Creative possibilities about landscape photography come not through the lens but through thought, says photographer-curator Aubrey J. Kauffman of his exhibition “Landscape: Social, Political, Tradition,” on view at Rider University Art Gallery through Sunday, October 12. A gallery talk led by Kauffman and participating artists is set for Thursday, October 2, at 7 p.m.
Kauffman — who has built a reputation for himself for works that capture the geometry of urban landscapes — is an active presence in the New Jersey photography scene. In addition to exhibiting at the New Jersey State Museum, Allentown Art Museum, Newark Museum, and 7th Street Gallery in New York City, he was a longtime photojournalist for New Jersey Network and is the gallery manager for Mason Gross School of the Arts Gallery in New Brunswick, an instructor at Mason Gross and Mercer County Community College, and a contributing writer for U.S. 1.
He also served as a president for the Trenton Artists Workshop Association and in 1995 coordinated the regionally important Trenton City Museum exhibition and publication “Trenton Takes: 24 Hours in the City.” For that project Kauffman coordinated a team of photographers to capture a simple day of life in the capital city. (This writer wrote the catalog introduction.)
With this new exhibition Kauffman is moving past photography as an image that “can serve as a document of a place, time, event, or evoke a feeling from the viewer” and examining landscapes as “the backdrop for a cause or issue,” a scene “of human drama or cause for change.”
To do so, he is presenting the work of four accomplished photographers who approach the medium in different ways yet share an impulse. “The documentary style is the thread that connects each work to the others,” says Kauffman.
The idea for “Landscapes” was born several years ago when New Jersey Network was dissolved and Kauffman enrolled at Mason Gross School of the Arts. “I was a grad student and in an art and criticism class. One of the assignments was if you were curating a show of your work who would you select to put in the show with you. And everybody threw out ideas. I offered (photographers) Wendel White, Joshua Lutz, Louis Baltz — who was a big influence on me — and Robert Adams, who is originally from New Jersey. These were all urban landscape-documentary photographers. (The instructor) seemed intrigued and encouraged me to continue.”
Kauffman says that he spoke to White, Lutz, and Australian photo-media photographer Annie Hogan — who was a visiting professor at Rutgers — about the idea and developed a simple and inexpensive concept for an exhibition that would mix their works with those of fellow Mason Gross-connected photographer Josh Brilliant.
“That was about three years ago,” says Kauffman. “I approached [Rider University Gallery coordinator] Harry Naar about two years ago. He liked the idea and was waiting for an opportunity when he could fit it into his schedule.”
Kauffman says that one of the ideas of the exhibition is to help change viewers’ thoughts about landscape photography, noting that “it is not always an idyllic or pretty view of the world.” His comments on each photographer support that idea.
“I looked at (the award-winning Newark-born photographer) Wendel White and his project ‘Schools for the Colored.’ What he had done is travel around the Northeast to segregated schools, including some in New Jersey. He was challenging us with the idea that segregation wasn’t only in the South. So I selected some images from that series.”
About Newsweek, New York Times, and Harper contributing photographer Joshua Lutz’s New Jersey Meadowlands series, Kauffman says, “He’s from New York and spent about 10 years photography the Meadowlands. He says that the ‘Meadowlands is a place that you pass through and forget on your way to someplace else.’ It’s important because it’s New Jersey and a lot of people can relate to the scenes that he’s captured. He had never shown this series in New Jersey.”
Internationally exhibiting Annie Hogan is represented with her series “Half Seen, Half Told,” based on the experience of slavery and transportation across the middle passage and the effect of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery, and using scenes of southern plantations, slave cabins, and Civil War re-enactments.
“She uses landscape as a backdrop for a social or political statement. She and Wendel are using alternative presentations in terms of photography — they’re no straight photos — they’re multi-exposures and manipulated files. In Wendel’s case it’s to draw the eye right to the project. In Annie’s case, it’s being used as a layering device speaking to history and memories” by emphasizing the situation, he says.
New Jersey native, internationally exhibiting photographer, and College of New Jersey instructor Josh Brilliant also manipulates photographs in non-traditional ways. Says Kauffman: “He’s compacting the range of the exposure, so they’re very dark. It leads to a kind of seduction of the viewer — you look at it and are pulled in because you want to make out more detail. It invites a really close inspection.”
Kauffman says that he hopes that the show promotes the idea that the landscape around us can “serve as backdrop for social and political commentary,” the photographer willing to be moved out of sight. “I want to serve the artist and see my role as a presenter, to move the conversation along, rather than be part of it.”
He adds that his satisfaction is being involved with the four photographers whom he calls “heavy weights.” “(The exhibition) works on a lot of levels, intellectually and emotionally; it’s a great feeling.”
Born in Princeton, Kauffman grew up in Lawrence. His father worked at U.S. Steel, is mother a clerical worker. He graduated from Lawrence High School in 1971, took classes at Mercer County Community College, and received a degree in broadcast production from Jersey City State College.
He says that it was the broadcast curriculum connected him to the art form for which he is known. “Photography was required, and it was a way to express myself. I had never taken any art. It was a new experience.”
Kauffman credits Mercer County Community College instructor and veteran photographer William Barksdale for opening a world to him. “He had a great influence. He was like one of the old masters. He had been teaching for years so he knew how to get a student to understand what good photography was.”
Asked to define “a good photograph,” Kauffman, in his well-known soft voice, says, “It’s a (technically) well executed print, with a well rounded idea, one that helps you see your feelings and ideas and intuitions come across in what you’re trying to portray. You can look at a certain artist’s work and know it’s by that artist.”
Kauffman says that after graduating from Jersey City he attended Philadelphia College of Art, now the University of the Arts, and met Ron Walker, the eventual chairman of the photo/film department.
“He introduced me to the work of Baltz, Adams, George Tice, and others who had accomplished what I was trying to do. In a sense, he helped me find my voice. I consider Ron my biggest influence as both a friend and teacher. We’ve kept in touch over the years. He’s now a vice president at Rider. One of my photographs is hanging in his office.”
For years Kauffman, who lives in Ewing with his wife, Michele, labored to create crisp black and white images that frequently celebrate structures found along New Jersey highways and roads. Recently he has carefully introduced color into his arrangement and — through the use of a Nikon D800 and its ability to capture large files — experimenting with print scale.
“When I came (to Mason Gross) I had access to printers 40 inches by 60 inches. You almost feel like you’re walking into the photograph. It brings out the visual elements that I emphasize: a sense of architecture, straight line, and minimalist.”
Similarly Kauffman adds that he hopes that viewers walking into “Landscapes” will find that the images stimulate more than a passing glance and help make viewers aware that the photographers are using the lens as a means to think about race, power, and seduction.
Landscape: Social, Political, Tradition, Rider University, Bart Luedeke Center, 2083 Lawrenceville Road, Lawrenceville, Tuesdays to Thursdays, 11 a.m. to 7 p.m.; Sundays, noon to 4 p.m., through Sunday, October 12, Gallery discussion with the curator and photographers, Thursday, October 2, 7 p.m. Free. 609-895-5588 or www.rider.edu/artgallery.