Saleen SR7, 2005

Review: Chariots of Desire


Review: Chariots of Desire

by Brooks Jensen

I've followed Witherill's career for many years. Beginning as a traditional landscape photographer, Witherill has successfully accomplished what so many others have not — he's been able to move beyond his first inclinations and create a lifetime of work that is incredibly varied. How many photographers can you think of that 30 or 40 years later are still doing the same kind of work they were at the beginning of their career? Indeed, this is almost the rule rather than the exception. I'd rather not name names, but I will bet that you could draw up a list of well-known contemporary photographers that fit this description. Huntington Witherill will not be on that list. We've published four completely different bodies of work including heavily abstracted color images derived from flower blossoms (Photo Synthesis, LensWork #92), traditional black and white landscapes (Orchestrating Icons, LensWork #31), dried flower still life images (Botanical Dances, LensWork #26), and the work we are examining here from his portfolio Chariots of Desire (LensWork #62). There are other bodies of work equally different from these that we have not published. His is a most creative eye. 

I've talked to Witherill about this on a number of occasions and one consistency that repeatedly comes up in our conversation is his way of perceiving the world. Rather than focus his attention on tonalities, gradations, and three-dimensional shapes, he tends to see the world as line and form. In fact, he told me that one of his tricks in developing his photographic compositions is to visually reduce the world to line and form. This can easily enough be done by simply squinting our eyes so we are looking at the world through our eyelashes — an action that tends to reduce details and present us with a view of the world that is simplified. Our normal vision is so accurate in describing the detail and colors of the world that it's easy to have all of that overwhelm our senses. By simplifying what we see we can reduce the composition to its most important elements which invariably leads to a stronger photograph. For years I used that little monochromatic filter that Fred Picker sold, a technique that would strip color out of our normal vision. It's the same principle that Witherill suggests — physically change the way we see so that what arises in our consciousness is closer to the two dimensional, monochromatic representation we are hoping to create in our black-and-white photographs. 

In this portfolio, Witherill is ostensibly photographing cars. But, is he really? To my eye, it's not so much that he's showing us cars but rather the exquisite line and form in the details of these exotic automobiles. I would not be surprised at all to find out that automotive enthusiasts might be frustrated that his photographs do not present us with the entire automobile – but that's not his intent. He wants us to see these machines as aesthetic expressions, not merely as expensive modes of transportation. By focusing on the details and creating compositions that approach abstracts of line and form, he encourages us to see beyond the automobile and into the graceful shapes and lines that are the aesthetic core of these mechanical contraptions. Indeed, all of the images in this project elevate line and form so that they are equally, if not more, important than the automobile which is technically the subject of the photograph. 

Reprinted with permission. LensWork Daily: Looking at Images, May 9, 2013