Crisscross on a Hot Sky

AN inescapably urban image.

True, there are the vague wisps of leafless winter trees if you look for them, but this marginal intrusion - or retreat - offers little competition to the main theme. The man-made dominates.

An inescapably technological image.

Messages in transit. Singing, humming high wires. Trapeze, but no acrobats. Perches for migration, but no swallows. Cabled power. The chaotic crisscross of lines against the hot sky is relayed by an ad-hoc provision of poles and crossbars. This web of wires and cables is given more formal patterning by the engineered construction of the Eiffel-Tower pylon.

But even this support for high-voltage currents seems to belong to an era when communication and power supplies had to be visible to be credible - and so this whole industrialized image of modernity is today almost folksy as a relic from past times. Today's conservationists of ancient buildings and unspoiled rural appearances prefer the wires to be subsoil. They want tourist photographers to be able to snap the leaning tower of Pisa without wires interrupting. But 20th-century wires are also beautiful, a lso part of the history of style.

How extraordinary that the desperately ugly features of early urbanization can so quickly become beautiful and even nostalgic. I've always loved pylons, striding across valleys and over hill rises, tacking in the wind on their charted course to the horizon. I loved them even when most people hated them. "They spoil the countryside!" No, no - they enhance it, leading the eye, as they recede, away and over and beyond.

I suspect photographer R. Norman Matheny knows their metal, too. And he also notices the linear glory of wires against the sky, the tense-loose curve of those black lines, undeliberate ink drawing.

This photograph has about it something of primitive photography, a thing of deep shadow or simplified silhouette against strong light. Intermediary tones are absent. Subtle texturings are reduced. A redness from the sky may suffuse the black shapes in places, and the black wire lines, by mere change of direction, may catch the sun's rays and transform into sudden streaks of silver, but the essence here is the straight contrast of strong light and intense dark.

In the first days of photography, replacing the artist's hand with mechanical device, Fox Talbot, Hill, and Adamson, the pioneers, used words like "photogenic drawing" and "sun pictures." The picture was made by sun and shadow. Capturing and fixing this transience was all.

When, in our time, the camera has become utterly commonplace - the easiest, most vastly overused image-producer - it happens, just now and then, that a good photograph appears that aspires toward the basic, original concept of the "sun picture." Like this one by Matheny.

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