Look Again by Matthew Sharpe
Why do Dana Miller's photographs, which are so beautiful, also tend to fluster us, make us a little dizzy and disoriented? After all, they are enormously pleasurable to look at. Her use of color is lush and unerring; in many of the pictures, large, discrete forms that anchor the image to the frame coexist with precisely rendered details that draw the eye into the imaginary space being depicted: these are the features of a Dana Miller photograph that result in aesthetic intoxication. But then the intoxication starts to get a little unnerving. Why?
Let's look for a moment at one of the photographs. How about the one with the big red building with the little green tops of two deciduous trees poking up from behind it against a bright and slightly hazy blue sky. We could begin by admiring it as a kind of geometrical abstract painting made of light. Bands of color are stacked on top of one another: a thin band of grayish-green at the bottom, then a thick, striated band of red, then a thin band of white outlined in brown, and then, at the top, a thick band of blue; and between the white and blue bands are two patches of green scribbles. It's a Barnett Newman painting in need of a shave and a haircut. But it's also a landscape of sorts. It's got a horizon line - a little higher than where we expect to find the horizon in a landscape, but it's still got one. It's got sky and trees. It's even got land - well, a sliver of land there at the bottom. But then this gigantic red rectangle is covering up the place we'd expect the rest of the land to be. The red rectangle is a building. All right then so maybe this photograph is about how a building effaces a landscape: man against nature: man bad and effacing, nature good and effaced. Except the big building is red and sensuous and beautiful, so it's hard to stay mad at it. What's more, the landscape-effacing building is weather-worn-cracked and discolored. The erased landscape is re-inscribing itself on the building's surface, taking apart the building in its patient, purposeless way. Measured by nature's slow hour hand, geologic time, the building won't be here very long; the landscape it now obscures will easily outlast it, and us. It's already starting to come apart at the bottom. The bottom of the building, actually, is a little wavy-it has a clothlike feel, like the bottom of a tattered red curtain at an old run-down theater. And here we are, sitting in our worn velvet seats, waiting for the curtain to go up and the show to begin. Except this is a photograph and the curtain will never go up. The curtain is the show.
So that's a fairly quick look at one of Miller's unnamed and unnameable images. It's pleasurable to look at, and it's complicated. Every time you think you know what it is, it becomes something else. Dana Miller's photographs resist easy readings and reward multiple viewings. They ask us to undo the training our senses have undergone, to unharness our eyes from visual convention. They encourage us to relinquish the control we are used to exerting over the things we look at, and over looking itself. They tell us that the eyes know things the mind can't comprehend.
- Matthew Sharpe
Matthew Sharpe is the author of the novels The Sleeping Father and Nothing is Terrible, and the short-story collection Stories from the Tube. He is on the MFA faculty at Bard College and is Assisant Professor of English at Wesleyan University.