Embracing the bucket (and other overlooked details)
Christopher Rauschenberg is a familiar presence in Portland photo circles. Since settling in the Rose City more than forty years ago he’s had a finger in most local photo pies: Blue Sky Gallery, Portland Grid Project, and Photolucida are some of his handiwork, not to mention regular stints of teaching, mentoring and patronage. You might say he’s Portland’s glue guy. Look behind the scenes of any local photo institution and you’ll likely find his fingerprints—perhaps literally, on his camera as he snoops through its grimy back alley.
Rauschenberg’s been such a background presence that his own photography sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. But making pictures has always been priority number one. He’s been pumping them with factory-like proficiency since childhood. Although his work has evolved in some ways since then—most notably with a shift from monochrome to color around 2000— almost all of it can be categorized as “Shoot First, Ask Questions Later”. His current show at Nine Gallery is no exception. Titled India Pushtogethers, the exhibition features documentary photographs shot in early 2020, then manipulated afterward into novel forms.
As with all past work, India Pushtogethers began with walking and looking. “Your job as a photographer,” Rauschenberg once told Paul Sutinen in an OAW interview, “is to get yourself to actually pay attention, and to actually see what’s ahead of you, on either side of you, what you’re standing underneath, whatever.” The unexplored streets of a foreign country might ease the job—Rauschenberg has photographed in thirty-four countries and counting—but with practice it can be performed anywhere, as demonstrated by the Portland Grid Project or by surveying the territory just outside your doorstep.
Paying attention is key, but visual filtering is just as important. Rauschenberg’s pictures reveal an affinity for small details and overlooked detritus, which he leavens liberally into graphic jigsaws. “Something that would be insignificant,” he told Sutinen, “that you would ignore, the camera doesn’t ignore, it sees it just the same. If you’re sitting at this table and there’s an old dirty sock on this table, the camera sees the old dirty sock just as much as it sees your soul coming through your eyes.” Both may be equal before the camera, but Rauschenberg tends to favor dirty laundry over souls. Perhaps because they are less squirrelly? In any case humans are a relatively rare presence in his pictures.
Rauschenberg made the original pictures for India Pushtogethers while poking around India in January 2020. The world would enter lockdown soon after this trip, but no one knew it at the time. Working his way across the country over two weeks from south to north, Rauschenberg enjoyed himself “wandering around, eating lots of delicious Masala Dosas, and looking.”
Initially, Rauschenberg envisioned the resulting exposures as individual images. Some of them work best that way. But once back home he began tinkering, and patterns emerged. He culled his exposures down to a thousand or so. Combinations invited themselves, and singles began clustering into composite panels.
The current show features twelve such images (out of 20 in the series, all included in a concurrent Magcloud zine). They’re produced digitally by joining individual exposures into horizontal panels—the title “Pushtogethers” is quite literal—but Rauschenberg has done his best to muddy the stitching waters. Framelines join the fray alongside interior edges and forms, with an ambiguous effect. Most images here will require some patient study to determine exactly where one exposure ends and the other begins.
The show’s centerpiece Nagarhole/Jaisalmer/Delhi/Hampi/Jaipur, for example, is a panel of five pictures, each with its own color blocks and patterns. Arranged side to side, they form a rainbow of bewildering vertical divisions, like an exotic Pantone selection gone haywire.
The three part panel Jaisalmer/Jaisalmer/Jaisalmer plays to a similar effect. By cropping a bright red motorcycle poster into a semblance of frame line, Rauschenberg toys with panoramic expectations. What exactly are we looking at?
Placing a box around the world has always imposed arbitrary edges into imagery, and photographers never tire of playing with and pushing against these imagined boundaries, especially Rauschenberg. These playful experiments may be a natural residue of ideas thrown at the drawing board. But they hint at something deeper, the disorientation of foreign travel and the latent nature of all found photos. Where does one exposure stop and the next begin? As a photographer my natural inclination is to decipher the splices. But that may be just for photo geeks. Most viewers will find interior lines less important than visual impact of these pieces in their entirety, which is sizable.
For Rauschenberg, the recent Pushtogethers are a natural extension of earlier projects. In the 1980s he used a Widelux camera to capture panoramic frames with a similarly confounding effect. He trawled the vernacular world like a fishing boat, casting his net to capture swaths of 140 degrees, each caught in a single frame. He wanted “to introduce a bit of chaos into my carefully controlled compositions,” and the Widelux served the goal well. By inserting it close to subject matter, or sometimes inside of it, he could plant the viewer into a new world.
