From the Highest Heights to the Lowest Depths, in Photographs

Vertical Explorations Across North America
By François Lebeau and Jesse Lynch

A World Beneath the Waves
By Christian Vizl

Magnesium carbonate is a hygroscopic, abrasive powder used by rock climbers to aid grip. It is a subtle but telling feature of many of François Lebeau’s photographs. An inch-wide crack running up a sandstone tower in the Utah desert is rimmed with a dusting of white; an arete of volcanic tuff in Oregon is vertically speckled with bursts of pale powder; ascending a bronze-colored wall in West Virginia is a constellation of silvery smudges. Extending high above each photograph’s human subject, these traces remind us that climbers are no longer, generally, in pursuit of firsts. Even the most isolated and challenging peaks of North America have been climbed multiple times by multiple routes. What, then, drives hundreds of thousands of people to pit mind and body against gravity and matter weekend after weekend? These images suggest an answer more complicated than a yearning to be tested, or anything as pure as a love of the great outdoors. “Climbing Rock: Vertical Explorations Across North America,” with text by Jesse Lynch, follows the climber’s year through sites in the United States, Canada and Mexico. As the book crosses latitudes and seasons, the colors of the rock progress (reds, grays, browns) in tandem with those of the surrounding trees and the light itself.

Light is critical to climber and photographer alike. At what time of day in March will the sun dry the morning wetness from this wall; when will shade shelter this canyon from the July heat? Many of Lebeau’s most striking images are taken shortly after dawn or before dusk, when low light summons the rock’s textures; he is alert, as well, to those thresholds where light meets shadow and the rock’s shape is exposed. Lebeau himself appears in the book only as a shadow, alongside a cursory introduction (his fellow climber Peter Croft provides something longer), hanging from a horizontal line, a tiny silhouette projected onto a sun-gilded wall of West Virginia’s New River Gorge. It’s a reminder that, however gravity-defying his subjects seem, however audacious, there is always somewhere nearby an unseen presence in a similarly vertiginous situation, maneuvering a kilo of camera kit.

Lebeau, a French Canadian photographer based in San Francisco, is above all a portraitist. With one tape-bandaged hand lodged in that chalk-dusted crack in Utah, a climber rests a cheek on the sandstone as she holds herself several meters above the ground. Her jaw is set firm. High on a wall in West Virginia, entrusting his weight to a narrow handhold, another shrieks “in all out battle mode,” according to Lynch’s caption; but is he shrieking in pain, exhilaration or fear? In a photograph taken in Rumney, N.H., a climber hangs sideways, his face pressed to the wall, his eyes clenched. He is elsewhere, his expression suggests, like someone lost in a moment of artistic creation, or grief, or rapture. Perhaps the act of climbing constitutes all three.

If “Climbing Rock” depicts moments of transcendence, Christian Vizl’s book comes closer to inspiring them. “Silent Kingdom: A World Beneath the Waves,” a collection of black-and-white photographs taken mostly in the waters off Vizl’s native Mexico, offers a different kind of portraiture. What, we wonder, is the character of this sea lion; what kind of individual is this hammerhead shark; what is on the mind of this blenny? That Vizl’s images prompt such questions without excessive anthropomorphism is part of his book’s generosity. In one of the few instances where other divers intrude, they have the effect of a detonation: A school of silverside fish, thousands strong, flees as one past a videographer’s camera. Vizl alone seems not to inspire terror in his subjects. It is a surprise to see that the ocean loses nothing of its electrifying luminosity in the absence of color. His images are not shot in black and white; they’re color photographs digitally drained of color — a process that, Vizl has said elsewhere, produces a “broader spectrum of grays.”

Across the world, fish populations are declining because of overfishing and warming seas. Ninety percent of Mexico’s fisheries are overexploited. It feels significant, then, that the waters Vizl photographs often look depopulated, like an empty soundstage across which his subjects are wandering — a thresher shark, a school of striped Bengal snappers, a cannonball jellyfish. The backdrop is usually the bright gray or depthless black of the ocean. I was reminded of George Stubbs’s 18th-century horse paintings, in which all but featureless, flat backgrounds serve to honor the equine subjects’ individualities. A sea turtle surrounded by a swarm of cleaner fish is the subject of an image of both symbiosis and physical equilibrium: Attended by its retinue, which are feeding on its dead skin, the turtle hangs in the water in a state of neutral buoyancy, its flippers flaccid, its eyes half shut.

Like those in “Climbing Rock,” this book’s accompanying texts are somewhat redundant. The writers seem to exhaust themselves in circling the sublime, their words serving chiefly to remind us that we are destroying the world’s oceans before we have begun to understand them. (Unlike with mountains, over 80 percent of the oceans remain unexplored.)

The book’s most haunting image has an eerie tranquillity that is connected to its subjects’ indifference. Three spotted eagle rays, as exquisitely patterned as ocelots, glide side by side toward an immanent blackness, as indifferent to Vizl, it seems, as the limestone wall is to the climber.

Source link