The Roads Most Traveled
What Ansel Adams did for Yosemite's towering redwoods, Robbert Flick has systematically done for L.A.'s sprawling boulevards. His photographs "brim with a sense of discovery about something you think you already know."
By Diane Krieger
In the airy studio on the second floor of Harris Hall, a snowy-haired man with a faint foreign accent stands at the chalkboard.
“Exposure is controlled by intensity of light and duration,” he is saying, as he rapidly sketches a chart showing timelines for developing film.
His listeners, 22 undergraduates enrolled in a class at the USC Roski School of Fine Arts, dutifully copy it down, sensing likely fodder for some future exam.
Few – perhaps none – have any idea what an extraordinary thing it is just to be sitting here, receiving instruction in basic photography from Robbert Flick.
The Robbert Flick.
Learning to make pictures with him is a bit like taking a figure drawing class with Matisse. The Dutch-born lens man, on USC’s fine arts faculty for more than 30 years now, is widely regarded as a pioneer in California landscape and documentary photography. What Ansel Adams did for Yosemite’s towering redwoods, Flick has systematically done for L.A.’s sprawling boulevards, albeit with a very different sensibility.
It may seem a waste to have a grand master teaching novices, but Flick loves it. And his ego doesn’t get in the way. “He has this humility that is just unusual,” says longtime colleague Ruth Weisberg, dean of the USC Roski School. “People don’t realize that he is one of the major figures in photography in the United States and internationally. They just don’t get that signal.”
The art world certainly gets it. Flick has major pieces in the collections of more than 40 museums, from Sweden’s Fotografiska Museet to the International Museum of Photography in Rochester, New York. Last spring, his work was featured in two separate shows on seminal California photography at the Norton Simon Museum and the Pasadena Museum of California Art. In 2006, he was awarded the prestigious Flintridge Award, one of art’s top honors.
But his highest acknowledgement to date came when the Los Angeles County Museum of Art decided to put on a major retrospective of his work. “Robbert Flick: Trajectories,” which ran from September 2004 through January 2005, was the capstone of Flick’s remarkable, still-unfolding career.
The 300-page exhibition catalogue chronicles Flick’s 30-year artistic journey, retracing his earliest black-and-white studies of Midwestern cornfields and wintry wastelands (Midwest Diary 1971-1976), his touching elegies to an Inglewood parking lot (Arena Series 1977-1979), his first forays at “sequenced” landscapes (Sequential Views 1979-1990) to the flowering of his signature style (L.A. Documents 1990-2001). Instantly recognizable, these large-scale “grids” consist of spreadsheet-like rows and columns of urban streetscapes, flamboyantly colorful, selected frame by frame from hours of digital video, presented in a rhythmic skip and stutter all Flick’s own.
“Rarely if ever,” wrote Los Angeles Times art critic Christopher Knight in summarizing the LACMA exhibit, “has the distinctive perceptual nature of seeing Los Angeles been so succinctly captured – and illuminated – in works of art. Flick’s best photographs brim with a sense of discovery about something you think you already know.”
Fascinated from a very early age with pictures and the processes that go into creating them, Flick received his first camera at the tender age of 6. “I believe I was 7 when I first saw a picture of my face appearing on a blank piece of paper submerged in a developing tray in a darkroom,” he says.
His mother, a dedicated art weaver, set an early example of committed aesthetic practice. (“I grew up to the sound of the loom,” he says.) His father, an accountant by trade but an amateur naturalist by avocation, handed down a lively scientific curiosity and a fascination with nature’s infinite patterns.
Flick’s childhood was filled with geographic diversity. Born in the quaint medieval city of Amersfoort in the Netherlands’ Utrecht region, at 7 he found himself transplanted to the Dutch West Indies, where his family moved after World War II. There, he immersed himself in the craft of photography for the purpose of studying the island flora and fauna. At 12, he dreamed of becoming a wildlife management biologist.
