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David Haas: The Mack Truck Project
December 10, 2007 - February 1, 2008
Black and white photography from the LUAG collection, through the generosity of Marlene (Linny) & Beall Fowler. Project by Megan Turner, Art 275.
CHALLENGING INTENTION AND TECHNIQUE
In 1983 a group exhibition at Lehigh University included a photograph I had taken at the Quabbin Reservoir in Massachusetts. The exhibit, entitled “Intentions and Techniques, 1854 – 1982” included 70 pieces created by 54 photographers.
At the time I didn’t give much thought to the title. Seeing my name listed along with Cameron, Weston, Steichen, Arbus and Callahan was enough. I didn’t feel compelled to think about it beyond that initial satisfaction.
That exhibition and those two words – intention and technique — come to mind when I review the progression of my work in photography. My most successful images contain equally strong doses of clear intent and appropriate technique. I’ve learned that an image does not hold up for long without one or the other. I felt that intention was an unconscious ingredient that would appear naturally if I invested most of my energy in technique, but this was not the case, and much of my early photography ultimately failed.
Having been self-taught in photography, I was content to develop techniques that would provide images that emulated specific qualities I found attractive in the work of others. The three most significant early influences on my photography were Ansel Adams, Minor White and Paul Caponigro, whose photographs I discovered in a New York gallery catalogue rack. Their work struck me as profound — not because I had a clue as to what they meant, but because I was seduced by what a photograph could look like. I knew I had to make images that reflected an understanding of their style, and I believed the answer was to emulate their technique.
Almost all of my early work was created for personal pleasure; I gave little thought as to how someone else might relate to it. The physical process of simply making photographs was so satisfying that it was easy to overlook the needs of a prospective viewer. The content of a photograph meant little to me; the expert arrangement of pictorial elements within the picture frame meant everything. I measured success in formal terms, altogether missing the potential for shared emotional experience.
Until I moved to Boston and entered the Massachusetts College of Art, my sole intent was to be a fine art photographer, simple as that: declare myself an artist and make art with my camera. Sharing my work in a studio critique for the first time quickly sent my ego looking for a place to hide. I was asked what my intentions were, and I didn’t have a suitable answer.
With the help and insight of photographer and professor Nicholas Nixon at Massachusetts College of Art, I began to see beyond the surface of my photograph and think about what was there for a viewer to harvest. During our weekly meetings it became clear that the seeds of my intent had been planted back in that New York gallery. I began to understand and relate to the deeper meanings within the work of Adams. White and Caponigro. I had been spending far too much time looking at photographs rather than looking into them.
Even as I zeroed in on subject matter, my photographs continued to lack cohesion, though technically refined. This did not hinder my ability to make images, but mining the images for that elusive intent became an obsession. Photography had become a process of exploration and discovery, and I intended to share those discoveries with others.
At about that time, I read an article by John Szarkowski in which he defined photography as the act of pointing, of telling someone to stop and consider this. It was a simple and perfect definition, fitting nicely with my concept of exploration and discovery. Szarkowski provided a touchstone by which to judge my photographs. I no longer felt compelled to make photographs; instead, I had the freedom to find them.
Though the rural landscape had been the driving force in my work for many years, and an important part of my heritage, my landscape photography had stagnated. I could see and understand the natural world more clearly through the camera. By 1994, after twelve years of intense and productive landscape photography, I felt comfortable with my work but needed a challenge, a new territory to explore. I wanted to reaffirm my ability to communicate effectively, but this time with an unfamiliar subject: a completely human environment as far away from the natural world as possible.
One photograph of a truck, taken at midnight, set the stage. I remember how impressive the chromed and painted GMC Five Star General looked. It was parked across the street from my studio, shining under mercury vapor illumination in front of Albright’s Mill. During the half-hour it took to expose the negative, it never dawned on me that I was looking at the antithesis of the natural world. For the time being I had found something different at which to point my camera. Over the next few months, I explored the subjective potential of trucks, built a catalog of images and tried to sort out what meaning they might hold.
A handful of images taken indoors of trucks held the most interest for me. Without evidence of the natural world, except for the highlighting effects of some ambient sunlight, the photographs had a visual resonance not unlike that of my GMC Five Star General. It didn’t take me long to realize I had found the challenge I sought: I would work inside, with trucks, and close the door on the natural world.
The idea to photograph at the Mack Trucks assembly plant in Macungie, Pennsylvania evolved shortly thereafter. I wasn’t getting the consistent results I expected by chasing after trucks in repair shops and garages, so I began to develop a strategy for gaining entry to the huge facility that was a half-hour drive from my home.
A formal letter requesting access, with the right to photograph, was sent to Mack world headquarters in Allentown, Pennsylvania. As the proposal made its way through corporate channels, my anticipation grew. Its approval opened the door to a new set of photographic possibilities.
As far as intentions and techniques went, I was back to square one. I entered the Mack Trucks plant without a political agenda. I did not have a romanticized version of what goes into building trucks. I trusted my visual instincts, wh
ile refining the technical skills needed to meet the demands of this new setting. Photographing within the confines of a 21-acre assembly plant, I knew general subjective continuity was assured. But adding that crucial element of specific intent would again prove a daunting task.
I had felt at home while hiking acre after acre of the Massachusetts woods and while stalking one-room schools in Pennsylvania. But walking into the Macungie plant for the first time with the camera on my shoulder, I felt like I was in Disneyland. The place was alive with activity and energy; it was interesting. When it came time to set up the 4 x 5 camera and make an exposure, I was a fish out of water, lacking in concentration. Gone was the solitude of the woods. I was intimidated, trying to make art amidst a crowd of people. This would be the most important problem I faced.
Though my instincts were highly refined relative to order in the natural world, I came up short when confronted with a fellow human being at this workstation. I was unsure of what I wanted from the workers. I had to make my approach to them a routine activity in order to gain the mental distance necessary for critical evaluation. I photographed as many as I could. It was an excellent screening method for determining which employees could be approached for a second or third time. When I encountered a more cooperative and relaxed subject, the odds were better that I would come away with a successful photograph.
When I initiated this project I envisioned trucks as the main subject, with the physical plant and its workers filling a secondary role. I did not pretend to know what the photographs would look like. But I was certain the work would remain true to the traditions and techniques of straight photography. When the plant employees began to emerge as the theme of the project, I was satisfied that I had achieved my initial goal. In choosing to redefine my subject matter, my intention, and to challenge my technique in a new set of environmental parameters, I re-invigorated my art. I am thus armed with a new set of intentions and techniques.
— David Haas