Afterword: Talking about the Weather
Blanchard Weather Report, Todd Watts (University of Maine, 2018)
“Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it.”
The artist Todd Watts does.
The Blanchard Weather Report began in 2014 as a series of emails that Watts sent out irregularly to his friends and followers. Watts had moved to Blanchard from New York, and these missives seemed a creative way of reminding friends that life in Blanchard, for Watts and his wife Jemma Gascoine was just fine.
In Pavlovian fashion, one became anxious to get the next communiqué from him.
The Blanchard Weather Report is Watts’s almanac, a portfolio of forty sublime color photo- graphic images seemingly about the mist, fog, rain, snow, and even sun in the bucolic place where the artist lives.
These are meditations on the landscape – Zen koans, if you will; by Oxford Dictionaries definition “paradoxical anecdotes or riddles . . . used to demonstrate the inadequacy of logical reasoning and to provoke enlightenment.”
These Weather Report pictures are striking; many are, in fact, pretty. Some of them are colorful, although your mind plays a bit of a trick on you. The majority of the photographs are gray. You remember them as colored because they feel special. They’re in color, but the color is gray.
He is a sharp one, this artist.
Initially, the viewer responds to the loveliness the artist has sought out and found. But there is always something off; there’s an imbalance. This may not be natural perfection but rather the artist’s version of it. Shape, color, and composition are more important than real information or location.
These are mediations of the landscape.
The colors are unusual. Many of the pictures start out looking silver, then are heightened by the blush of a secondary hue, an accent of salmon, yellow, rose, or pale blue (Plates 32 and 34).
The titles are dates: month, day, year, as if the artist were keeping a journal.
In 7-17-2016 – that is, July 17, 2016 (Plate 35) – we could expect the middle of autumn. Here is a slim landscape, mirrored on the horizon, basically black and white except for the faintest brush of pink and green, like an aurora. Or an EKG printout of someone so calm that the doctor had time to set his coffee on it where it left a slight and oddly pastel ring.
This writer’s favorite was made earlier, on November 5, 2015 (Plate 27). It is an all-seeing cosmic eye, with washes of tangerine fire swirling around a black vortex, almost like heat lightning. Or, an abstracted and lithe odalisque from behind.
Something’s up in these photographs. This one is 5-27-2015 (Plate 18). The thickets, forests, and leaves are odd, the branches too orderly. It’s as if someone got up one morning and straightened out the trees. The vertical matrix of branches looks like overhead electrical or telephone lines that have been re-orchestrated.
Watts is an artist always at work – adding, subtracting, and rearranging. In spring 2016 we get an unlikely balancing act of birds and nests (on April 4th) and, on the first day of May, leaves are seemingly caught in midair, as if they were stuck on your windshield after a rain storm.
These (shown above) are 4-4-2016 and 5-1-2016, respectively.
There is something deliciously abstract about the vast bluish-white emptiness shrouding the lake in 12-13-2014 (Plate 6), like a Richard Diebenkorn painting composed with blocks of color. When you talk about photographs and describe them as painterly, it seems wrong because what the artist is achieving could only be done photographically. Watts’s images are definitely photographs.
Watts made his reputation as an artist exhibiting at the Willard Gallery, PPOW Gallery, and the Bernard Toale Gallery. Some of his fame is also due to Parasol Press’s publication of his photographs. Among these one-of-a-kind works and editions are Radio Rain; Are We Not Men, Study for a Frieze, Silhouettes; Different Kinds of Air | A Shadow Too Many; and Passenger Pigeon. This last body of work is distinctive: alien landscapes full of dislocation, sharply colored with siennas and turquoises, with tiny cut-out figures sometimes dropped into the scenes from elsewhere.
Watts says he wasn’t thinking of anything in particular in photography’s history as he developed his Blanchard Weather Report, but some of these “reports” look like Eliot Porter’s photographs, particularly Porter’s late Polaroid sky abstractions made in the American Southwest. For instance, 12-21-2014 (Plate 7), with that electric charge of chromium orange shot through it, could be a Porter sunset.
This is further underlined by Mr. Watts’s tidy 13 x 13 inch, square format, which mimics the Polaroid format. There is something perfect about the square, and the exactness of filling it.
Another color pioneer, Ernst Haas, is closer to Watts chronologically, and they share some technique. Both artists have experimented with color, shallow depth of field, selective focus, and blurring. Haas famously observed that a photograph “transform[s] an object from what it is to what you want it to be.” That’s what is happening here.
Think back further to the Photo-Secessionists with their poetic Pictorialism, all smoky and out of focus in their dreamy sylvan glens – artists like Gertrude Käsebier, Anne Brigman, F. Holland Day, George Seeley, and Alfred Stieglitz, who published their works as sketch-like gravures in the latter’s Camera Works. Another artist of the period, Oscar Gustave Rejlander, may be obscure to modern audiences but, like Watts, he would make wholesale manipulations of scenes, moving people – even crowds – and architecture around in his images.
But Mr. Watts is slyer. These artists might have admired the hazy ghost of a landscape in 6-26-2015 (Plate 20). This is not only strange for summer, but unlikely indicative of any specific time or location.
And a viewer could legitimately wonder about the locale of the complementary image, 9-25-2015 (Plate 25). Courtesy of the artist it has a continuous silhouette, with the bottom a broadly gestured reference and response to the top, a fictional shadow and reflection.
We’re never sure where we are in these photographs – Blanchard – but Watts, our wizard behind the curtain, delivers a sublime weather report that we may wonder and marvel.