“One of the things that’s most exciting about photography is that you are literally looking at the world through somebody else’s eyes,” he says. Close subjects mixed with distant ones across the frame, and depth of field varied, the ambiguities heightened by monochrome. There was often no fealty to horizon, moment, or logic. Many of these Widelux pictures were collected into his 1991 book Haunts, which still surfaces occasionally in Portland’s used bookshops.
Even while using the Widelux, Rauschenberg’s process was morphing. Beginning in the 1990s his “Puttogether” images also played with panoramic form. But unlike earlier Widelux exposures these were composed of multiple frames shot from one vantage. Borrowing from cubism, and the Polaroid collages of David Hockney, Put-togethers incorporated multiple perspectives into singular work.
In the pre-digital world Rauschenberg created panoramas through a laborious process of cutting and adhering prints together. He used silver gelatin at first and color ones later. Both involved tedious craftwork. After converting to digital processes in the 2000s, the task became easier. Rauschenberg has plowed ahead making put-together images, but he now stitches them digitally using computer software. These have been exhibited widely in Portland and elsewhere.
A show of Puttogethers (and some singles) from his India travels showed at Elizabeth Leach Gallery in January. Although produced from the same raw material as the current Nine Gallery show, its approach was quite different. The Put-togethers offer their own unusual perspective, but it is generally from one location, maintaining some connection to a specific place and time. With Pushtogethers such bonds have been tossed aside.
A personal favorite from the show, Jaisalmer/Jaipur/Mysore, combines pictures from three separate cities into a vista which is surprisingly coherent. In each city Rauschenberg has managed to find incidental Rothkos, splashed on various walls in pastel colors. He’s combined them with the jagged outline of stairs, shadows, and street berms—all three are recurrent themes in his work—to create an inviting triptych. A shadow lines up with a bannister just so; patterned ceilings seem a matched set. The picture’s central space is inviting. It almost feels like one could walk right in…if such a place existed.
The invitational aesthetic is even more present in the three-piece panel Jaisalmer/Jaipur/Jaipur, a trio of stuccoed spaces and off-kilter angles in uniform tones. Throw in a few strange doorways, passages, and mixed lighting, and the effect is surreal and dream-like.
If such images harken back to the multi-perspective panels of Rauschenberg’s early Put-togethers, the panel Mysore/Jaisalmer/Hampi takes an alternate approach. All pretense of singular space has been supplanted with graphic whimsy. Statuesque forms in each frame create a visual through line. Beyond that, they have little in common. But a funny thing happens when one stops wanting to walk into a photo. The eye is free to roam the scene and enjoy scattered minutiae on its own terms. And this image has plenty, especially the right frame. With a piece of bright laundry, a grid of bricks, wishboned limbs, and corrugated fencing, this frame boasts several Rauschenberg hallmarks. It could probably stand alone as one of his photos. But it works just as nicely in a trio, helping to close in the space with a sweeping wall form.
Tucked into the corner of the Hampi frame is a bucket. It might pass unnoticed with the other detritus, but Rauschenberg’s proclivity for buckets has become an inside joke of sorts, a symbol of the everyday. By his own admission he’s just as likely to photograph a bucket as the Taj Mahal towering over it.
“What does a bucket look like in India?” he asked Sutninen. “Looks different than a bucket in America. It’s about seeing/seeing. Seeing the Indian bucket differently and also about seeing the American bucket differently—and our assumptions, what we think. Certainly in this country the people who haven’t traveled, haven’t seen other ways to do things, are at a disadvantage in terms of how they can understand what’s happening in the world, but also how they understand what’s happening in their own hometown.”
Rauschenberg is now 69. He’s been at this photo game for a while and, if this show is any evidence, he has the process down pat. The photos at Nine Gallery—printed at home by him on an archival pigment printer—are perfect in their resolution and color rendition. Compared to his earlier work, especially from the pre-digital era, these are near the end game in terms of print quality.
If you’re a photographer who’s tried your hand at home printing, be prepared for jealousy when you visit this show. The images hold their own from a distance, but pixel peepers will be equally rewarded. From a few inches away, the resolution holds up just as well. I found the ideal distance for myself to be just a foot or so from the prints. At this remove, they had an immersive quality which recalled the old Widelux pictures, stuck in the craw of a branch or butting up against a trash barrel, or poking around behind some photographic institution.
Christopher Rauschenberg’s India Pushtogethers, June 3rd through June 26th, 2021, Nine Gallery (inside Blue Sky Galllery), 122 NW 8th Avenue, Portland, Oregon. Open Wednesday through Saturday from noon to 5 pm. The artist will be at the gallery each Saturday in June from 3:30 to 5 pm.