Sent back to Holland to finish his education, Flick left Europe again at the earliest opportunity, headed for the Canadian wilderness where he found a summer job, then year-round employment in forestry.
He was deeply disillusioned. “I quickly realized it was a joke,” he recalls. “There was no ‘management’ involved at all. So I looked for something else.”
He enrolled in college at the University of British Columbia and spent the next six or seven years searching. “I tried three or four majors. French, English, creative writing. It was the ’60s,” he smiles apologetically. All the while, he kept on photographing.
Eventually he graduated in 1967 with a degree in fine arts, and threw himself into the Vancouver avant-garde scene, working with architects, dancers, poets and filmmakers in early experiments in multimedia. He started looking around for a serious MFA program, but could find nothing locally. A Canada Council grant took him to Los Angeles – to study and also to shoot the city in color. It would take him 20 years to get around to the latter, but Flick lost no time enrolling at Art Center College of Design. Again he was deeply disappointed. At the time, it was primarily an applied arts program. “I very quickly discovered that was not for me,” he says.
A chance encounter with UCLA-based conceptual photographer Robert Heinecken, however, gave him new hope. “The way he was thinking and talking about photography made sense to me,” Flick remembers.
Transferring to UCLA, Flick fell under Heinecken’s spell – though it would be wrong to suggest that he was a disciple, notes Weisberg. Heinecken’s “guerrilla photography” – witty, outrageous and militantly anti-technique – has little enough in common with Flick’s technique-heavy, yoga-like discipline.
“Robbert gained freedom from Heinecken to do photography in new ways,” explains Weisberg. “He got permission to do a lot of experimental work.”
Completing both an MA and MFA, Flick accepted his first teaching job at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana in 1971. In the Midwestern flatlands so familiar yet so alien to a Hollander, he immersed himself in black-and-white studies of cornfields, lonely farmhouses and desolate country roads.
“I found myself seeking out the anonymous parts of the landscape, those segments that were so familiar they appeared invisible,” he wrote in notes he prepared as the “Trajectories” retrospective was taking shape.
Returning to Los Angeles in 1976 to accept a job at USC, he remained captivated with the anonymous parts of landscape. Discovering a little-used parking structure behind the studio he shared with his wife, artist Susan Rankaitis MFA ’77, Flick spent much of the next two years there. Like a postmodern Monet at Giverny, he lovingly documented the empty garage’s slanting ramps and painted lines, its surfaces and planes lit by shafts of morning, midday and afternoon sun, or neon and moonlight.
It was not a crowd-pleasing exercise. Flick had no illusions about this: “What kind of fool is going to go into an empty garage and photograph it over and over again for two years?” he asks in self-mockery. But fame and fortune were never part of his agenda. He was carefully, quasi-scientifically studying his own shifting perceptions. His greatest ambition was to learn “how to make ‘boring’ an active verb.”
Even now, as a mature artist, Flick shows utter indifference to market forces. Though his chosen medium would seem to permit large runs of reproductions, he prefers to work in very limited editions. Each grid he composes typically yields no more than five prints. On rare occasions, he may produce up to a dozen. It isn’t a ploy to drive prices higher. At the Robert Mann Gallery in New York and the Rose Gallery in Santa Monica his work sells for an affordable $7,000 to $10,000.
Art critics can’t help but admire such asceticism. “Shooting ramps, levels and individual car stalls; columns, floors and ceilings; lights, shadows and the geometries of the place, he produced what is surely the most poetic photographic tribute ever inspired by a parking facility,” wrote New York Times art critic Grace Glueck in her review of the “Trajectories” retrospective when it traveled in 2005 to a gallery in Chelsea. “Touchingly, he and his camera gave their all.”
