Walk into Clifford Art gallery this week and there is bound to be something there that strikes a peculiar note. Instead of the aesthetic, one finds pictures of abandoned sites and old logging communities. Yet herein lies the silent voice of photographer Deborah Bright.The art exhibit, “Land of the Free,” works rather like the movie Momento upon entering. The American landscapes that dominate the walls seem completely unconnected to each other until the very end. There is, for example, a series of photographs along the left wall that depict the landscape of what was once the site of a uranium factory. The subjects of these photographs range from chopped up telephone poles to wire fencing to warning signs. Cloudy, bleak skies mark the background of each picture. This series prompts the audience to reflect on the consequences of the existence of the uranium factory and its impact on the community. However, the series does not appear related to the series against the back wall of the logging community. Instead of desolate land, these photographs depict workers and their families during the industry’s boom years. Here the photographer focuses on the families whose lives are intertwined with logging. The sepia-toned images resonate with America’s past. The third wall is comprised of images from a dam. The subjects on this wall vary. Some pictures are of workers laying water lines. Others are of the industry’s worksite from, interestingly enough, the framework of broken glass windows. Although these three series are powerful, each in their own way, their connection is not apparent until the last series on the fourth wall is observed. A complete tour of the exhibit brings one to the final images of broken stonewalls. Here the caption reads, “Only the walls endure: signs to most of a noble history of independence and enterprise; reminders to others of conquest and broken promises.” The broken promises that the caption speaks of are implied in all the photography series within the exhibit. The exhibit takes an introspective and, indeed, very critical look at the consequences of American progress. Although Bright appears to be of a quiet and thoughtful demeanor, the political views expressed by her work are by no means placid. Bright remembers growing up in the 60’s and seeing the youth of America sent off to fight in the Vietnam War, located half a world away. It is no wonder then that she came to view war in a very negative light, as can be seen in her exhibits. However, her decision to integrate her political viewpoints into her work really launched when Ronald Reagan was elected to office in the 80’s. In her mind, the Reagan administration marked an end to the pro-welfare, progressive path of America, turning instead to adopting more conservative policies like Reaganomics. Reagan, essentially, seemed to mark an end to the policies set forth by the changes in the 1960’s. Bright was alarmed that the Reagan administration would become “new military sheikh,” and thus began to create works that would make people more aware and thoughtful about the direction their societies were taking. Since the early 1980s, Bright has created landscape photography works that question the general optimistic perspective on human progress. “Bang Show,” the predecessor to the current exhibit, included pictures of war-related sites such as Bloody Lane from the gruesome Civil War battle, the Battle of Antietum. Another photograph was taken of the original site where the first atomic bomb was launched. Collectively, these photographs gave a sense of the horrible implications of war. As civilization “progressed,” it also seemed to improve its ability to wipe out entire populations. Following the “Bang Show,” Bright worked on another exhibit entitled “All That Is Solid” that ran from 1993 to 2000. Bright was first inspired by the collection of building pieces from around the world embedded on the walls of the Chicago Tribune. She decided to create an exhibit that would examine the capital abandonment of old industrial cities. Some of the photographs in her exhibit depicted abandoned and run-down retail districts. Still other pictures depicted communities, such as Utica, that are attempting to revive the dying economy by creating parks and malls. However, these communities are still struggling and their efforts have failed, as evident in one photograph of a sign for Utica’s “mini park.” Bright also included pictures of walls that blocked off the view of the ghetto districts in these areas. She tried to get through the message that the walls were a byproduct of industrial society, which tries to avoid its problems instead of confronting them. Bright noted that the “image of industry is commodified.” Yet through her work, she has clearly conveyed the message that industry has debilitating effects on society.Bright’s work, instead of providing picturesque images, tries to provide a sense of the other side of the coin. Her work is very thought provoking. She will continue to challenge the minds of people everywhere. However, her ability to challenge the mind of the campus-bound Colgate student is limited as the exhibit at Clifford Art Gallery ends on December 10th .