I'm drawn to subjects that puzzle me, especially incongruous elements in unlikely places. These are the first photographs in a new portfolio that looks at the ways we appropriate and approximate the romance of ruins into modern American environments, and what this says about our longing for historic precedents. While genuine ruins remind us of our own mortality, they also suggest the opposite by showing it's possible to endure, even if only in a reduced and degraded form. We fake antiquities in curious ways, preferring them pre-crumbled to models of the spanking-new. This places the counterfeits at a curious point in time - somewhere between pristine original construction and the present, indicating that we value our nostalgia for something lost over what was actually lost. Thiscircular thinking about authenticity is the biggest draw for me.
I have been looking at Victorian photographs by Francis Frith, Felix Bonfils, and Giorgio Sommer, as well as sepia ink and wash drawings by Claude Lorrain, a 17th century artist who used classical ruins to create ideal scenes of pastoral splendor. My pictures offaked antiquities are an attempt to evoke nostalgia for inaccurate history, to wrestle with ideas of authenticity, and to question the value we place on classical ideals. It is natural to challenge the relevance of nostalgic longing, and I exploit this dynamic in my contemporary landscapes. I approach these pictures as a tourist. These photographs of authentic sites include whatever clutter exists around the actual subjects, and people mill around, much as they do in Frith's photographs. Life goes on among the ruins.
As photography straddles three centuries, so does my process: 20th century medium-format roll film, 21st century digital technology, and 19th century platinum printing. Since platinum is a contact (not enlargement) process, I scan the film and use an inkjet printer to make final-size negatives. Although the costly, hand-coated platinum process may seem excessive in this digital age, I use the medium to suggest longevity and historical precedent. I shoot with a handheld camera like any other tourist, which allows me to work quickly and unobtrusively. I like how my lens, which is slightly wide-angle, converges verticals and disorients space, especially evident in electricity poles that unify the images. This distortion also helps to center visual weight in the compositions. I want these to be beautiful objects in the way the original reference pictures were beautiful. Platinum is rare, precious, and the most permanent photographic printing medium - an apt metaphor for my search for the authentic and enduring.
William Meyers, The Wall Street Journal - April 25, 2009
"Ruins - the Colosseum, Angkor Wat and the like - are powerful icons of fallen glory. The "ruins" Beth Dow photographs were built that way. They are commercial structures that imitate famous buildings. My Big Fat Greek Pizza Joint, for instance, is in a building that appears to be made of weathered marble with columns, capitals and other elements of classical architecture. But pizza joint it is, and the Parthenon it ain't.
The wackiest ruin is "The White House," a tourist attraction that looks like 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue after having been picked up by a tornado and dropped on the ground upside down. There is the "Leaning Tower" with an American flag on top. A section of the "Colosseum" appears behind a cyclone fence in a water park. And an enormous, troubled-looking "Trojan Horse" is encircled by a go-kart track. These buildings mock the structures they are designed to resemble, but in a way they also honor the reverence we feel in the presence of the originals. Ms. Dow's platinum-palladium prints have the look of 19th century photographs of actual antiquities, a final jest."
Martha Schwendener, The Village Voice
- April 29, 2009
"The frontiers of photography were at Jen Bekman, with Beth Dow's platinum-palladium-print photographs of Ruins - actual sites in the Wisconsin Dells based on ancient ruins, like a faux Greek temple housing "My Big, Fat Greek Pizza Joint." Dow exemplifies the new ethos in photography, both its 19th-century-revivalist aesthetics and the tactic popular among young photographers of using digital technology for processing, but not for compositional trickery."
The White House
Aqueduct and Waterslide