Through the his use of colour, high contrast printing and images of iconic American vehicles, landmarks and places Ernest Haas defines the 1950s and 1960s. Twenty-five years after his death at the far-too-young age of 65, Atlas is showcasing a selection of his work from Steidl’s recent tome collecting his work Color Correction. In Steidl’s words Haas’s reputation has suffered by being perceived as too accessible and whilst both book and exhibition thankfully don’t try and abstract the hell out of him they do at least show up what a nonsense such a criticism is.
I should declare an interest here. The photo above (Albuquerque, 1968) was a print on my living room wall for a while. But I didn’t buy it: my flatmate did. My choice which featured on the wall opposite was a collage of objets and it wasn’t nearly so interesting. It went unremarked by every visitor whereas my flatmate’s taste (well he did read GQ) was praised by all. With a decade’s worth of hindsight, I can see he was right. It is just a perfect image: the incomplete signs, the glow from the wet road, the cars trapped in their era forever, the lights from the road, the buildings and the neon … If this is what accessible art looks like then we need more of it. And just because it’s accessible doesn’t mean anyone can do it, as anybody who has spent time in my flickr stream observing my own attempts with wet roads can testify.
It’s not my favourite image though. That accolade belongs to a later image, Western Skies Motel, Colorado, 1977 [see here] in which the frame is mostly blackened and what colour there is emerges as almost painted on. The shapes and shadows don’t seem to fit together – it feels restless. I could have a copy for £5,400 from Atlas (edition of 7) which whilst out of my price range isn’t stratospherically high, indicating perhaps the damage to the Estate’s income that the sneer of accessibility is having.
There is a unity across Haas’s work shown here that is fascinating – a desire to take the mundane and make it brilliant. The use of colour is obviously the most vivid and striking aspect but Haas often takes the seemingly prosaic and by presenting it in ways that even 50 years on are startling makes it otherworldly. Even his street shots of New York City use building reflection of crowds in such a way as to disorientate the entire spectacle. That it all feels so alive rather than part of a tradition may indicate a lack of disciples to his vision. Unlike (say) Robert Frank whose monochrome observations in The Americans have obvious descendants everywhere it’s hard to think of a modern photographer working in this particular US-magazine style today.
All in all this is a splendid little exhibition and well worth catching even if, like me, you have to ring the bell and explain yourself to gain admittance.