East/West exhibit cautions against false notions of superiority

Living in the List Gallery this month are large-scale photographs that explore the meeting of architecture and landscape, growth and decay, industrialism and nature, and the visceral and the unreal. In his East/West exhibit, photographer Andrew Moore, the 2014 Donald J. Gordon Visiting Artist, has brought together photographs taken in Russia, Bosnia and Ukraine with photographs taken in Detroit, Michigan.

Moore’s photos address both politics and philosophy. In her essay in the exhibition catalogue, List Gallery director Andrea Packard closely examines the layers of nuance in Moore’s work. She writes, “Traveling to the margins of society, whether to locations in the heartland of America or the boreal reaches of Siberia, Moore reveals the limits of contemporary engineering and social planning and the scope of poverty. Collectively, his works caution us against false notions of superiority.”

Though taken worlds away geographically and culturally, the exhibit allows these photos to communicate with each other. Their relationships offer an in-depth look into complex moments of destruction and rebirth. From an ornate opera house under construction in Siberia to a once-lavish, now-dilapidated hotel in Detroit, the show captures beauty in the dereliction that takes over forgotten man-made ornamentation. In one piece with Soviet era radar trucks in the foreground and a 16th century monastery in the background, Moore shows how industrialization becomes integrated in landscape. In a photograph showing the façade of a house in East Detroit entirely covered by vines and trees, Moore illuminates the ability of nature to cultivate sites of human neglect. Other pieces show people living in the remains of buildings, putting down roots like resilient vines themselves. Human struggle in the face of destruction is evident directly in some photographs, and latently in all.

In his Artist’s Lecture on January 23, the Connecticut-born, Princeton-educated photographer traced the trajectory of his illustrious career by showing the different settings and subjects that have captivated him. Moore studied with famed photographer Emmet Gowin at Princeton, who was Swarthmore’s Visiting Artist in 2012, and first introduced Andrea Packard to Moore’s work. Moore has traveled far and wide to a host of exotic locales. But as of late, he has returned to photographing in America. “I think my inner worlds and outer world have sort of transposed. I am looking at things closer to my home and to this country,” he said.

Moore began his career photographing construction sites in New York City. As the son of an architect, Moore has a distinctive eye for representing structures as witnesses to the passage of time, an eye evident in the East/West collection. Moore showed photos taken in Cuba, of abandoned opulence in theatres and opera houses, of women eating ice cream, framed by clotheslines drying their intimate garments, and of children with homemade boogie boards playing on sharp rocks, among others. “I’m looking for significant detail that will ripple out through the whole picture,” he said.

The collection displays some of Moore’s extensive work in Eastern Europe, highlighting certain photographs that particularly represented his work there. In one work, a beautiful internal square with ornamental Italian architecture is bathed in sunlight. This, Moore explained, is the site of Bloody Sunday. He emphasized that finding “sparks of beauty” in a context of a dark history of violence is part of why photographing this region of the world intrigues him. Another such photo shows damage from artillery rounds on the decorative metal façade of a supermarket in Bosnia. The holes come across as open wounds, revealing the vulnerable red interior of the seemingly impenetrable gold exterior.

Ending his lecture with his latest American work, Moore described his series of photographs of the “pockmarked landscape” of Detroit. These works include the powerful image of an opulent silent-film era theatre that is now “a skeletal cadaver of what it had been.” He also showed an ironic photograph of an abandoned office taken over by moss in an old Ford building, likely the office of Henry Ford. The similarities between these images and those taken in Eastern Europe are striking.

At the end of his lecture, Moore said that his best work comes when he has completely prepared a composition, and then something extra, something miraculous, happens. In one photograph in the gallery, Moore happened to catch a breeze moving a sunlit plastic tarp hanging over a homeless man’s camp, such that the plastic is transformed into a mystical waterfall, a natural beauty glowing among piles of trash. These elements of the unreal infiltrate Moore’s scenes of destruction. Together, these scenes from east and west, animate the gallery this month.

East/West will be on display in List Gallery until February 26, Tuesday-Saturday, 12-5pm.

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