Although certain parties in the art world turn purple with rage when they hear this, aesthetic conservatives are often making the best and most interesting art. Naturally immune to trendiness and novelty, they concentrate on refining their craft and making their work ever more resonant. They duck under the cutting edge instead of trying to hang onto it, and discover something eternal rather than merely current.
Such a stance is evinced by William Maguire, whose show of 126 photographs at the Art Museum at Florida International University is of remarkable consistency and high quality. He is working masterfully in the tradition of black and white photography, a medium which Maguire himself admits is becoming a thing of the past.
Wired Magazine declared film to be on the way out in late 1997, but on the other hand, the digital camera may do nothing but cement the film camera's status as an art medium once and for all. It obliges a particular kind of sensitive vision, carries an authority of historical fact, and produces an object which, in competent hands, has a unique richness and tonal depth which is not going to be matched even by the highest-resolution digital image. For these reasons, Maguire's philosophy, his work, and his medium retain their vitality and importance in the face of the continual onslaught of new high-tech gear.
His subject is the landscape, almost exclusively so, but the landscapes vary widely between urban and rural, modern and ancient, peopled and vacant, and pristine and ruined. The works date from 1993 to 1998, and most of them can be grouped into images taken in the American South (including Miami, if you can do that), the desert surrounding the oasis of San Pedro de Atacama, Chile, and the city of La Paz in Bolivia.
Maguire's images are frequently shot at night, providing him with sumptuous darks, piercing lights, and an effect of the whole landscape being subsumed into a luscious blanket of grays. At the same time, the American images have an unease about them which provide an interesting tension with their formal beauty. In one, a big rig is parked for the night in a warehouse lot. One studies the lovely play of shadows but wonders when the Dobermans are going to come out. Even in the peopled landscapes, especially one powerful image of four men standing on a street corner at night in Tennessee, arms crossed and looking tough, the unexpected beauty of the banal setting is coupled with an atmosphere of threat. Here and there are abandoned structures being reclaimed by land and weather, beautiful but forlorn in their ruin.
The landscapes from the Chilean desert are empty of people, and the sense of desolation is powerful. Aside from the dust-covered expanses of rock shards, there are views of pathways lined with stone walls, parts of which have toppled. Nevertheless Maguire has captured its grandeur. In one image an ancient tree has a surface like wet drapery in a Hellenistic Greek sculpture. The spaces are huge, and light diffuses through the dusty haze like an arid version of English fog. The sense of threat is tempered by the timeless feeling of the place. Here, one would be honestly killed by the elements instead of pointlessly killed by four toughs on a Tennessee street corner.
La Paz, Bolivia, is for Maguire what its name implies. In one image, two working men squat in the street and play chess next to a old stone wall. In another, a pretty girl dreamily listens to her headphones in a lacy hammock in a vegetable garden. The only sign of strife is a photo of a toddler in pretend battle attire, looking comically stern. The streets of La Paz may be made of dirt, but a woman is shown dutifully sweeping one of them. Maguire's warm feelings for these people and this city come through, refuting any suspicions that his sympathies were only for anxious landscapes.
Maguire is everything a photographer should be: a craftsman and a powerful observer with a great aesthetic sense. Artists working in any medium, whether traditional or bleeding-edge, could gain by looking at his work.
"William Maguire: Photographs" will be on view through August 14 at the Art Museum at Florida International University. Call (305) 348-2890 for more information.