a review of Binh Danh's Yosemite Daguerreotypes at the Haines Gallery

By Hayley Delaney

Courtesy of the artist & Haines Gallery
“I don’t care for ‘sublime’ scenery, do you?” – T.S. Eliot
Binh Danh is probably most recognized for his modified anthotype process examining American recollections of the Vietnam War, particularly in relation to the civilians, soldiers, and battle torn jungle landscapes of his birth country. Using photographic transparencies, Danh takes leaves reminiscent of the foliage in Vietnam and Cambodia and fades the faces of the dead directly into the chlorophyll. It has the disquieting effect of clearly placing us within the natural cycles of death, decay, and growth and reminds us that we are all returning to the soil, the plants, and the earth. The fragility of plants highlights the vulnerability and precariousness of being human that unites us all and forces the viewer to identify with these anonymous people and places.

On view now at Haines Gallery until October 27th are new works by Binh Danh, a striking suite of unique, in-camera daguerreotypes that depict the sublime and idyllic landscapes of Yosemite National Park. It’s easy to be overcome by the undeniable beauty of the glistening silver plates capturing the valley’s extraordinary geological features. And unfortunately, this beauty can also mask over significant, nuanced considerations concerning human relationships to landscape that this series fails to address. It also raises questions about how to evaluate the success of Danh’s work through his Vietnamese heritage and the obvious limitations of trying to connect any artist so personally with their subject matter.

Courtesy of the artist & Haines Gallery
Danh is the first known photographer to document Yosemite using daguerreotypes, and his ambition to bring such a sensitive process out of the studio and into the field should be noted. The plates were processed, sensitized, and developed onsite in his van, which he has nicknamed “Louise” after the credited inventor and promoter of the daguerreotype, Louise Daguerre. The unique character of these field processed plates result in exceptional shifts of shimmering greys, golden creams, and the occasional emergence of a vibrant blue that evokes the marvel of physics and chemistry that unite water and sky. The three variations of “Lower Yosemite Fall, Yosemite, CA” viewed side-by-side are particularly nice, and it’s a wonder why they aren’t presented as a true triptych. They are almost identical, but the blue in the falls, a result from overexposure, varies from plate to plate and creates an attractive movement between the three that speaks to the constant yet always changing vigor of the falls. A more subtle blue peaks from a bit of sky at the top-center, suggesting that the cascading water’s strength and commanding presence somehow descends from a higher power, both literally from the upper falls and spiritually from the heavens. These subtle color palettes coupled with the materiality of the daguerreotype achieve an aesthetic that symbolically recaptures this Sierra Nevada landscape with the very elements of the earth – silver, gold, and mercury – that lured people West in the first place.

