Photographing the Surreality of Western Landscapes: Ingeborg Gerdes at Blue Sky Gallery

In a black and white photograph, a white family of four walks down a steep hill that looks extraterrestrial or like a giant mound of black sand. A few more people gather at the top of the hill/mound.
Ingeborg Gerdes, Lava Field, Craters of the Moon, Idaho, 1988. Courtesy of the Ingeborg L. Gerdes Trust.

Last August, the Portland Art Museum concluded its blockbuster exhibition, Ansel Adams in Our Time, a titanic survey that recontextualised Adams’s high-contrast images of sublime landscapes within a larger, more varied oeuvre. Just days later, Blue Sky (the Oregon Center for the Photographic Arts) launched a retrospective exhibition of a photographer whose pictures spoke in softer and more convivial tones.

The images in Out West were shot over a fifty-year period by the German-American émigré Ingeborg Gerdes (1938–2020); the majority were black and white, though several color photographs were also on display. Measured against Adams’s natural landscapes captured in rich chiaroscuro, Gerdes’s pictures look almost dusty. No wonder, for her lens was unfailingly drawn to the understudied niches of the Western United States. Adams is remembered for his austere photographs of Yosemite’s granite cliff faces (although his lesser-known works include abstract close-ups of industrial flotsam, and his Manzanar Collection—documentary images of a Japanese-American internment camp in California, circa 1943). Gerdes photographed the ramshackle remains of gold rush boomtowns in Nevada, and the ash-covered counties of Washington State in 1980, following the eruption of Mount Saint Helens.

As Ann Guo notes in their review of Out West published in Willamette Week, Gerdes’s portraits—particularly her self-portraits (circa 1976–78)—treat the human figure as a landscape, toying with the distinctions often drawn between genres. Rather than producing archetypal landscape photographs (as Adams did), Gerdes applied the tactics of street photography to rural areas in Nevada, Arizona, California, Utah, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington. Her subjects include the indestructible picnic tables that litter Goblin Valley State Park; a taxidermied antelope frozen forever in the act of crossing an interstate highway; and a derelict travel trailer in the Mojave Desert, advertising “Mr. Goodwrench” as its resident employee. I found myself wondering whether Adams or Gerdes did a better job capturing this region’s true likeness.

A taxidermied pronghorn overlooks an empty two-lane highway, as if about to cross.
Ingeborg Gerdes, Near Burns, Oregon, 1984. Courtesy of the Ingeborg L. Gerdes Trust.
A massive rock, or asteroid, is fixed to the top of an old station wagon, parked on a concrete square in the yard.
Ingeborg Gerdes, Sisters, Oregon, 1988. Courtesy of the Ingeborg L. Gerdes Trust.
A person is photographed perched on the nose of a truck, peering under the hood of a truck.
Ingeborg Gerdes, Truck Repair, Ovando, Montana, N.D. Courtesy of the Ingeborg L. Gerdes Trust.

Despite immigrating to the US at the age of twenty-seven, Gerdes traveled regularly and retained the eye of a visitor from a foreign country, exploiting happenstance and expert composition to accentuate the surreality of everyday visual phenomena. Note, for example, how the prehistoric natural environment in Craters of the Moon, Idaho (1988) brings the puzzling frailty of the modern nuclear family into stark relief. Sisters, Oregon (1988) stages a symbolic drama: a station wagon—presaging the devastation of earth’s delicate ecosystem wrought by carbon emissions—is crushed beneath a massive boulder, a metaphor for nature’s power. In Truck Repair, Ovando, Montana (ND), a man appears to crawl headfirst into the gaping mouth of his truck’s engine compartment, rejecting the awesome landscape that surrounds him in favor of physical identification with the machine.

A small child laughs, while sitting atop a horse in front of a Texaco sign and faraway hills. A dog stands nearby.
Ingeborg Gerdes, Somewhere, Nevada, 1982. Courtesy of the Ingeborg L. Gerdes Trust.

If Out West contains one masterpiece, it’s Somewhere, Nevada (1982). Shot in color, in the waning lilac-gray light of dusk, three figures are arranged horizontally across the picture plane, like the ascending pillars in an AT&T advertisement. On the far left stands a mid-sized dog; at center, a young girl with auburn hair sits atop a squat brown horse; and to the right, a bone-white, ladle-shaped “Texaco” sign lunges intrepidly into the lambent desert sky. Although all these figures are in focus and well-exposed, the uncanny symmetry of the arrangement was doubtlessly short-lived. The dog’s right ear, the horse’s muzzle, and a small green flag protruding from the Texaco sign, are all somewhat blurred—hinting that they’ve been dislodged, ever so briefly, from a state of perpetual motion. Through some strange, cosmic reversal of the earth’s gravitational pull, the entire image seems to revolve around a pale gibbous moon, just off-center above the girl’s head (and Nevada’s martian landscape). Stranger still, the moon is overlapped by a single bulb—one among many in a thin strand of lights that dangles across the skyline—creating the impression that man has somehow wrested the earth’s satellite from the night sky, only to illuminate a remote parking lot.

Several lines of bold, uppercase text scrawled on the side of a shed (stage left), energize Somewhere, Nevada with their enthralling ambiguity. They read:

HYSTERICAL MONUMENT
HOME OF THE INFAMOUS
“AMBER BEACON”


At first glance, the text invites a host of misreadings. Though it sounds familiar, the combination of adjective and noun in the first line is slightly irregular; rather than an object of historical value, this invitation describes a shrine that inspires unrestrained emotion (laughter, perhaps). What are we to make of “Amber Beacon?” Does this epithet belong to the redheaded girl, or to the scarlet letters of the Texaco sign? If the latter, is the descriptor “hysterical” meant to underscore the irony of monumentalizing an energy source which may well bring about the end of human history? As with much of Gerdes’s work, the answers are all in plain sight, but from our vantage point (her lens), they’ve also been obscured. Look more closely at the shed: one final line of text faintly scrawled in a smaller font brings clarity to the advertisement. The “Amber Beacon” is not even in our field of vision; it’s off stage, somewhere “INSIDE THE BAR →.”

Ingeborg Gerdes: Out West
Blue Sky, Portland, OR
August 5–August 28, 2021


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Author: Sebastian Zinn

Sebastian Zinn (he/him) is from Portland, Oregon. He holds a B.A. in Comparative Literature with an allied field in Art History from Reed College. He is a freelance writer and editor, whose interests include critical theory, digital art, consumerism, and portraiture.