Photographs by Gunars Strazdins
Art to benefit Gills Creek Watershed Association
Gills Creek Elegies, an exhibition of photographs by Gunars Strazdins, was on display from July 6 through September 30, 2017, at the Gallery at City Hall. Taken over 25 years ago, the images continue to resonate as a visual eulogy for Gills Creek in the aftermath of the October 2015 flood.
The remaining art work is still available and can be viewed in GCWA's online gallery
On March 14, 2016, Gunars Strazdins donated twenty-one works to the Gills Creek Watershed Association.
Gills Creek Elegies 1991
The standard definition of an elegy is "a song or poem expressing sorrow or lamentation especially for one who is dead - or something (as a speech) resembling such a song or poem." In titling my photographic series Gill's Creek Elegies I searched for a word that evoked my feelings about the scenes and objects that I was photographing. Elegies seemed very descriptive to me since the abuse and destruction of the environment that I observed during the time I was engaged in the project evoked in me a profound sense of sadness. I thought of my images collectively as serious meditative commentaries -visual elegies.
As I write about this series, 25 years after their completion, my feelings about the project are colored by the recent catastrophic flood events along the Gills Creek watershed in October of 2015.
By 1991 I had been living for 11 years in a small neighborhood adjacent to Gills Creek. The creek I learned later from Wikipedia, was named after a settler, James Gill in the 1740's. In my series I used an apostrophe after Gill in the title; it is omitted in usage today.
My neighborhood was called Dogwood Estates by some of the residents and is south of Midlands Technical College and parallels South Beltline Boulevard. Houses on Timberlane Road, directly adjacent to Gills Creek, received some of the most severe damage during and after the flood of 2015. I and my family lived on the next street over - Glenhaven Drive, a street that also suffered considerable damage. In 1991 my neighborhood was a leafy, quiet place of modest homes and well tended yards and gardens. However, the proximity to Gills Creek always presented a level of anxiety and Timberlane Road was flooded several times during the time we lived there. Ominously and with foresight, during a neighborhood zoning meeting, an informed neighbor warned us that the greatest danger all of us faced was a failure of the dams upstream. The neighborhood also was close to a noxious manufacturing plant, whose odors would regularly foul the air, and further south, was the rising Columbia landfill. Since the neighborhood is at the bottom end of a series of dams that constrict Gills Creek, the pollution and debris that I observed in the stream during occasional forays into the swampy woodlands was unsettling and depressing. There would be abandoned deer bones, Styrofoam containers, aluminum cans, and litter of all sorts that would find its way into the stream and surrounding woods. I would regularly see solitary fishermen fishing in the creek in what I assumed was a toxic mix of runoff fertilizer, weed killer, road oils and compressed landfill goo. This was in sharp contrast to the fishing I had done in clear streams while living in Montana in the 1970's. About this time, I had also attended an Environmental Conference for photography professionals at the Penland School for the Arts in North Carolina. At the conference, I sat on the ground with others for two hours listening to an elder of a southwestern Indian tribe, recite the prophecies of his people that we were facing dire environmental catastrophes with our desecration of the land. His people also foretold the coming of global warming.
This is the context in which the photographs were conceived, shot, constructed and printed. The images were very personal to me , as was their specific location. The objects and views were either found or photographed within a few miles of my home. As a perpetually busy professor, I did these images during a sabbatical from teaching at the University of South Carolina. I showed them in our community, got polite responses and an occasional thank you for bringing some environmental concerns to the forefront. I was not an active environmental crusader - I did not have the time, skills or political connections. I was an artist responding in a personal way like a poet, to a visceral, lived experience of distress at the environmental damage that we collectively have caused in natural areas of our metropolitan area.
In the years since, with the formation of the Gills Creek Watershed Association, I am hopeful that a comprehensive, constructive and proactive approach to managing the watershed will be found. Ironically, I and my wife now live upstream from my old neighborhood in Forest Lake, blocks away from several ruined dams. I am sure that the tremendous water runoff from roads and driveways during the 2015 rain contributed to the flooding of the watershed and the topping of some of the dams. The destructive flooding of 2015 is a collective problem. Commercial and private home development has altered the landscape and the natural drainage of the whole watershed over the years. I feel not just the homeowners living on the lakes but the entire area encompassing the watershed needs to provide financial support through some kind of special tax district to better regulate the flow of water. The natural conditions of the watershed have been fundamentally altered. And, speculatively, global warming is changing the severity of weather events. Today, there is added urgency for a major change in how we consider the watershed that goes beyond the aesthetic marring and pollution I observed a quarter of a century ago. My hope is, in a modest way, that the donation of my entire photographic series can be of some help to the Gills Creek Watershed Association.
