The jagged edges of decay in the photographs of Timothy Henze
Omaha’s Coram Deo Gallery is featuring, this winter, the photographs of Timothy Henze. The exhibit is titled Seeing Things: Discovering the Divine Hand in the Ordinary. It runs through March 17; you can find more details here.
Henze’s photographs do indeed dwell on the ordinary: the side of a building, a worn railing, the shadow of a tree. The world we live in is full of these kinds of things and they can easily be overlooked; but Henze’s trained eye notices these little details, these sparks of beauty, and he captures them in photographs filled with a sense of somber quiet and stillness. His interest in the urban landscape is mediated through his focus on the interaction between light and shadow; he also, apparently, takes his camera out more often in winter than in any other season (at the exhibit’s opening reception I asked him about this, and he says it’s probably because the light and shadows are more interesting to a photographer when the sun is lower in the sky—a point which his pictures amply demonstrate!).
I was immediately struck by how these images hover on the edge between abstraction and representation. Many of Henze’s pictures seem to be non-representational assortments of shapes and colors but then resolve themselves, on closer inspection, into a landscape or a closeup of some aspect of the urban environment. His stairwells and railings and wrought iron gates can still be recognized as such—but then step back again, and they again become planes of pure abstraction. Henze describes himself as a “formalist,” concerned with the shapes, lines, and patterns that he sees, but his formalism remains tied to the physicality, the being-in-the-world-ness (Heidegger would be happy with that term, I think) of what he sees. Few of his images are so abstracted and formal that they become unreadable as real parts of the world. In the gallery, this was emphasized by title cards detailing the locations where the photographs were taken; since most of the images were taken in Omaha, it became a fascinating exercise for me to try and connect the pictures I was seeing with the locations I was familiar with—but after a while I stopped doing that because I felt that thinking about the settings of the images was distracting me from enjoying the images as such. However, it could have gone the other way with me just as easily, and perhaps if I were to visit the gallery again, I would try to focus on the pictures as localities; the title cards are there on purpose, emphasizing the fact that these places are out there in the “ordinary” world, and encourage me to see those familiar spots in a different way—as mediated by the camera lens, perhaps.
Indeed, several of my fellow art lovers were doing something very similar. “I know that building!” I would hear. “I bought life insurance from an office in there once!” These places which Henze captures for us are ordinary places, the places that make up a life of embodied existence in a modern city. How often have you gone to your insurance broker or your dentist—and did you see that curious shadow as it fell across the building’s wall? Henze did.
Henze frequently photographs worn surfaces, patinas of age which reflect the passage of time. My favorite image from the gallery was a particularly evocative picture of a staircase, its concrete treads crumbled and darkened with age. We are, through Henze’s photographs, encouraged to “see things;” I’m also left pondering what these things have seen in their turn. Who has walked these stairs? If these stars could communicate what they have seen, what story would they tell?
Formalist that he is, Hanze is not much concerned with color. Although his pictures frequently feature an evocative splash of color somewhere, Henze’s real interest is in the interplay of forms on the picture plane. For the same reason there is very little overt symbolism in Henze’s photos (although one, taken in Chicago’s Daly Plaza, contains four flags). One picture—the only one of the exhibit taken in summer, it would seem—contains a number of street signs, billboards, business logos . . . and, framed by the holes in a fence, a man standing on the sidewalk holding a sign which reads “homeless vet.” The man does not occupy a large portion of the image, but he is centrally located and draws the viewer’s attention. This is the closest Henze ever gets to overt narrative in any of these pictures, but I thought it was a fitting encapsulation of the exhibit’s theme of “seeing the divine in the ordinary.”
I don’t want to venture too far into interpreting a sociological message into Henze’s photos—which, as I’ve said, are more concerned with abstraction—but in this one I couldn’t help but think of how ordinary it is to see someone asking for handouts on the street corners. Do we see the divine in these people? We should—the divine is there, and “inasmuch as you have done it to the least of these, you have done it to me (Matthew 25:40).” Kendrick Lamar (in his song “How Much a Dollar Cost”) speaks of seeing the face of God in a beggar by a gas station. Sometimes, it would seem, the divine meets us more often in the ordinary than in the super-ordinary; more often in a beggar or a shadow or a weathered wall than in the halls of power, success, and perfection where our tiny human minds expect to find him.
In a few of the pictures, Henze’s presence is indicated by a cast shadow. What does this mean? These images were particularly intriguing because they reminded me of some of Balthus’ paintings, where the artist painted himself in the picture (usually walking away from the viewer into the depths of the picture plane); but Henze’s shadow is in the same position as us gallerygoers. Are we invited to project ourselves, then, into the picture—and, I suppose, notice exactly what Henze saw?
During his talk at the gallery reception, Timothy Henze made some enlightening comments on his process. He uses digital cameras for his photography, but deliberately limits himself to the kinds of image manipulation which would be possible in the darkroom: adjustments to color, tone, saturation—and even those he does only minimally. He wants to be honest in his photography and to reveal that which is right there in the open for everyone to see; he said that the images where his shadow is visible are also part of that effort at honesty. Including his shadow is a way of saying I was really here. “I try to tell the truth,” he said at one point—but he also acknowledged that photography is not objective. This is something all serious photographers have to come to terms with in their practice; the camera gives an illusion of objectivity but all the choices involved in the process of making a photograph—pointing the camera, framing the shot, waiting for the right light conditions, choosing which exposures to keep, tinkering with the print in the darkroom or on a computer, and then organizing pictures on the gallery wall—is entirely subjective and represents the photographer’s artistry and choice.
Henze learned his craft in Chicago in the 1980s during one of the greatest periods of photographic journalism, and he says his approach to photography is informed by that journalistic tradition. There is so much incredibly powerful imagery presented through photographs; but this imagery isn’t always of the stereotypically journalistic, correspondent-from-the-front kind as it is commonly imagined. Henze is a different kind of photojournalist, offering us a glimpse into another kind of powerful and life-changing visual experience—an experience focused on the mundane and the familiar; shadows and bare branches instead of war zones and politicians. But Henze’s “journalism” is just as important as the other kind. His images are records of the ordinary loveliness of the world; they invite us to enjoy the details of the world around us for what they are—beautiful. “The jagged edges of decay, and the textures of corrosion, are quite beautiful,” Henze says. Seeing his pictures, I find myself agreeing with him.