Photographic Enigmas

Hal Fischer
Artweek 1982
February 6 Issue

The photograph on the announcement card for Bill Dane's exhibition at the Fraenkel Gallery — two black blobs floating in a vast expanse of blue-grey water — was sufficiently enigmatic to draw my attention. The title, L.A. Zoo, 1980, discreetly placed on the reverse side of the card in 4-point type so that it was almost invisible, only added to the mystery. Indeed. I never figured out that the two blobs were swimming seals, though after the gallery identified them for me, the resemblance became clear.

Produced over the past eight years, the pictures on exhibition are centered to a great extent around absurdist visual inquiry. Although they are all humorous, the finest seem to defy logic or comprehension; we are forced to discover our own meaning or rationale for them.

Much of Dane's work has been done on trips abroad, in locales as diverse as Japan, Egypt, ltaly and Ghana. The exhibition, intelligently sequenced so that it forms its own rhythm and internal order, doesn't emphasize either the travelog quality of the work or its chronological development. Nevertheless, it‘s easy to ascertain the changes that have occurred over the past decade, and to perceive Dane now as a disciplined and structured photographer. In fact, Dane — an early seventies enfant terrible in the photography world — is at this time cultivating an eccentric and perhaps authentically personal vision within the black and white, 35mm tradition.

A picture titled Giza, 1976 typifies Dane‘s earlier endeavors. A vast expanse of folding chairs is framed against a magnificent view of the pyramids. The scene is ironic, intentionally unromantic, and a bit shabby. The composition is rather simplistic, and like many of his early to mid-seventies photographs, totally dependent upon counterpoint. Travel often prompts this kind of comparison/contrast photograph, and for this reason, Dane‘s most provocative images seem to emerge most often from less obvious circumstances that, either through intense scrutiny or through a momentary strange occurrence, acquire a distinctive oddness. A large helicopter landing in a tropical park, looking like a giant dragonfly, or a still life of stuffed animals and a bare light bulb, is the type of picture that plays off of photography‘s ambiguous relationship to reality. To photograph is to confer importance, and by conferring importance on that which is usually passed over or ignored, Dane shows the world to be a far stranger (though no more explicable) place than we may have imagined.

Stylistically, Dane falls somewhere between Henry Wessel, Jr. and Elliott Erwitt. The distinction that exists between Dane and Wessel is both formal and technical. Dane is at best a barely acceptable printer, and his formalism never approaches the elegance of Wessel's. Furthermore, Dane is a deliberately eccentric photographer, more attuned to visual puns and quirks than to the formalist challenges of modernist photography. The whimsy apparent in Dane‘s images seems derived from funk art sensibilities rather than from any facet of photographic tradition. In comparison to Erwitt, who creates a rather simplistic kind of humor, Dane appears sophisticated, perverse and visually original. In Dane's work the world is not only imaginative and funny, it is also enigmatic. Dane doesn't offer us anything particularly conclusive; he simply provides us with some curious evidence to ponder.'