“See how willingly Nature poses herself upon photographers’ plates. No earthly chemicals are so sensitive as those of the human soul.” — John Muir
Elena Dorfman spent two years photographing the Los Angeles River for her series Sublime: The L.A. River, now being exhibited in the Weston Gallery. The river, paved in 1938 after a particularly bad flood following a long series of deluges, has now become a hybrid of nature and urban neglect. Homeless encampments, graffitied cement channels, rusted trestles and urban runoff appear alongside bucolic forests and wildlife. Through an investment in the liminal worlds of a historical site, Dorfman not only traces the visual and spatial narratives of the river, but transfigures it into a symbol of humanity’s interference.
Though Thomas Cole was working in a different medium at the other end of the country over 150 years ago, Dorfman’s project resembles in many ways his masterpiece, The Voyage of Life. The founder of the Hudson River School and a painter whose allegorical pastorals chronicle not only untamed wilderness, but the trajectory of life itself, Cole also explored the metaphorical possibilities rivers hold. In The Voyage of Life, four paintings depict a trial of faith as a journey from youth to old age is made along the “River of Life.” But unlike Cole’s series, which hums with the promise of life and eternity, Dorfman’s images, though conventionally beautiful, are full of contradiction as the acceptance of environment coexists with a gentle defiance.
Dorfman understands the unique capabilities photography has to confront various dimensions of morality and history, and her choices in the editing room are more important than the ones made behind the lens. Multiple exposures are layered—some photographs may include up to one-hundred individual photographs—to perceive the malleability of physical and metaphoric spaces. Dorfman resists photography’s implied abilities—objective representation, the need to place a distinct moment in amber—and instead focuses on processes: The process of photography, the process of an environment. Her art takes on the properties of water as it presents the idea of the river as a fluid one that conforms to different imaginations. Decaying railroads share space with faded coyotes and human figures. Signs of civilization—whether it be hieroglyphic vandalism, stray bivouacs or helicopters—seem to hover between reality and erasure. It is unclear whether these living things are reappearing or disappearing from the urban waterway that stretches a little more than fifty miles through Los Angeles.
Dorfman’s surreal elements are entangled with a truer way of seeing. Blown up to large proportions on metallic paper, they hang in the gallery in an almost impossibly real way, a hyperrealism soaked with time and oversaturated in a way that makes them appear to breathe. Dorfman uses the photographic apparatus not as a way to document, but as a way to invent through documenting. By compositing a fictional landscape through entirely real images, Dorfman questions the very meaning of reality, and suggests that the memory of a place can forget but not erase. She grants the river its own imagination.
Accompanying the prints in the Weston’s intimate gallery is a display of archival imagery depicting the river: Postcards, opened art books and historic photos documenting the cementing of the river offer either a nostalgic tone or a more sober record of the river. The display acts as a kind of solvent for Dorfman’s liminal images, one that challenges the river’s mythology; be it an Eden or a ruin, the water may always have an aura of mystery surrounding it.
Dorfman’s Sublime series could be easily be seen as a response to the latent fears Thomas Cole had about the decay of natural beauty, but even in the face of obsolescence, Dorfman proves the beauty is still there. You just have to look more than once.
Sublime: The L.A. River will be on display at the Weston Gallery through November 8.