Increasingly dissatisfied with the single-frame print, Flick began pairing disparate images in evocative diptychs. A stretched wire railing on the roof of his favorite parking structure, and a swatch of smocked fabric. A portrait of himself lazing in the bathtub, and the crisp painted lines and arrows on the floor of his Inglewood haunt. From these L.A. Doubles of the late ’70s, he rapidly progressed to Sequential Views – his first grids.
“What I want the pictures to be about,” he explains, “is the continuing present, or as close to the present and my understanding of the present as possible. But since the present always changes, I had to construct ways.”
He adopted a rigid, some might say compulsive, mapping method. He would walk a predetermined trajectory, making exposures at prescribed geographic and temporal intervals. Take a few steps. Turn left. Shoot.
In this way, he set about documenting the landscapes of Manhattan Beach, Venice and Redondo Beach, but also of Joshua Tree National Park, Vasquez Rocks and Malibu’s Solstice Canyon. For his epic “La Cienega Project,” he documented all 13.7 miles of the major north-south artery from Sunset Boulevard to El Segundo Boulevard, on foot. (“Everybody knows La Cienega; everybody uses La Cienega; but nobody has driven from one end to the other,” Flick observes.)
The raw images – each grid generated thousands of them – were his paint box. The act of composition took place back in the studio, where Flick meticulously sorted through the day’s cache and, over time, arranged the choicest morsels to his liking. The task he’d set himself was grueling. Shooting day after day in four-hour shifts produced a variety of light levels. Balancing them was a nightmare.
“It was physically painful to spend 20 hours a day bent over trays of solution,” he recalls. “And the actual printing was horrific. It would take seven days to get a picture.” When the computer came along, he embraced it like a convict embraces freedom.
Around 1990, Flick made another major change in his approach to image-gathering. Instead of walking, he would drive his car. And instead of still photos, he would shoot video from a Hi8 camera mounted behind the driver’s seat. Back in the studio – now a computer lab – an intricate frame-by-frame selection process ensued, whereby he would winnow and tease out the best visual material.
“Most of my impressions of Los Angeles were gleaned in quick succession as retinal imprints from a fixed distance while traveling through the urban landscape by car,” he wrote in a grant application back in 1982. “Repetition itself appeared to me one of the dominant characteristics of the area.”
The new method was a perfect solution. And by then, he was working exclusively in color.
On some level, Flick’s photo grids are exercises in cartography. His use of words like “trajectory” and no-nonsense titles (“along Central Ave., East and West side, between the 91 Fwy & 1st Street”) invites this comparison. Far from shunning this, he has repeatedly teamed with social scientists in USC College on mapping projects.
“I want to see the work function both within a fine arts context and as an open-ended inquiry where the viewer could construct different narratives,” he wrote in a 2004 grant application for a multimedia project with urban historian Phil Ethington, a good friend and USC colleague.
Flick was intimately involved in what another good friend, geographer and USC colleague Michael Dear, calls the “1990s efflorescence of L.A. studies.” His sequential views appear throughout Dear’s 1996 book Rethinking Los Angeles, co-edited with USC urban historian Greg Hise and former USC political scientist Eric Schockman. A 12-page insert from “Along Pico” sets the tone for the whole book, according to Dear, who regards Flick as an important force in urban studies.
“He cut a new path in terms of looking at Los Angeles,” says Dear. “He’s had an amazing impact in the field of urban studies.”
As for Ethington, he and Flick have collaborated on three different interdisciplinary projects. “We realized that we had a very common sensibility of the visual and spatial aspects of the city,” says the USC historian, who is also a photographer and a trained cartographer. Both men were resident scholars in 1996-97 at the newly established Getty Research Institute. Flick completed about 120 hours of video “drive-bys” during that year, frequently with Ethington at his side.
In 2000, the two teamed on a multimedia essay for the American Historical Review, “Los Angeles and the Problem of Urban Historical Knowledge” (http://cwis.usc.edu/dept/LAS/history/historylab/LAPUHK). More recently, Ethington collaborated with Flick on “Ghost Trajectories,” a kiosk installation for the LACMA retrospective. Museum-goers could overlay the artist’s original video footage and sequential views along Pico Boulevard and Central Avenue with a selection of historic Los Angeles road maps, textual narratives, census data, historical photos and audio from radio traffic reports.
