The Photographs of Frank Gohlke

We don’t pay much attention to nature at Phillips Academy. Sure, we mourn the frigid winter sleet and stroll around in flip-flops the second the temperature rises above the mid-fifties. But we’re normally so caught up in everything else that we don’t bother appreciating the horrors and beauty of the natural world. And, that’s what the Addison exhibit “Accommodating Nature: The Photographs of Frank Gohlke” is all about. Last Sunday afternoon was the opening of this unique photography exhibit, which will remain in the Addison Gallery of American Art until July 13, 2008. Gohlke’s photographs appear very simple at first. Some of his favorite things to photograph are grain elevators, buildings used to store grain. The exhibit features more than a couple of these buildings; Gohlke’s most well-known photo portrays a street with grain elevators, dark clouds and a flash of lightning. Various Gohlke projects are displayed in the Addison exhibition. The majority were taken in Gohlke’s hometown of Wichita Falls, Texas. “I couldn’t help using the word ‘beautiful’ for Wichita Falls,” said Gohlke. “But I had a hard time justifying it.” Wichita Falls is not exactly one of the top-ten tourist destinations. Although it was the birthplace of the band Bowling for Soup, Wichita Falls has exactly zero interesting landmarks. However, Gohlke was inspired by the region in which he grew up. He took countless pictures of the place, all of which exhibit a very unpretentious, simple style. Gohlke explained, “You can photograph anything. The camera’s totally indifferent and indiscriminant.” His landscapes range from dark images of a marsh fire smoking at the horizon, to the edge of a thunderstorm looming over a cornfield, to the series “Aftermath: The Wichita Falls Tornado,” a number of photos which portray both the destruction and recovery process after a powerful tornado struck his town. Gohlke also photographed Mount St. Helens about a year after the May 18, 1980 eruption that killed 57 people and destroyed many of the surrounding settlements. Impressed by the scale of the damage, Gohlke had a spiritual epiphany in which he fully realized how small and insignificant he was in comparison to the world. Many of Gohlke’s photographs, especially his earlier ones, seem to lack any personal style. They are just pictures of everyday life, pictures that any five-year-old could take the first time he or she touches a camera. They do not have unique takes on common scenes, nor does the personality of the photographer shine through the pictures. However, in our dynamic world of complexity and stress, perhaps the simplicity of Gohlke’s images is exactly what people want to see. “I’m in another world,” said Argentine Irene Hart as she examined a photograph of an alley taken in Queens, New York. “The details are so perfect that you feel like you’re actually there. They [the photos] are absolutely perfect.” Gohlke’s final series of photographs currently on display in the Addison all depict the Sudbury River. These photos are so strikingly different from Gohlke’s darker tornado and volcano disaster photos that they seem to have been taken by a different person altogether. The bright, deep colors make the water seem to be from another world. In one picture a black leafless tree is reflected in the dark water in such a way that the tree seems to be reaching up from underneath the water’s surface. These photos are so clear and the colors so distinct that they could have been Photoshopped. But Gohlke’s intent with this line of pictures was for the viewers to stay separate from the world of the photos. Indeed, Gohlke left the print numbers and labels at the bottom of the pictures to keep the audience at even more of a distance from the photos. According to the Addison, the purpose of Gohlke’s exhibit is to “challenge our culture’s assumption that nature is essentially passive.” Frank Gohlke’s photographs really make you think.