Production Background: Gills Creek Elegies
The series of photographs, Gills Creek Elegies was created in 1991 while on a sabbatical leave at the Department of Art at the University of South Carolina. At the time I was in the middle of establishing a Fine Arts concentration in photography for the department. The photo area, was housed in an adjunct space, an aging former apartment building on Pendelton Street (Kirkland Apartments). The university wanted to tear it down. Today, that beautifully restored building is part of the Inn at Carolina, an elegant complex that the university and the city take great pride in, despite the initial controversies surrounding the project.
By 1990 I had been teaching photography in Kirkland Apartments for almost ten years. On the first floor, former bedrooms, living rooms and kitchens had been converted to classroom space and 3 darkrooms. I wanted to start a graduate program for the area and needed to create a separate darkroom for more private and professional use. With financial support from Dean Carol Kay (Arts and Sciences at the time) and my department chair, Dr. John O'Neill, I spent months building a very well equipped darkroom on the second floor that allowed me to print the large photographs for the Gills Creek Elegies.
This series was the only major, black and white series that I printed in the new darkroom. The series was the inaugural exhibition (September 19 - November 15, 1991) at the now defunct Meteor Gallery (started by Vista pioneer, Clark Ellefson) on Lincoln street in the Vista. The series was also shown at the Thomson Gallery at Furman University in Greenville, South Carolina (February 5 -26, 1993), at the University of South Carolina - Sumter (July 10 -August 31, 1995) and three images were in the South Carolina State Arts Commission Triennial of 1993 as well as in their traveling exhibition.
I never printed any more images from the series and did little black and white photographic work subsequently. After 1991, with support from a university research grant I started working with digital photography and digital outputs. All of my graphic works since then have involved some digital means.
The photography program continued in Kirkland Apartments until the fall of 1999 and was relocated to a new wing at McMaster (the new home of the Art Department) in the fall of 2000. For the new wing, I designed and oversaw the installation of a complex of darkrooms and classroom spaces.
My career as a professor ended in 2000. After teaching for 30 years (25 at USC), I retired. For the past 15 years I have lead a life of perpetual home improvements and now labor in my elaborately designed backyard filled with a collection of carefully selected pots, plant and trees.
The images in the Gill's Creek Elegies are silver gelatin prints (conventional black and white prints with a fancier name). In some cases they are toned (color changed to yellow, brown or blue). They were also processed in a selenium bath which makes the silver in the prints less susceptible to oxidizing and increases the prints longevity (archival processing) as well as shifting the hue of the print to a subtle purple/brown. The landfill images were shot with infrared film which give them an eerie, dream-like quality with pronounced film grain. Infrared film, when used with a special filter, suppresses most of the visible spectrum of light and allows infrared light to pass through. Green foliage looks bleached out - near white and blue skies become very dark.
Many of the images were printed from large paper negatives. Some of the prints are extremely sharp and detailed since they were photographed with a vertical process camera. This camera was originally designed to be used in the production of film for reproducing text and half tone images. The camera is about two feet wide, 3 feet high and 4 feet wide. There is a platform at the base to place text or images. Strong lights are positioned on either side to provide even lighting. Above the platform are bellows and a lens that focus the image on a flat glass pane. On this focal plane high contrast film would be placed to expose a negative image. The platform could be raised up or down to increase or decrease magnification. I would use 16” x 20" resin coated photographic paper instead of litho film (high contrast film) to expose my negative images. On the platform I would place real objects - like leaves covered with fine silt, that I had picked up on site. Other objects included trash as well as a desiccated cat and a dead crow. The exposed paper negatives would reproduce the objects at 100% of their size in extreme clarity. The process was akin to using an extremely large format camera with a shallow depth of field. The resin coated paper negatives were translucent so that one could make a contact print (negative placed on top of unexposed paper with heavy glass on top, foam on bottom) of the identical size.
The prints were mounted using archival materials - special dry mounting tissue and rag, ph neutral mat boards. Archivally processed prints, should last at least 100 years if properly stored or displayed. They are already 25 years old and look as good as when I printed them. Other than their exhibition times in the early 1990's they have been kept in storage at room temperature and humidity.
April 19, 2016
The images can be viewed in GCWA's online gallery
Gunars Strazdins resume...