Wildfires by Youngsuk Suh Photographs Exhibition at Haines Gallery

Haines Gallery presents Wildfires, a seasonably salient exhibition of photographs by Youngsuk Suh. In his first solo exhibition in San Francisco, Suh continues his exploration of the myths of the American wilderness, a subject previously explored in his Instant Traveler series on national parks. Open through August 20, 2010. Opening Reception with artist: Thursday, August 5, 2010, 5:30pm – 7:30pm .

Photographed during the California brushfires of 2008 and 2009, and now exhibited during a time of anticipated defense against the fire season, Wildfires explores mankind’s desire to “tame the untamable” and the mediation of natural imagery resulting in our subsequent alienation from natural processes and disasters.

Suh’s photographs depict sweeping landscapes blanketed in smoke from nearby fires, while his human subjects engage in pursuits of both labor and leisure, despite the smoky conditions. Often shot from a high vantage point, these individuals are often dwarfed by the majestic landscapes surrounding them. In Bather at Sunset, a distant male figure stands shin-deep in a placid lake, a pink haze illuminating the sky and hills around him. Similarly in Rafting, a lone rafter paddles downstream, her red canoe in stark contrast with the smoky gray air around her. One imagines the canoe disappearing into the haze, engulfed by smoke. This sublimely romantic portrayal of the “heroic individual conquering nature alone” calls to mind 19th Century American Painting from the Hudson River School or the allegorical landscapes of German Romantic Caspar David Friedrich. Indeed, Suh notes that the luminous tones and colors of the photographs reference these earlier masters – but with a hint of irony, for these picturesque sunsets are enhanced by the haze of smoke from nearby fires, and these heroes are simply tourists, more oblivious than brave.

Conversely, Suh chooses to depict firefighters – the actual heroes of these disasters – not engaged in fiery battle, but on their breaks from the job. In Cigarette, a firefighter immersed in thick gray smoke takes a drag from his cigarette. The irony and mundanity inherent in many of Suh’s work, for him denotes “…a characteristic aspect of modern fire management and disaster management at large. It is the result of sophisticated social engineering that is aimed at total control of the public psyche, which is achieved by careful control of the visibility of any disastrous events. Individuals are often ‘protected’ from having direct contact and left with mediated images seen on TV and newspapers. One’s own sense of threat is replaced by the color-coded ratings determined by the authorities. Once this process is established, the wildfires are no longer a threat in a real sense. The thick smoke seems to transform the real event into a remote memory.” Indeed, these images of people going about their business in the midst of a natural disaster offer a poignant commentary on the psychological state of the U.S. at large.

Suh received his BFA in Photography from the Pratt Institute, Brooklyn in 1998, and went on to receive his MFA in Studio Art from the School of the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 2001, where he taught large format photography and digital printing. His work is included in several public and corporate collections, and he has exhibited internationally, most recently at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art and the Center for Contemporary Art in Sacramento. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Photography at UC Davis.

Image: Youngsuk Suh, Bathers under Bridge from the Wildfires series, 2008. Archival pigment print on rag paper, print: 36 x 46 inches. Ed. of 8 with 2APs. Photo Haines Gallery

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