“I was taking his raw data and putting it to a different use, to create historical landscapes,” says Ethington, who worked with programmer Tomo Isoyama MFA ’00 on the project, which can be accessed online (http://finearts.usc.edu/ghost_trajectories).
A decade earlier, Flick had participated in Ethington’s Information System of Los Angeles, a prototype geo-spatial database that was years ahead of its time. Integrating text and images with archival maps and documents, the four-dimensional information system featured old Los Angeles utility grids, 1930s census cards and the Herald Examiner’s photo morgue. A more practical version of the system lives on in the USC Digital Archive (http://digarc.usc.edu) – an ongoing effort by USC Libraries to digitally preserve and catalogue reams of original Los Angeles-based visual data. The project, coincidentally, is now spearheaded by Matt Gainer MFA ’97, a USC Roski School alum and former Flick protégé.
“The kind of work Robbert is doing fits perfectly with what the Internet is evolving into – a thing where you can search and browse spatially,” says Gainer, who is the library’s director of digital imaging. He came to Los Angeles specifically to study with Flick, whom his fine arts dean at Washington University in St. Louis had described as “the best photographer he knows, the most consistent, the photographer he admires most.”
With his interest in documenting the urban landscape, it’s perhaps inevitable that Flick’s work should invite comparisons to cartography. Indeed, at first glance his L.A. Documents bears a likeness to the map-maker’s digital incarnation: GPS systems, spatial browsers like Google Earth, or even the shoot-everything databases that land developers and realtors have squirreled away since the dawn of video.
But any resemblance to soulless machine-rendered images is entirely superficial, according to Ethington. Mapping tools, he says, are attempts at comprehensiveness “built on algorithms, automated formulas.
“Robbert’s work is fundamentally different because it is conceived differently. His goal has always been to compose mosaics. He is constantly making choices of frames. It’s essentially a different activity.”
Ethington compares Flick to a 12-tone serialist composer: “He has to go down this meticulous process. He works within this compositional constraint, but what he’s really shooting for is the large grid on the wall and the textures he can create with it.”
Flick, if pressed for a musical analogy, points to minimalist composer John Cage. “I’m not necessarily at the classical end, nor am I at the hip-hop end,” he says. “I think of much of what I do in a Cagean manner.”
While Flick’s photography is, at one level, unapologetically preoccupied with “documenting” the city he loves, it is also deeply humanistic. His approach has been likened to the fiction of Jorge Luis Borges, whimsy masquerading as science. Art historians note a particular affinity to the story fragment, “On Exactitude in Science.” In that intriguing tale, Borges describes a mythical empire wherein the guild of cartographers, with tragic hubris, attempt to construct a map as large and detailed as the geography it represents. (The Sisyphean effort collapses, bringing all map-making down with it.)
The impossibility of the task he has set himself – to represent all of Los Angeles – is, for Flick, one of its greatest charms and ironies. “The photographic frame is so much a Renaissance invention, and our experience of images today is completely different,” he says. “Once you take a picture, you frame something; the moment you frame it, you exclude things.”
All the while Flick was forging a careful artistic path, he was also carving a careful path for USC’s fine arts photography program. When he joined the university in 1976, he was the photography department: a one-man teaching-research-administration staff. “I had a lot of keys on my chain,” he chuckles.
For almost 30 years, he chaired the photography department, overseeing seven faculty members, a 10-course curriculum and a handful of darkrooms, along with a full teaching load, graduate advising and committee work.
The school is deeply indebted to Flick, says his dean, Ruth Weisberg. “We feel that we owe the whole development of this part of the school to his original initiative,” she says. She doesn’t just mean his stewardship of the photography program; she means his early recognition of the need to go beyond film.
