Car-centric photographs capture comfortingly familiar cityscapes
Coffee table books of Atlanta would have you think their sweeping views of Turner Field, street festivals and brightly lit skylines are plausible views of the city. But Vivian Liddell's drive-by photographs of radio towers, power lines and fractured views of downtown skyscrapers feel far more eerily familiar than such perky boosterism bathed in Magic Hour light and glittering prosperity.
Liddell's extraordinarily pithy solo show Carscapes features just four works, but they express something elemental and familiar about Atlanta, whose asphalt landscape can feel to our practiced eyes as intimate and homey as Georgia's foliage and animal life would have to an 18th-century settler.
Liddell's views are shot on the fly from the city dweller's most common perspective — within a turtle shell of steel and moving at phenomenal speeds. Her photographs are equally defined by speed and the low-to-the-ground vantage behind the wheel, but it is their choppiness that makes the images so immediately familiar. Like a rediscovered family photograph, these are our most commonly experienced views of the city as defined by abrupt movement place to place.
"Success Lives Here," a 33-by- 48-inch C-Print on foam board, offers a fragmented view of a radio tower cut off at the "head" and "legs." Behind it, a water tower bears the booster's rubber stamp motto "Success Lives Here." As in several of Liddell's images, the predominate feature of this roadside view is a vast, mottled white and gray sky. Like photographer Gretchen Hupfel's views of the ubiquitous but invisible architecture of radio towers and airplanes or Ruth Dusseault's documentation of the violently tilled earth and disturbed landscape of Atlanta's go-go development, Liddell depicts a similarly quotidian landscape passed by every day but rarely considered in its particularities.
In "Freedom Parkway," Liddell's view is again a fragmented one of the tips of a line of downtown skyscrapers framed against a gray sky. Further breaking up the space are rows of power lines that bifurcate the picture plane and a row of traffic lights, which reaffirm the centrality of the car to this view. But Liddell's vantage is not just automobile specific. Her solitary skyscrapers give the impression of something timeless and sentinel-like; a majestic calm despite the flux of the world all around. Looking at these enormous buildings' rooflines is like looking at the treetops in an Amazonian rainforest or hulking gorillas seated in their jungle lair. For better or worse, they feel invincible and almost wise in this jungle of capitalism.
Progress and movement make up all of these images, especially the distinctly kinetic "Wipers and Lines," where the ghost image of a windshield wiper's flutter is only one movement in a chaotic rhapsody of retreating cables, overpasses, telephone lines and the constant coursing river of traffic.
A recent New York Times article about a Chinese immigrant leaving Manhattan and arriving in Atlanta described the woman's awe at I-85's car lights — "one river of red, one white."
"They look like ants moving up a mountain," the woman told the reporter. "It's prettier than New York."
Despite the party line about the banality of Atlanta's views — and Liddell's own emphasis on the city's freeway culture — something of beauty does emerge from the photographs, or maybe just something so comfortingly familiar it becomes a form of beauty.
Like nature's astounding sunsets or thunderstorms, there is also something lovely and magical in what Liddell captures of modern life. Despite every PC impulse not to celebrate waste and sprawl, it is easy to be, like that Chinese immigrant, awed by the human creation of the city. In "Lampposts Mark the River," Liddell shows the retreat and advance of those hundreds of hypnotic red taillights and glowing coronas of white. The image conveys the strange, abstract communities of city life, of an individual, isolated progress on a ribbon of highway that is also a communal, shared progress.
In her tiny show, Liddell captures a palpable and convincing sensation of life in the city. Like many of the smaller, solo shows that have been installed in Eyedrum's Small Gallery, Carscapes proves the heady advantage of such minimalist shows with a distinct, honed-in vision.