scott b. davis – sonora

Review by Wayne Swanson •

“Perverse” is a word that tends to pop up when the work of photographic artist scott b. davis is discussed. Which is strange because other than his willfully lower-case name, davis is not a perverse guy. Approachable, low-key, and easy-going, he’s well-regarded in the Southern California fine art photography world as founder and executive director of Medium Photo in San Diego, mentor to many budding artists, and all-around force for good.

Nevertheless, if his photography is not perverse, it’s at least decidedly contrary. Even he admits it: “As the world became fixated on new technologies, I found myself looking the other way, to the past, committed to exploring uncharted avenues of analog photography.” Instead of embracing the digital revolution, he became a large-format camera specialist and a platinum/palladium printing guru.

These tools are renowned for producing sumptuous prints with fine detail and a wide tonal range. Yet here comes the P-word again. In describing the work in sonora, curator Joshua Chuang writes: “Forgoing convention in favor of uncharted expression, [davis’s prints] register information on the extreme ends of the tonal scale rather than in the sweet spot in between, where we have been conditioned to find satisfaction. Davis’s use of platinum and palladium salts is similarly perverse (some might say reckless), yielding a sensory visual experience by privation.”

The focus of all this perversion is the portion of the vast Sonoran Desert that straddles the Mexican border with California and Arizona. This desert is davis’s muse. The extremes of light and dark, as well as the contemplative emptiness, speak to him. They have pushed him to find new ways to represent its singular beauty. The results are on full display in sonora.

The book features renderings of his works that pair platinum/palladium prints with in-camera palladium paper negatives. The combinations range from diptychs and triptychs up to multiples of as many as a dozen individual frames. The images explore the boundaries of visibility in the darkness and overwhelming light of the Sonoran Desert, resulting in landscapes that are at once literal and abstract, real and constructed. 

There’s a lot going on here. In some images the tones are reduced to two fields of grey distinguished by a single delicate ridgeline. Others play with positive and negative mirroring, with the rich deep blacks of the platinum prints paired with faint palladium paper negatives. Davis also uses double exposures and unorthodox ways of processing the negative. “I may print it laterally revised. I may print it emulsion side up. I may print it upside down. I may print it twice and incorporate both prints in a single work of art.”

The result is images that at first glance look like faithful, if distilled, representations of the desert landscape. But a closer look shows that they often include manipulations that provide a truth beyond the literal. Or, as Chuang puts it, “The aim is not to represent the desert as we think we know it, but to evoke an intimate connection with the desert through new perspectives.”

The book, designed by David Chickey and Mat Patalano of Radius Books, is a beautiful object, with a design keyed to the subject matter and davis’s imagery. The dust jacket introduces the positive/negative tonalities of the images. The cover itself has the subtly debossed title on a field of white, like one of davis’s faint paper negative images. The endpapers set the scene with a 19th century desert survey map. The 10.8 x 12.4-inch pages present the images in a variety of forms: full-bleed, large, small, diptychs, triptychs, gatefold with multi-frame progressions, and a double-gatefold with positive and negative progressions. 

Attached to the final image page is a small 12-frame image progression that folds out to a length of 47 inches. All of his images are beautifully reproduced. The only quibble is a few instances where the deep blacks on one page bleed through to the image on the opposite side. Supporting the imagery are an introductory essay by Chuang, a conversation between davis and Virginia Heckert, curator of the Department of Photography at the J. Paul Getty Museum, and a closing statement by davis. They all work well to provide context for the images and insights into his career and creative process.

Altogether, sonora is a masterpiece in abstraction, distillation, and minimalism. To davis, the result is not perverse at all. Rather, he sees himself as continuing an exploration that dates to the early pioneers of photography: “I took my knowledge of platinum printing out of the darkroom and onto the landscape, armed with an understanding of history, light, and space. I wanted to upend the expectations of a platinum/palladium print and embrace the experimental spirit that drove the earliest practitioners of the medium.”

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Wayne Swanson is a Contributing Editor and a San Diego-based fine art photographer and writer. 

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sonora, scott b. davis

Photographer: scott b. davis, born Silver Springs, Maryland, USA, resides San Diego, California

Publisher: Radius Books (Santa Fe, New Mexico), copyright 2021 

Essay: Joshua Chuang; Interview: Virginia Heckert; Statement: scott b. davis

Text: English

Hardcover book with dust jacket, sewn binding, four-color lithography, 10.8 x 12.4 inches, 93 images, 132 pages, printed in Italy, ISBN 9781942185840

Photobook designers: David Chickey, Mat Patalano

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Articles and photographs published in the PhotoBook Journal may not be reproduced without the permission of the PhotoBook Journal staff and the photographer(s). All images, texts, and designs are copyright of the authors and publishers.

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