“Robbert understood much earlier than anyone else how important it would be to have a digital presence,” says Weisberg. “He gave us a tremendous head start in relation to other schools.”
In the mid 1980s, at a time when the university was under dire financial constraints, Flick pushed aggressively for investment in digital media, seeing in the emerging desktop computer a tool to unify the various studio arts and lay bare the logic behind the artist’s heretofore unseen and mysterious decision-making processes. He met with considerable resistance, but didn’t give up. An early DOS-based system proved a dead end, but in 1989, with a small grant from the library, Flick launched his Matrix Lab, built around a handful of Apple CIs.
“The students and I basically taught each other,” he recalls. That lab has since morphed into USC Roski’s sophisticated Intermedia Division, offering a half dozen new digital-based courses and three computer labs brimming with professional-quality workstations, scanners, projectors, printers and nearly a hundred digital cameras available for student loan.
In all, USC Roski now boasts five photography labs: three for digital editing, each with a different focus; and two for conventional developing. And more changes are coming. For the last two years, Flick and digital artist Charlie White, who now heads the Intermedia Division and the MFA program, have been retooling the curriculum to fully integrate these related facilities, staffs and resources.
“Robbert and I are working toward redefining photography, merging analogue, digital and video photography into one program,” says White. “Marrying all those things under the same umbrella is kind of a radical step.”
No one is ringing the death knell for 35 mm film just yet. The “analogue” camera is still very much with us, says White. But as the differences between digital and conventional photography melt away, professionals are increasingly expected to have mastery of both – indeed, all three media, if you count video.
“We very much want to stay true to certain traditional models of learning while updating or introducing new modes of expression that are relevant – for example, time-based work, performance art, video art,” says White.
The last plates of “Trajectories” hint at new directions for Flick. Suddenly, we leave the bric-a-brac of his L.A. Documents to find ourselves once more on the back roads of Illinois, lost in the grass-green and sky-blue horizontality of “Barr Road” – his old stomping grounds in Champaign-Urbana. And then, suddenly, we’re “at Cambria,” gazing hypnotically into a fathomless mosaic of aqua-blue.
Is Flick giving up on urbanism? Hardly. Three years after his LACMA retrospective, he is more productive than ever.
For the last two winters, he has traveled to Lithuania, trying (with limited success) to photograph a deciduous forest under a blanket of snow. Mother Nature (or global warming) threw a monkey wrench into his plans, as last December brought warm showers and spring buds, but no white stuff. The project dovetailed nicely, however, with his wife’s outdoor sculptural installation at Europos Parkas in Vilnius. (A celebrated mixed-media artist, Rankaitis is also a chaired professor at Scripps College.)
Back in the Southland, Flick is building another archive more ambitious than anything he’s attempted before – tracing the San Gabriel River from its source in the mountains to the ocean. “It becomes a trajectory through Los Angeles and parts of Orange County that is an amazing metaphor for what has happened here,” he says. “Not just the urban sprawl but the industrial gravel pits, the groundwater problem, the re-greening of the paved river.”
Flick’s take on these hot-button environmental issues is “purely visual.” His technique is an amalgam of what came before: he shoots a combination of still photos and digital video, traveling on foot, on bike and by car.
These days he also shoots out the window of a commuter train, snapping unfocused swaths of suburbia. A few years ago, Flick gave up driving and started taking the train in to USC from his home in Claremont. A simple point-and-shoot digital camera became his constant traveling companion.
“I’m working now with how to use abstract imagery created by blur, with these snippets of things in focus – Canada geese flying out of the San Gabriel River, a dog barking. What’s really interesting is because of the movement you have three different levels of depth – the blurred, coloristic surface of the image; a middle ground where something begins to come into focus; and at the deep distance, mountains that are perfectly sharp.”
Once again, with a scientist’s curiosity and an ascetic’s discipline, he is documenting the road most traveled.
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