William Giles makes us wonder why we ever imagined the camera to be an instrument of truth. His classic images of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s are so rarefied, so magical, so infused with spiritual awakening that they inhabit a realm apart from that of photojournalism and documentation.
A screech owl swoops in from a velvety sky like a netherworld messenger in one picture from Giles’ “Mother of Pearls” suite of photographs. A lone tumbleweed on a rippled field is an electrified personage. A retreat atop a crusty, mound-like tower in Crete might be a lookout point for the entire cosmos, while an ancient staircase leads to enlightenment.
It wasn’t always so, as we see in Giles’ 1950-1987 retrospective at the Long Beach Museum of Art to July 12. In the ‘50s and early ‘60s, when the 53-year-old photographer was getting into the field and becoming entrenched in its establishment, he concerned himself with brick walls, posters and shop windows--the sorts of subjects associated with street photographers, though he was never just a factual reporter.
Having supported himself through Cornell University by working as a darkroom technician and later setting up his own studio, Giles also became involved in social causes, photographing immigrant workers in Utah and the civil rights movement in the South.
He worked as an apprentice to Dorothea Lange, who advised him to take classes at the Rochester Institute of Technology. Giles took the advice to the hilt, not only studying there but meeting many of the country’s most prominent photographers, working with photography historian Beaumont Newhall and, in 1960, establishing a department of photography at the university.
The only child of a surgeon and a concert pianist, Giles had lived in Boston, London, Johannesburg and Buenos Aires as a youth. Both his art and his resume suggest that these early travels inspired a lifelong wanderlust or at least a resistance to the constraints of academia. Though he continued to teach at Rochester until 1972, his spirit seems to have flown elsewhere.
In 1968, according to a text posted in one gallery, Giles went to Crete on “a religious pilgrimage with camera in hand, to help me touch the sun.” Results were spectacular; his “Cretan Portfolio” was not only a personal breakthrough but one of photography’s most successful efforts to infuse subject matter with spiritual meaning.
His portraits are affecting character studies, but it’s the black-and-white photographs of cropped landscapes and buildings that are most memorable. “Morning Light,” depicting nothing more exalted than laundry against a pale wall punctuated by a dark window, is a delicate symphony of light and shadow. “Tower and Cloud” is sure to go down in history as one of photography’s most persuasive cosmic viewpoints.
More than the camera, Giles’ means is light. “My entire life has been a pilgrimage toward light,” he writes, in the exhibition catalogue. While living in Santa Cruz in the late ‘70s he established Lightworks Foundation, described as a place where people may explore light as a force for creativity and healing. Now living in Los Angeles, Giles continues to work with the foundation.
He also espouses an unfashionable idealism. “The ultimate goal of being an artist . . . is to become a greater human being,” Giles writes in the catalogue. “We need artists who have a steady commitment to forge out their vision beyond the current stylistic fads that change every nine months. We need artists who dare stand up and say: This is my work, this is my life, this is my passion, this is my truth.”
That sort of declaration doesn’t get one into the pages of Artforum, but it rings true in the exhibition. The walls of the Long Beach museum have rarely been so charged with spiritual passion. Giles’ light is a metaphor for enlightenment as it streams through skies, sparkles on water and illuminates textures. Turning sand dunes into voluptuous bodies, light exerts a transforming power. More often, it appears to reveal a hidden presence.
In upstairs galleries, however, the light dims as Giles turns his attention to new techniques and subjects. A suite of color prints, reproduced and enlarged from manipulated Polaroids, introduces an expressionistic view of New York. More like paintings than photographs, these 1984 images are all wavering lines and ominous warnings.
His most recent work, large black-and-white photographs of tar seeping through a pebbly roof, returns to more familiar territory. Though they have the flat look of posters, these “Tar Landscapes” put us in mind of Abstract Expressionist paintings, inspired by physical gestures, automatic writing or chance configurations.
These calligraphic images discover graceful dancers and appearances of natural phenomena in banal urban structures while alluding to Los Angeles’ roots in tar pits. If the spiritual light has gone out of his art, Giles’ joy of discovery is still healthy.