Streetlight Landscapes

The Surreal Work of Andrew Hartzell and Ed Hamilton With this post, Blue Sky is proud to introduce Molly Walls, a summer intern from Whitman College in Walla Walla, Washington. She will post a new piece here weekly over the course of her internship, each time looking closely at two photographers featured in the 2015 Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers cohort. We welcome Molly to the blog, and we welcome you to come discover these and many other compelling photographs at Blue Sky this summer.

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As an intern, along with working on exhibitions in the galleries, I’ve become interested in the unique ongoing project of Blue Sky’s Pacific Northwest Photography Viewing Drawers (“Drawers”). Founded in 2007 when the gallery moved to its current location, the Drawers program features a yearly juried installment of photography, selected from an open call for entries to artists living in Alaska, British Columbia, Washington, Oregon, Idaho, or Montana. Each chosen artist shows ten original prints, which are kept inside large, flat file drawers. The project allows for innovative photography to reach a wider audience, showcasing many diverse bodies of work, selected this year by jurors Shane Lavalette, of Light Work in Syracuse, New York, and Prudence Roberts, writer, curator, and professor at Portland Community College. Every week, we highlight two photographers from the Drawers by placing two selected images from each on a pair of wooden easels on top of the Drawers. Though the Drawers photographs are sorted alphabetically by artist, and therefore, any similarities between the two artists that share a drawer are purely coincidental, the pairings do often have thematic harmony (as former Blue Sky intern Jason Horvath noted aptly in his blog posts on the subject). The two artists on display this week, in particular, have remarkable parallels: both Andrew Hartzell and Edward Hamilton’s bodies of work are photographed entirely at night; they also show a preoccupation with electric light and with  urban and suburban landscape.


Hartzell’s photographs, from his series Stars and the Electric Glow, address the relationship between electric and natural light, picturing the two together: these moments reveal, rather than blatant opposition, mimicry between the two forces. The first of the two selected images, “An Unfamiliar Glow of Streetlights,” from 2013, shows a forest below a road; orange streetlights emit a warm glow between the trees. A bright spot of light near the center of the image could be either one of these streetlights or the sun itself rising above the hill, as the photo collapses the boundaries between natural and artificial through repetition in form and color. In the second photograph, “There’s a Freeway Running through the Yard,” from 2012, taken below an overpass, orange orbs from streetlamps light the edges of hanging tree branches. This silhouetting effect recalls the way the sun or moon might glow through plant life, but the artificiality of the electric lamps gives the scene an uncanny, almost Lynchian glow. In Hartzell’s scenes, not only do manmade and natural light intermingle, but also manmade and natural landscape, such as with the trees scattered below the roadside in the first image, and the concrete structures looming beyond the forest in the second. Part of the eerie strangeness of Hartzell’s images comes from the transitional time of day that most of them were taken: an ambiguous gloaming between night and day, perhaps before sunrise but maybe after sunset. This ethereal mood, rather than having a harsh or jarring effect, creates a sort of romantic strangeness, like how putting Vaseline over a camera’s lens dreamily warps an image with flares of light.


Though the subject matter of Edward Hamilton’s series Eastside Walkabout parallels Hartzell’s, his images show a sharp focus and use of line that is notably un-romantic. Taken around Southeast Portland, his nightscapes feature a surreal, sometimes nightmarish, urban setting. In the first of the two selected pictures, “Mirror,” from 2014, empty school busses line a vacant street, their darkened windows and rigid repetition giving them an almost sinister quality. A mirror near the top of the photograph reflects an empty parking lot somewhere behind the viewer, suggesting paranoia and the sense of being watched. The electric light in these images does not mimic or echo anything natural, but rather takes on a digitized, futuristic hue, giving each scene a subdued sense of foreboding reminiscent of The Twilight Zone. The second selected image, “Springwater,” from 2014,  shows a bike path, streaked with light trails, beside a looming water tower, bordered by a chainlink fence caked with rust. The bursts of light, though obviously emitted by a biker or jogger and captured through a slow shutter speed, take on a shape and form of their own, dynamic and vaguely supernatural. Light from the street lamps above the pathway trails off in swooping streaks, rope-like and jolting into the sky. The orange tint of the image accentuates the strange, ghostly mood; the position of the viewer below the water tower enforces the earlier sense of being monitored.