Seeing Sea Squares
WHEN one first sights David McGlynn's photocollage, ``Boat, Cape Cod,'' hanging on a museum gallery wall, it looks rather like a sand-brown geode circled by bright blue sky wisped with white clouds. Stepping closer one notes the weathered rowboat beached on an island of sand and autumnal beach herbage. And yes, those are two feet, sneakered and socked, in the center of the boat with the shadow of the photographer clearly - well, almost clearly - silhouetted to one side.
Physicist David Bohm described reality as ``a coherent whole, which is never static or complete, but which is an unending process of movement and unfoldment.'' McGlynn would agree when he says, ``That's the way we see things: you don't just open your eyes and stare straight ahead, you look to the left and to the right, so that what you are seeing is made up of different shots.''
This acknowledging of the way we see is a far cry from the vanishing point perspective which was so dear to the heart of academic art. I remember well an art class in which the assignment was to make a drawing with that perspective. Either my professor didn't state the case forcibly enough, or else I just couldn't believe that an artist would stand glued to one spot, equipped with horse-blinders and view the scene as if he were several feet back from a rather small window. No, this never occurred to me. We are ``fearfully and wonderfully made.'' Even with our feet in a fixed position we can turn our torsos on our hips, turn our heads on our necks and, with the help of peripheral vision, by rolling our eyes, achieve a 360-degree, all-around view of our environment. Why limit oneself?
Come to think of it, a single-snap photograph is a demonstration of the fixed viewpoint of the vanishing point perspective inasmuch as the camera can take only what is in front of the lens at the time the shutter is snapped - a frozen moment of time and space. It requires multiple frames to see as we actually see.
That art professor of mine muttered at my drawing something about ``curvilinear perspective'' and went on to other things. I wonder what he would have thought about the exhibit titled appropriately, ``The World Is Round,'' in which I found the McGlynn work.
The show had started out as an exploration of the panoramic or extended visual field in painting but turned out to include much more than the sweeping or elongated paintings which the word panorama calls to mind.
``Boat, Cape Cod'' consists of 54 photographs which were taken in horizontal rows of six. Although McGlynn has used a tripod equipped with regulating mechanisms for other works, this one was executed with the hand-held camera. This served to loosen up the image with a pleasing irregularity. He comments that in this way he could ``actively compose and arrange the image bit by bit as he was photographing it. The images are made in the camera, not in the darkroom.''
McGlynn does his own exacting darkroom work. He handles his multiprint images like a vast contact print. All the film must be of the same emulsion batch and processed in the same tank since slight color variations could ruin the overall effect. The black lines which frame each individual shot are governed by the intervals between the frames of the 35mm film and are characteristic of his work. The exhibit catalogues his work as a photocollage, but McGlynn points out that, ``It's a photograph after all, not a collage. If I don't have it before I go into the darkroom, I don't have it at all.''
Panoramas are not new to art. They were popular in the 19th century. I have read about a very long (something like 30 feet) canvas which depicted the Mississippi River from its headwaters to its delta. Oriental handscrolls which the viewer unrolled slowly revealing multiple connecting scenes are another panoramic art form.
But it takes our 20th-century preoccupation with fragmented perception and a multiplicity of frames of reference to accept a work of art which involves circularity and a willingness on the part of the viewer to look, assess, look again, and integrate what he is seeing into the coherent beach scene with which he is familiar.
Physicist John Wheeler points out that even scientists no longer consider themselves as observers only. He writes, ``In some strange sense, the universe is a participatory universe.''
How do we participate in David McGlynn's universe of that particular day?
It is likely that the first strip the artist-photographer took as his reference line was the center strip, the one showing his feet. We already know that the sun is on his right where the sturdy dune growth (beach plums? spartum grass?) lies shadowed.
From the brown colors of the foliage and his bare legs we realize that it is a mild day of the Cape Cod autumn. On the extreme left are some haphazard wooden objects - walkways, perhaps.
As newcomers to the scene, we feel that we can stroll over there later to investigate, but our eye returns to them in several other frames even as we look ahead to the calm waters of a salt pond revealed in the two top strips.
Looking again on our right we casually examine another beached rowboat. And if we turn quite completely around using all those rotation mechanisms of our body, we see the nearest house, an undistinguished but pleasant two-story vacation home with separate entrances for each floor.
Of course, even a spherical work of art has its limitations and the house and the cluster of similar houses further away on the bottom strip must hang upside down on the wall. But if we have truly entered into the photograph's environs and participated with the artist in his serene delight in this in-no-way-extraordinary moment and place, that doesn't bother us at all.