Courtesy of the artist & Haines Gallery
Danh’s modern O’Sullivan spirit and his nod to photography’s roots, when daguerreotypes were first described as “Nature herself reflecting her own face” only enhance the series’ connection to the sublime realms explored by late 19th , early 20th century landscape photographers such as Timothy O’Sullivan, Carleton Watkins, William Henry Jackson, and Eadweard Muybridge. As Europeans moved west across the continent, writers and land surveyors sent word back describing these spectacular western lands, but there was no syntax or diction sophisticated enough to convey the truthfulness of their accounts. Yosemite could not be read about, but needed to be shown. Some of the first published images of Yosemite were by the self-taught draftsman Thomas Ayres. After visiting the valley in 1855, his drawings were translated into lithographs and engravings first published in the July 1856 first issue of Hutching’s California Magazine. Though these gained popularity, it was the soon-to-follow photographers whose work would prove Ayre’s drawings were no mere whimsical, artistic conjecture. Though photographers were not the very first to document the valley, the undeniable truth of photographic reproduction hastened a new wave of travel to the region. It inspired both artists and civilians that this was a worthy, arduous journey on which to embark, laying the foundation for what would soon become the Western mystique.
First Issue of Hutching's California Magazine
In many ways Danh is retracing the steps of these early photographers who pioneered the Western sublime. Danh’s daguerreotypes are indeed very much like the early photographs of Carleton Watkins, whom extensively photographed Yosemite in the 1860s. In order to set himself apart from his competition, Watkins ordered a custom 18”x22” large format camera to be made specifically for Yosemite. Watkins was the first to produce photographs of Yosemite seemingly as grand in size as the valley itself, and it was these mammoth plate in-camera photographs and later production stereo cards that captivated Americans and eventually influenced politicians to protect Yosemite in 1864. As the first to document Yosemite using daguerreotypes, Danh also tries to differentiate himself from the Yo-Semite photography pack but with less inspiring results. The considerable differences between Danh and his predecessors, besides 150 years, is in the substrate of the political, or at least, sociological belief.
It's not easy
Danh and his curators try to relate his immigrant status to Yosemite, demanding a connection between artist and subject matter. Haines Gallery’s press release quotes Danh, where he explains that his interest lay in “how we as a nation of immigrants could ‘reflect’ on these daguerreotypes and see our faces in the landscape.” Danh’s interest in how the literal mirroring quality of the daguerreotype can be used as a visual tool to place the viewer into these landscapes is akin to his previous work on the Vietnam War, but this time the connections are weaker. As the eye tries to assimilate face and daguerreotype in one, the landscapes of Yosemite blur and recede, and so the two planes never seamlessly coexist and needlessly end up emphasizing separation rather than integration. This separation between people and landscape is inadvertently underscored by the addition of a viewing case including a selection of Yosemite family photos dating to the 1920s as well as some of Watkin’s stereo cards, accentuating the overwhelming presence of people in the case and their complete absence in the daguerreotypes. The case further attempts to bolster connections between immigrants, national identity, and Danh’s work with an object label on the left featuring Carl Pope who is quoted in Ken Burn’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Here is the full text of what may be a dubious idea:
“My sense is that our special connection with national parks comes from the fact that we’re a nation of immigrants. We’re a nation of people for whom this is not home, and the national parks are what anchor and root us on this continent. They are the meaning of home for many of us. They’re what it means to be an American, to inhabit this continent. It’s at the end of the immigrant experience, and they’re what takes you and says, ‘Now I am an American.’”
With this in mind, the series takes on the quality of a journey, not only through an antiquated alternative method of photography, but also through Danh’s immigrant heritage. Visiting Yosemite for the first time, Danh is searching and recording “what it means to be an American.” It is as if Danh and previous immigrant visitors were not American enough until they experienced the valley, or some other national park. In this context it is not an official declaration of citizenship, the cities immigrants live and work in, nor the lands they till and the crops they pick, but a pilgrimage to a very unique kind of land that makes and made us Americans. Danh is trying to create a kind of iconic landscape, where the daguerreotypes can serve as a removed but equal way to commune and witness this transformative process within ourselves without actually being in Yosemite National Park.
In order for the public and immigrants to visit and experience America’s parks, we had to build roads, lay down tracks, build lodging and other accommodations. One of the biggest supporters to establish national preserves were the railroad companies who noticed their rider-ship rose as the popularity of Yosemite and Yellowstone increased. Decisions were made in our parks to exterminate certain animals that “shouldn’t” be in the park to “protect” ones that “should.” Fires that were apart of the natural ecological cycles were squandered. It’s a paradox which Aldo Leopold aptly describes, “All conservation of wilderness is self-defeating, for to cherish we must see and fondle, and when enough have seen and fondled, there is no wilderness left to cherish.” This is what more accurately describes our relationship as a nation of immigrants to the American continent and our national parks. Instead Danh’s work exudes the romanticism of past and present environmental preservationists whom believe that technology alone has ruined our land, our urban environments totally spoiled and beyond repair, and that our souls can only be rejuvenated in what is a false primeval beauty of our protected lands. How can a park like Yosemite that now receives 4 million visitors a year and includes 1,113 manmade structures honestly retain this pureness? And even before Europeans discovered the valley, indigenous populations for 8,000 years were radically changing the landscape through intentional burns to yield more grasslands and tame creeping tree lines, a fact that Watkin’s and his contemporaries also largely chose to disregard. Danh’s Yosemite misses out on all of this and in common form continues our nation’s legacy to elevate the exceptional and ignores the ordinary, distracting us from the environments we really should be closer to, the environments we live in and the places where immigrants really became Americans – their homes.
More Immigrants

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