I want to introduce you to a new portfolio of mine: “Towers and Devices of an Alien Race.” But I don’t, don’t want to squeeze it into an ill-fitting box of conceptions or drown it in chat about techniques or influence. Still, I want to tell you a few of the thoughts and feelings that I had in making these works.
Like everyone else these days (and weeks and months!), I’ve been hemmed in by the pandemic, and I’ve been further hobbled (literally) by knee and foot problems. Still, I wanted to get to some place to photograph outside, to find subject matter that would be essentially new to me, definitely unsuburban, and fruitful for art – as well as pretty much reachable by car, so that tires and shock absorbers could do most of the work of bearing my photography gear.
Sometimes we work by plan and execution, but what I think we usually find more satisfying is the unforeseen inspiration when something just comes to us we-don’t-know-how, or when we suddenly see something as though we’d never seen it before or didn’t “know” what it is. There were certain kinds of objects and scenes that went into these images, but what sparked me and what I hope that you’ll see, is what appears in the images themselves. If you consider what was in front of my camera, I don’t want you to think of what someone might call or name it or what utilitarian functions it may serve. Those things can block your view and dull your experience. And that’s part of why I’ve named the portfolio and the individual images “Towers and Devices of an Alien Race” rather than, say, “Industrial, Manufacturing, and Architectural Structures.”
As with my series, “The Machine of Secrets,” the practical functions and common names of what was in front of my lens were largely irrelevant to my central aims. What I sensed in both cases was a mystery and beauty and power that could be made from, or brought into, what my eyes saw and what the camera shot. I wanted these images to evoke in you what I felt and sought in taking and making them: a strange beauty that lies beyond conventional attractiveness and a spiritual power that is something other than straightforwardly uplifting.
What launched me with this series was seeing these things afresh, apart from naming conventions or economic functions or intellectual cliches, such as the common observation that the industrial age is past and that we are now in the Information Age. Part of what struck me was that, to the unprejudiced sight, the objects and scenes in front of me looked just as much like futuristic or alien products as they did like human artifacts of the past or present.
At the same time, another part of my reasons for the title “Towers and Devices of an Alien Race” is that when I consider the commercial functions of some of these structures, and the effects of their uses, I can’t help but think of the ways in which we human beings are an alien race on this planet. For longer than most people have, I think, I’ve found a rueful humor in watching movies that show our fantasy heroes defending us and our Earth from extraterrestrial beings who move from planet to planet, draining each world of its resources and leaving its inhabitants for dead. As it happens, we all see more and more every day the death and destruction wrought by just such a marauding race.
But now I need to go back to where I started these remarks. Because I don’t intend this new portfolio as a visual lecture or diatribe, a statement about global warming or human greed. The photographs are intended to feed our ability to look at God’s creation, which includes His children’s impressive inventions, with clear eyes and minds, to find a certain wonder and mystery and pleasure from what might seem unlikely sources, in their force or shape or color or texture, even as we may also be disturbed by their social or ecological effects.
It’s a truism that part of the mission of art is to bring us more vibrant life by making us see and feel things as though for the first time. Art should help us to see that what we experience doesn’t need to be named or explained – and in truth can’t really be named or explained anyway — in order to move or delight us.
Is it possible that despite our discoveries and advances, despite our culture, religion, and science, we have remained on the surface of life? Is it possible that even this surface, which might still have been something, has been covered with an incredibly tedious material, which makes it look like living-room furniture during the summer vacation?
Yes, it is possible.
from Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge by Rainer Maria Rilke (translated by Stephen Mitchell
Still, there is a more elusive, rarely-noted miracle to deeper works of art: the ability of our “other,” greater self to see and portray with love rather than with hate or oversimplification, to retain a clear sight of the regrettable, but without complete revulsion. Dickens was a master in this regard, and when I’ve attended meetings with unpleasant, sometimes aggressively dishonest and unpleasant people, I’ve thought of the way that he portrayed his characters, so that either some finer aspect of their personality, or some fineness in the artfulness of his descriptions, complicates our feeling about them, adds something attractive to the mix. I think of one lawyer that I encountered any number of times, who was as determined and resourceful in his lying as you might be in your photography. But something in me was able, though not nearly all the time, to hold him at arm’s length, to see him as he might been portrayed by Dickens, and not only show him respect, but even feel some unexpected affection for him.
I hope that there’s something of that way of seeing in these works, something of the beauty in what would not commonly be considered beautiful, but is a part of what R.H. Blyth called the precious and unique “isness” of each particular thing in this world. The portfolio begins at this page: https://www.lawrenceruss.com/index/C0000HrILmRgUq4A/G00006u.ylVUGZC4/I0000fX7RgMX9Z34
Was the Alfred P. Sloan Scholar for the Humanities at the University of Michigan. Obtained a Master of the Fine Arts degree from the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, where I was selected as a Writing Fellow in Poetry by the Program faculty. Have published poems, essays and reviews in many magazines, anthologies, reference works, and other publications, including The Nation, The Iowa Review, Virginia Quarterly Review, Parabola, OMNI, and the exhibition catalogue for Art at the Edge of the Law at the Aldrich Contemporary Art Museum. Received a law degree from the University of Michigan, and have changed the law and created educational programs in the fields of arts law, historic preservation law, and public construction and contracting law in the State of Connecticut. My photographs have appeared in international, national, regional and state juried exhibitions, and have been selected for awards including Honorable Mentions in the Architecture, Fine Art (series), Nature (series), Open Theme (series), Portrait, and Seascape categories from the international Fine Art Photography Awards, and an Honorable Mention in the Fine Art-Other category from the International Photography Awards. Photographs of mine have been selected for exhibition or publications by or in the 2019 International Juried Exhibition of the Center for Photographic Art (Carmel, CA), 2019 International Competition of The Photo Review, the 2019 Open Exhibition of the Center for Fine Art Photography in Fort Collins CO, F-Stop Magazine, Shadow & Light Magazine, Black Box Gallery in Portland OR, Praxis Gallery in Minneapolis MN, the Darkroom Gallery in VT, PhotoPlace Gallery in VT, A Smith Gallery in TX, the New Britain Museum of American Art, and many other journals and venues. My work has also been selected for inclusion in the Flatfile Program of Artspace New Haven (CT). My photography website is at www.lawrenceruss.com .