Faces and Profiles of Utility
de Matt Niebuhr
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I pursue photography as an opportunity to investigate the threshold at which ordinary visibility ends and perception begins.
Portraits: Faces and Profiles of Utility is an ongoing collection of photographs of barns and corn cribs on the Iowa landscape begun in 2006.
“The images of these structures are stark and beautiful, yet filled with sadness” - File Magazine
This project is influenced by the work of Bernd and Hilla Becher in so far as the work explores similar “themes of typology in basic forms” (1) of farm buildings – primarily corn cribs and livestock barns of the Iowa landscape. Conscious effort is applied to find a vantage point that lends the appearance of a scientific, objective depiction of the objects either in a portrait or profile elevation view with titles given in a documentary style.
Often, the subject matter of barns and cribs is portrayed as little more than a photographic cliché. Countless photographs merely interpret the structures in a provincial and subjectively popular “postcard and calendar” manner. The images become empty symbols signifying nothing more that sentimentality and nostalgia. Nothing is more depressing to me than to see an old barn falling down. I try to picture them differently to explore them as sculptures. I am interested in them as figure and ground as it relates to perception.
The approach I employ is to find a subject that can be depicted in a descriptive manner that includes a sense of the surrounding isolation of the object not yet abandoned. I welcome the nuance of lighting, of color, of texture and of isolation which feeds a perception. I include as much ground as can be balanced with figure to bring focus to the icon (2) upon the landscape.
By avoiding a quaint picturesque, my images seek to expand upon an objective depiction to present iconographic portraits. It is with this approach that I hope to portray something in addition to starkness and sadness. I have a certain in-bred affinity for these objects. They have become more than just buildings. I have an attachment to them. I feel defiance and see character expressed by simply standing strong. Like certain aspects of our cultural beliefs about the Midwestern farmer, I find the barns and cribs to be truly stoic figures in a changing cultural landscape.
It is my hope the pictures say it better than my words.
1. Susanne Lange: “The History of Style – Industrial Buildings” in Bernd & Hilla Becher Basic Forms of Industrial Buildings, pages 8 and 9. A similar attitude towards minimal and conceptual art is employed to explore the formal attributes of the subjects in the photographs of barns and cribs conceptually viewed as sculptures on the landscape. The objects take on other meanings when viewed in the context of actual utility value and perceived cultural value. (Witness the Barn Quilt projects in Iowa – where these structures are embodied with pride as symbols of the family farm whose walls are like gallery walls for a family’s coat of arms). These attributes attached to agrarian utility, originally purely functional objects, questions the status of utility object and art object.
2. definitions of “icon” in Merriam-Webster online
"Etymology: Latin, from Greek eikOn, from eikenai to resemble
1: a usually pictorial representation:
5a: a sign (as a word or graphic symbol) whose form suggests its meaning”
Matt Niebuhr is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa... exploring the threshold at which ordinary visibility ends and perception begins. Matt established - West Branch Studio - in the summer of 2012. More about his work can be seen on his website: www.mattniebuhr.com