James Casebere: Landscape, Architecture, and the Passage of Time
"Black and white had more to do with memory and the past. Color was too much about the present, I associated it with color TV, which was not a part of my past. I wanted the images to be related to a sense of history, let’s say, whether personal or social. And I think black and white adds a certain level of abstraction."
(Roberto Juarez, “James Casebere,” Bomb 77 (fall 2001), http://www.bombsite.com/issues/77/articles/2422 [accessed January 25, 2010])
Since the mid-1970s James Casebere (b. 1953, Lansing, Michigan) has been carefully constructing architectural models and photographing them, yielding images somewhere between realism and obvious fabrication. His photographs are stripped of color and detail to evoke a sense of emotional place rather than the physicality of a place ’s forms. Casebere is interested in the memories and feelings that are brought to mind by the architectural spaces he represents. The resulting works are dramatic, surreal, and remarkably true to life, embracing qualities of photography, architecture, and sculpture.
His tabletop models imitate the appearance of architectural institutions (home, school, library, prison) or common sites (tunnel, corridor, archway), representing the structures that occupy our everyday world. These models, made from such featureless materials as Foamcore, museum board, plaster, and Styrofoam, remain empty of detail and human figures. It is only when Casebere casts light on their bland surfaces and spartan interiors that the models are transformed. By eliminating the details, and taking advantage of dramatic lighting effects and the camera’s ability to flatten space, Casebere is able to transform familiar domestic spaces to find the extraordinary in the everyday. He asks viewers to rely on their memory to fill in the gaps and to create a context in which to understand his images.
Casebere stages his photographs to construct realities inspired by contemporary American visual culture that blur the line between fiction and fact. In this way, his images suggest psychologically charged spaces and have an otherworldly quality. The notion that these may be actual places seems plausible, but the lack of human presence leads us to wonder what has happened here. The viewer may imagine a human story within the abandoned spaces. Without people or color, the photographs are about our own associations with these spaces and what they may represent.
Before showing Garage, ask students to imagine what an artwork titled Garage might look like. Have them get a clear picture of it in their mind. Create a list of things they might expect to find in a photograph with this title.
- What do you notice?
- How is this image similar to or different from what you imagined?
- To create this work, Casebere did not photograph the interior of an actual garage. Instead he built a tabletop model, decided on the lighting and point of view, and then photographed it. Examine the image carefully. What clues can you detect to confirm that this is not an actual garage but rather a carefully constructed model?
- Why might an artist decide to work in this way? What do you see as the advantages and disadvantages of this approach?
- More of James Casebere’s work is available at the artist’s Web site at
jamescasebere.com. After you have gotten a sense of the breadth of his
work, experiment with his approach to photography by creating an
architectural model out of simple materials and then photographing it
with a digital camera to make it appear to be an actual structure. Once
you have completed your photograph, consider what parts you are pleased
with and what parts were difficult. What you would do differently if
you were to attempt this approach again? How did trying out this method
of working alter your thinking about Casebere’s work?
Casebere’s work has focused on various types of structures, from
generic stairways, hallways, and windows to historic sites including
the Acropolis in Greece and Thomas Jefferson’s home, Monticello. What
architectural structure(s) do you think would be interesting to
investigate? Why is that particular structure of interest to you?