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Review: David Emitt Adams and the drama of Power

The photographer's archaic images are at New Orleans Photo Alliance


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The technology gods are fickle. What they give with one hand, they take away with the other. Digital technologies are notoriously disruptive, leaving most forms of mass media in an ongoing state of flux. Photographers learned that lesson quickly when chemical processes that evolved over generations were banished by digital imaging in a few short years. Traditionalists mourned, but then the unexpected happened: Archaic photo technology, such as the cumbersome wet collodion process, became an art world niche in its own right. Matthew Brady used the wet collodion process during the Civil War to almost single-handedly invent photojournalism with his dramatic battlefield photographs. Now David Emitt Adams uses it to create images directly on 55-gallon oil drum lids with his oversize handmade camera and mobile darkroom. The result is the Power series at the New Orleans Photo Alliance gallery.

  In purely technical terms, works like Adams' Sight Still Dim (pictured), a view of an offshore oil rig, reflect the physical and scientific demands of a camera as big as an oil drum lid, and a process that requires the deftness of a ballet maneuver. Adams' arrival with his fantastical giant camera and gypsy-like mobile darkroom must have caused a stir as he created images like Exxon No. 2, Baytown, Texas, a stark view of refinery and electrical towers arising from a sprawling industrial compound. The spidery steel spires of Arizona Public Service, Tempe, Arizona epitomize the otherworldly construction that caused 20th-century power facilities to resemble retro-futuristic scenes from vintage science fiction, even as views of old-style oil rigs like Signal Hill No. 3, Los Angeles remind us that oil extraction, like photography, was a 19th-century innovation. The ghostly, archaic aura of these rounded, medallion-like images recall the memorial photographs found on European and ethnic American tombstones — a reminder that the oil industry is rapidly going the way of coal mining as workers are replaced by robots, and new, cleaner technologies are gaining ground faster than anyone dared to imagine.


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