A T H O U S A N D W O R D S O N T H E P A N O R A M A S O F L I N C O L N R U S S E L L
LINCOLN RUSSELL: PORTRAITS OF SEIJI OZAWA AND OTHER PHOTOGRAPHS, 1978-1998
essay by James Ganz
If one picture is worth a thousand words, then imagine my anxiety in writing a mere thousand words about a remarkable portfolio of panoramic photographs taken over a 20-year period by Lincoln Russell. Within his letterbox-shaped frame he has explored several major themes, and it is a tribute to his technical, compositional, and dramatic skills that he has met the challenge of assimilating into this enormously wide format a variety of subjects, from straight wide-angle views of the urban landscape to motion studies based on the moving lens to surrealistic tableaus.
The panoramic format applied so effectively by Russell has a history dating back to the era of the daguerreotype. While wide-angle lenses and cameras were used in the 19th century primarily to capture sweeping landscape vistas, some modern photographers favored them for the peculiar optical distortions they bestow. Among the most prolific photographers of this century to apply the panorama to non-topographical subjects was Jacques-Henri Lartigue, who during the 1920s employed a modified stereoscopic camera to produce an extraordinary series of 6-by-13 centimeter plates. To contemporary viewers, the laterally extended frame connotes the wide screen cinema, an allusion that is especially appropriate to Russell’s staged panoramic photographs of the late 1900s in which passage of time is evident within the frame.
It was in Boston during the late 1970s that Lincoln Russell first used a wide-angle-of-view, rotating-lens camera, exploiting its potential for reportage in a group of remarkable street scenes conceived in the manner of Robert Frank. As a journalistic tool, the wide-angle lens enabled Russell to record crowded events in their entirety, describing the decisive moment in 1979, for instance, when Pope John Paul II’s limousine turned onto Park Street in Boston and was greeted by a throng of admirers (The Pope, Park Street. Boston, 1979). Russell also directed his moving panoramic lens to the gritty world of street entertainers, situating his camera— and thus the viewer—among onlookers before a game of 3-card monte and the act of a sword-swallower.
Russell’s documentation of a rather different public performance marked a turning point in his career as a commercial photographer when, on a Sunday afternoon in the summer of 1978, he created an exuberant panoramic view of the lawn and Shed at Tanglewood in Lenox, Massachusetts. This uncommissioned work, later licensed to the Boston Symphony Orchestra to promote it summer season at Tanglewood, inaugurated Russell’s close professional relationship with the BSO and its music director, Seiji Ozawa.
In a group of color murals dating from 1980, Russell turned from the documentary approach of his first panoramas to experiment with the alternate realities of motion, optical distortion, and the element of time. Russell extends the decisive moment, as his camera lens rotates 146 degrees during an exposure lasting up to two minutes. In The Red Car; Boston, 1980 he directed his rotating lens on an automobile crossing the Massachusetts Avenue Bridge into Boston. The work illustrates the principle that if the camera lens pans in the same direction as the subject, the subject becomes elongated. In his view from a car windshield made while driving through the Callahan Tunnel, he revels in the abstract blurring and streaking of forms. Two views of amusement park rides in Florida and Maine explore the effects of moving objects on the photographer’s moving lens.
A 180-degree shift in the camera’s point of view marks Russell’s recent 5-by-12 inch platinum prints in which he directs the lens at himself, appearing in the company of nude women in staged tableaus. In these works the photographic frame becomes a proscenium, the photographer and his models, actors. The overall effect is that of a series of self-portraits set in enigmatic film stills not unlike the photographs of Cindy Sherman, but with a special emphasis on the passage of time across the wide frame. In Autoportrait No. 2; Lennox, 1998, the proscenium is a car’s windows. Russell and his nude model sit in silence, motionless. Tension simmers beneath the surface. In Willow Street No. 1; Boston, 1997 Russell appears at the extreme left edge of the composition, in the act of tying (or untying) his necktie. At right, three naked women occupy the living room. The panoramic format then enables the photographer to add literal distance to the psychological estrangement between the players in this scene. Stillness is reinforced by the long exposures, which force Russell and his models to stay in character across the moment. The long exposure also contributes to the illusion that we are witnessing a performance in both space and time.
Sarah’s Room No. 1; Stockbridge, 1997 is a dreamlike work in which motion is introduced during the course of the long exposure, leading to distortion and dematerialisation of the body. A nude model on the bed waves her arms, causing them to dissolve into wispy smoke like forms, while Russell again appears in the background tying his bow tie. He achieves a similar effect in Goose Pond No.1; Tyringham, 1997, as he moves the camera while it rotates, producing undulations in the nude’s limbs as well as the water in the landscape. The strange subject matter, combined with the optical distortions through time, suggest that the frame has opened onto a dreamworld. Although these images generally confound narrative readings, by virtue of Russell’s presence they lend themselves to interpretation as self-portraits in which the nudes function as muses, the photographer as dreamer. While Russell remains in the wings, he is empowered largely by the fact that he remains fully clothed and by his actions remain grounded in reality.
Five Masked Women; Stockbridge, 1996 brings together a number of Russell’s concerns. The women are unself-conscious in the way they display their bodies, although they cover their faces with masks. The surreal quality of the scene is again enhanced by Russell’s shaking of the camaera during its slow pan, causing bizarre distortions of the model’s limbs. Like a dream, the wide print fills our consciousness, just as it extends to the limits of our peripheral vision. What does it all mean? The English poet and critic Stephen Spender once wrote of W.H. Auden’s poems that they are like crimes without an apparent motive. The same might be said of Lincoln Russell’s most seductive photographic visions.