Gohlke, Frank, 1942-

Alternative names
Dates:
Birth 1942
Americans
English

Biographical notes:

Frank Gohlke began photographing as a twenty-five year-old student of English Literature in the Yale Graduate Studies program. When a bout of writer’s block left him doubting his future as a doctoral candidate, he began experimenting with a recently acquired Super 8 movie camera, resulting in a few little films of the Connecticut shoreline. Frustrated by the limitations of his amateur equipment and the expense of the process, he bought a 35mm reflex camera and started taking pictures. Before long he had received encouragement from Walker Evans and sought out the tutelage of Paul Caponigro. All inclinations toward a career in academia vanished, and photography remained. What began as an elegant form of procrastination has evolved into a decades-long career of lyrical and studied investigation into the vicissitudes of a man-altered landscape.

As a native of Wichita Falls, Texas, a city that resides not in a corner of the world but atop one of its uncreased vastnesses, Gohlke’s photographic sensibility has always tended towards the unadorned. Gohlke is acutely aware that the provisions man makes for his survival are more often than not quotidian in character. He conducts an excavation of the present, undertaken without artifice and with a scientific diligence. He is drawn to landscapes marked (and at times, marred) by their legacy of human habitation. Although seldom seen in his spare compositions, the human figure is not absent from Gohlke’s pictures: it is latent within them.

Gohlke’s pivotal grain elevator project, begun soon after his arrival in Minneapolis in 1971, examines a particularly American piece of architecture and its place within a particularly American landscape: the Big Empty. The silos, each a monolith erected in the name of maximized utility, brim with cultural data. They are avowals of the health of the community and the agricultural system sent heavenward. Their scale, proportions, number, material, and their situation within the landscape connote meaning, and Gohlke’s methodical documentation of their variations stops just short of typology. Through his lens the elevators are at once familiar and profoundly alien, fixtures of the Midwestern topography and recently excavated ruins that just happen to still be functioning.

Gohlke’s compositions unify apparently incongruent systems of organization. In Looking South Across the Red River Near Byers, Texas (1984), the rigid geometry of a trestle bridge, radically foreshortened, seems to pull the eye about ten miles due south in a glance, while a roiling mass of foliage bends toward the right of the frame under the force of an easterly wind. The viewer stands at the metaphorically potent intersection of two lines of force, an interchange of nature and culture, rigorous order and tumult. In Grain Elevators, Minneapolis (1974), the vantage point looks across a Putt-Putt course, amidst a cacophony of serried rows of streetlights, telephone wires, low dividers delineating holes, capillary-like tree limbs, and meandering animal tracks in the snow, all presided over by a line of silos. Gohlke becomes a forensic scientist calculating bullet trajectories after a gunfight, the disparate elements in the frame crystallizing into something that looks a lot like order. When looking at Gohlke’s pictures of downed timber following the Mt. St. Helens blast, what is most striking is that the devastation, despite having been wrought by forces several orders of magnitude beyond human capability, has conformed to familiar laws of physics. The felled trees are so regular in their distribution that they come to resemble iron filings arrayed around a magnet.

Across Gohlke’s oeuvre, geographical features and meteorological phenomena alike are treated as rich texts that reward the careful observer with glimpses of their history. He has no aversion toward including sublime elements in his photographs; indeed his project could not sustain itself without them. His investigation of human activities within the landscape would be incomplete without giving equal expression to the forces in defiance of which they persist.

The majority of Gohlke’s subjects constitute, to borrow a phrase from Ben Lifson’s A Figure and a Landscape, “local instances and local variations of forms that can be found everywhere.” The Mount St. Helens series is the notable exception within Gohlke’s photographic catalogue. The body of work depicts the aftermath of an event that is truly cataclysmic, not only newsworthy but of historical note. Despite the apocalyptic nature of the eruption, Gohlke is never sensational; he is, in his own words, “more of an archaeologist than a reporter. ” He arrives after the 24-megaton blast, after the enveloping cloud of ash, to sift through the rubble. The work of nearly a decade, the Mt. St. Helens photographs attempt to make an accounting of some small piece of the infinitely complex web of causality laid bare in the wake of the disaster, and to pay homage to the steady insistence with which life, human and otherwise, begins to reassert itself.

Gohlke has long been concerned with landscapes in states of transformation, often returning to his sites over periods of years, as with his Mount St. Helens photographs or his series documenting the after-effects of the 1979 tornado that ravaged his hometown of Wichita Falls, TX. Gohlke recently exhibited "Ten Minutes in North Texas," a series of diptychs of his home state, each pair taken ten minutes apart from each other, at the Howard Greenberg Gallery in New York and then at the UMass Dartmouth University Art Gallery in New Bedford, MA. The changes between the photographs are miniscule, practically imperceptible, slight shifts of perspective or inconsistencies in cloud formations that evoke the feeling of standing noplace in particular and just looking. These contemplative landscapes recall another pairing of photographs also made ten minutes apart. They depict the rim of Mount St. Helens before and after a landslide; in the first frame, a gaggle of tourists clusters on an outcropping of rock. In the second, a portion of the outcropping has disappeared and the tourists have receded following a small earthquake. The contrast between these two pictures and the North Texas diptychs illustrates one of the profound truths of Gohlke’s work: change, be it dramatic or barely evident, is a universal fact of nature. From Gohlke’s vantage point, how we measure the events before our eyes is in a sense immaterial, whether in feet per second, tons displaced, or simply the number of long exhales, or shufflings of feet, or grains of dirt picked from underneath a fingernail, as the sun travels a fraction of a degree across a Texas sky.

In fall 2013, Gohlke traveled to Kazakhstan on a Fulbright fellowship to explore the wild apple forests surrounding the city of Almaty. The region, known locally as “The Father of Apples,” is the birthplace of the ubiquitous fruit and a wellspring of biodiversity, rapidly disappearing in the face of expanding agricultural and residential development. In addition to the Fulbright, he has received numerous awards, among them two Guggenheim fellowships, two fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, and a Film in the Cities Photography Fellowship from the McKnight Foundation. He has work in the permanent collections of the Museum of Modern Art and the Metropolitan Museum in New York, the Chicago Art Institute, the Australian National Gallery, the Bibliotheque Nationale in Paris, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, and the National Gallery of Canada.

Gohlke has participated in commissions from the Seagrams Corporation; AT&T; the Laboratorio di Fotografia in Reggio Emilia, Italy; and the George Gund Foundation in Cleveland. He has received commissions for public projects for the Tulsa International Airport, for an office complex in Basel, Switzerland, for the City of Venice and for the Mission Photographique de la DATAR, a French government-sponsored agency documenting the French landscape.

He has published numerous books of photography, including Accomodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke (Center for American Places, 2007); Mount St. Helens (The Museum of Modern Art, New York, NY, 2004); and Measure of Emptiness: Grain Elevators in the American Landscape (The Johns Hopkins University Press, Baltimore, MD, 1992). In addition to his photographic publications, in 2009 Frank published Thoughts on Landscape: Collected Writings and Interviews (Hol Art Books, 2009), a collection of essays, interviews, and musings spanning five decades, as compelling and uniquely his own as his pictures.

Gohlke has taught at Massachusetts College of Art; the Art Institute of Boston at Lesley College; the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston; and the universities of Harvard, Princeton and Yale. He is currently a Laureate Professor of Photography at the University of Arizona and the Senior Research Fellow at the Center for Creative Photography, both in Tucson, AZ, where he and his wife, Elise Gohlke, make their home. He has three daughters, Jessica, Emma, and Grace Gohlke.

Source: personal website (http://www.frankgohlke.com/About)

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