Ralph Singer

Ralph Singer grew up and was educated in New Jersey and in New York City, and, like many artists from the urban East before him, he has found his inspiration and his voice in the landscape of the American West.

Singer's black and white photographs from the 1980s and 1990s are really about his love affair with the vast, light-filled spaces he pursued and captured in Nevada, in Mexico, and especially, in California, where he has lived for the past thirty years. His panoramas of deserts and mountains and rocky shorelines suggest the sense of possibility and freedom this open country has traditionally evoked: an American dream. His more tightly focused studies of drifting sand and of river rocks bring us closer down to the western earth, and, perhaps paradoxically, formally closer to the abstraction of the ideal.

Yet even in the midst of this pristine and seemingly isolated splendor, Singer frequently captures something less traditional and more poignant: sometimes at the edge of the frame, occasionally front and center, he provides eloquent evidence that the West of our dreams is no longer --- and perhaps never was --- as unpopulated, as untouched by history, and as innocent as we like to imagine. Deserted shacks, decaying walls, empty stairwells testify that here, as elsewhere, man has been and gone and left behind ruins.

Singer's photographs of nudes continue this dialogue between nature and civilization. He always shoots his unclothed models out of doors, evoking another California dream: that of a healthier, more "natural" life of sunshine, freedom, and physical hedonism. Yet ironically these nudes seem not only posed (i.e., "unnatural"), but sophisticated and urbane, their beautiful bodies the result not of natural labor, but of nautilus machines and lap pools. Landscape becomes theatrical backdrop in these pictures, and this point is made explicitly when, in the most daring of them, Singer photographs a man draped against the oversize pillars and urns of the great, dreamlike, and very faux ruin that Bernard Maybeck created for the Panama Pacific Exhibition of 1915.

In his latest work, an extraordinarily beautiful series of velvety-textured night photographs, the "ruins" Singer depicts are more recent ones, and structures such as the warming hut at Fort Presidio and a battery in the Marin headlands built to protect the Pacific Coast from Japanese attacks during World War II are no longer fragments in a landscape. The architecture, illuminated by ghostly moonlight, now fills the photographic frame, and the visual tension is no longer between nature and civilization, but is rather an internal one, contained within these man-made constructions themselves. They remain structurally intact and solid, but their functional, at times heroic, pasts have been superseded by a history and a technology that has left them useless, abandoned, without meaning.

In another photograph from this series an empty telephone booth at night is as still and precisely shadowed as the one in Edward Hopper's famous painting, but signifies something very different. For mobile phones have made telephone booths as technologically anachronistic as World War II forts, and, because of their relative fragility, they're physically far more vulnerable. Ralph Singer captures a phone booth already pushed out of the light to create a stark, moving elegy for these ubiquitous totems on the American landscape that will soon exist only as rusting ruins in abandoned areas and as communal memories for a diminishing few.