by George Philip LeBourdais
Great photographers make distinctive pictures. Carleton Watkins, Francesca Woodman, Richard Avedon, Sally Mann and Jeff Wall are but a few examples of artists whose work is truly sui generis. Each commands a formal style as strong as a signature.
The same holds for Binh Danh, whose show of new pictures is at Haines Gallery through November 2. Titled After the Gold Rush, this series of 12 large daguerreotypes chronicles present-day Nevada City, California, a former Gold Rush town in the Sierra Nevada foothills 60 miles northeast of Sacramento. Each of these unique images embodies Danh’s distinctive aesthetic paradox of being both bright and shadowy at once.
His own “big strike” came in the form of gorgeous, transfixing chlorophyll prints in which he exposed negatives on plant leaves. The process allows photosynthesis to do its work, rendering ghostly images on leaves, later preserved with resin. The source imagery came from Vietnam, where the artist was born before his parents immigrated to the U.S. in 1979. His arresting 2007 series One Week’s Dead, for instance, addressed the fraught relationship of these two countries through images culled from a 1969 LIFE magazine story of the same name, which provided a visual tally of American soldiers killed in one week of the Vietnam war. Reproduced as chlorophyll prints, their effect is haunting and elegant, evoking both the remnants of historical trauma and the delicate contingencies of memory. Each print weds a fallen fighter to fallen leaf to produce indelible memories.
It’s hard to make pictures that are simultaneously fresh and familiar, but Danh succeeds in doing so by employing several alternative photographic processes. In After the Gold Rush uses daguerreotype, a technique that ties Danh’s contemporary subjects to the medium’s 19th-century origins. Invented by Louis-Jacques-Mandé Daguerre in 1839, the process enables unique and delicate exposures on polished silver plates that must be protected behind glass. Danh’s been making them across the American West for years, including a recent series of landscapes commemorating U.S. National Parks. This was no small undertaking. Making 8 x10-inch in-camera daguerreotypes in the field presents a battery of technical challenges, but Danh has handled it masterfully, and occasionally, even with levity; he’s built a mobile darkroom named “Louis” after the daguerreotype’s French inventor. After the Gold Rush is a subset of these silver-plate images, all of made during a residency in Nevada City.
The pictures provide a lyrical, if episodic, view of the place. With a population of just over 3,000 people today, Nevada City’s Gold Rush heyday has faded, making the eerie, solarized glow of highlights in the daguerreotypes feel quite fitting. First settled in 1849, Nevada City became the most important mining town in California with a major gold strike nearby the following year. Along with nearby Grass Valley, it grew into the richest and largest mining town in the state. The boom years still resonate in the architecture along the main drag; one of Danh’s pictures captures the historic Ott’s Assay Office for testing rare metals and the adjacent Chamber of Commerce, the corner of its brick facade now capped by ivy. Words read backward, as most daguerreotypes laterally reverse what they capture. Even 21st-century cars lining the street seem transported back in time, cast in the washed-out blue tone of Danh’s process and surrounded by the town’s Victorian structures.
The show’s title also belongs to a book about these archetypal mining towns, After the Gold Rush: Society in Grass Valley and Nevada City, California 1849-1870 by historian Ralph Mann. Compiling residents’ sex, age, ethnicity and occupation from 19th-century census data, Mann reveals noteworthy differences between the similar settlements. A haven for Cornish immigrants, Grass Valley became more industrialized and Democratic; with an American-born middle-class population inclined to maintain social hierarchies, Nevada City skewed Republican. Both relied on investment capital from San Francisco to support speculation and construction, and both churned through a renewable labor force of single men to mine the ore. With those broad strokes in mind, it’s tempting to see Danh’s images as tongue-in-cheek poetry about how little things can change over time. Plus ça change…
The prevalence of cannabis, the most prominent theme knitting these images together, would seem to say something similar. Nevada City’s economy has long been tied to the land, through mining, logging, tourism and now growing weed. Two of the most beautiful pictures in the show reflect this so-called “Green Rush” of expanding cannabis agriculture. Cannabis Farm, Nevada City, CA #1 harnesses one of daguerreotype’s distinctive formal features — it broken glass-textured mid-tone contrasts — to draw the eye into the frame, along a diagonal line of pot plants backed by a leafy hedgerow. It is one of only three pictures in the exhibition that show
people, which is significant because portraiture was the primary application of daguerreotype during the 19th century. The biggest difference between then and now, of course, is size: Danh’s images are vastly larger than those that came earlier, and his use of substantially larger plates serves to accentuate and amplify the mirror-like quality of the media. Evoking Oliver Wendell Holmes’ famed metaphor for it as “a mirror with a memory,” Danh chose daguerreotypes in part because of that quality. As viewers look at these iridescent landscapes, they see their own reflection, becoming part of the land itself.
Still, people and their influence on the land itself remain largely subdued in this series. Though the gallery’s press release points to the “quiet homage” Danh’s pictures pay to Julia Ann Rudolph, a Nevada City resident and one of the few professional women photographers of her day, the connection seems mostly a coincidence of geography. A View of the South Yuba River Gorge (FOR-SITE Land), Nevada City is a bucolic but spatially indistinct scene, and indeed betrays none of the terrible damage unleashed by Anthony Chabot, one of Nevada City’s more illustrious former residents, on the river ecosystem. As the inventor of hydraulic
mining, Chabot enabled the most destructive, large-scale mining operations in the state, soberly chronicled by Carleton Watkins. Eroding the land with lacerating jets of water, hydraulic mining sent an estimated 685,000,000 cubic feet of debris into the Yuba River by 1883, filling San Francisco Bay with silt at the rate of a foot a year and sending brown plumes through the Golden Gate and into the sea. In one of the first environmental lawsuits in the country, the 1884 Sawyer Decision outlawed the hydraulic mining in Gold Country. This history feels latent in another picture, South Yuba River at Hoyt Crossing Trailhead, Nevada City, CA, in which an irradiated blue sky matches the color of boulders strewn down the river. But is there more to tell here? If the Green Rush is an echo of the Gold Rush, are there cautionary tales of avarice, hubris or indifference to glean from these landscapes? Are there forgotten narratives, like those of Chinese laborers during the Gold Rush or Nisenan Native Americans whose history seems alluded to in Indian Sun Rock on E Broad Street, that might be given voice? Stories like these don’t crystallize in this series, and it’s reasonable to wish they did.
This is not to say After the Gold Rush isn’t worthy. To the contrary, these special pictures demand in-person viewing more than most other kinds of photographs. True to form, Danh has made distinctive pictures, each a triumph that shines jewel-like against the dark walls of Haines’ backroom exhibition space. (The large gallery currently holds Syrian artist Tammam Azzam’s Forgotten Cities, an impressive show of large-scale paper collages depicting destroyed cityscapes in the artist’s native country. Much can be made from the juxtaposition of these two artists, but time constraints prevent me from doing so here.)
Ultimately the thematic focus and intensity typical of Danh are evident only in flashes, straining to cohere as a focused exploration of the place and lacking the consistent bite of his more political works. These beautiful pictures surely depict Nevada City after the Gold Rush, but now, a century and a half later, it’s reasonable to ask for narratives that pan out more clearly.
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Binh Danh: “After the Gold Rush” @ Haines Gallery through November 2, 2019.
About the author:
George Philip LeBourdais is a historian of American art and photography. His exhibitions and writing have earned awards from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the Clark Art Institute, and the U.S. Fulbright Commission, among other institutions. A Mainer by birth, he holds a Ph.D. in art history from Stanford and lives in San Francisco.