Michael Ashkin, Were It Not For

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Fw:Books (here). Softcover, 28×21.5 cm, 256 pages, with 218 black and white reproductions. Includes a 670-line text by the artist, spread across the covers and the interior pages. Design by Hans Gremmen. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: When Lewis Baltz, Robert Adams, and others set out to document the metastasizing suburban sprawl in the American West in the 1970s, they were observing something essentially unseen before in that region. New developments were springing up seemingly overnight all over previously uninhabited desert regions, particularly in California, and these photographers were there to ask incisive artistic questions about what these man-altered landscapes might mean, in a variety of contexts – socially, environmentally, conceptually, and even psychically. In many cases, their photographs were initially branded as “ugly”, in that they featured unfinished construction projects, dusty debris, dispiriting strip malls, and dull low-rise structures that seemed awkward and out of place in those otherwise wide open landscapes. And even at their most formally elegant, the pictures were an uncomfortable wake-up call, showing us that in creating settlements that seemed to be the cheapest and least thoughtful possible solutions to the needs of the growing number of inhabitants, we were unknowingly making stubbornly problematic long range decisions about how we might live in the these places.

Michael Ashkin’s unflinchingly austere photobook Were It Not For effectively picks up the Adams and Baltz aesthetic story roughly half a century later, and what he discovers is predictably bleak. Askhin has wandered out to the cities and towns along the edges of the Mojave Desert in California, and it is here on the margins that the struggle between the semblance of civilization and the unforgiving desert is being fought every day. His understated black and white photographs carefully examine the in-between zones, where the dirt and scrub brush wastelands rub up against housing developments, commercial strips, and industrial areas, and where nature is by no means giving in. Like the works of his predecessors, Ashkin’s photographs are the antithesis of anything grand or majestic, settling instead into a low simmer of frustration, decay, and outright exhaustion. In a sense, he’s found the endpoint of what the New Topographics photographers began, and the lessons they tried to teach us are still very much unlearned.

Part of what makes Were It Not For so successful is that it uses text to smartly enhance our engagement with the images, but not in the usual essay-by-a-scholar-at-the-end manner. Instead, Ashkin has composed 670 sentence fragments, each one beginning with the four words “were it not for”. These phrases are arranged as poetic lists that start and end the photobook, and as individual image captions that accompany the photographs and blank pages. When integrated with photographs that are at some points disheartening, uneasy, and even ominous, the phrases read like a series of explanations, rationalizations, unintended consequences, and even excuses – were it not for the friend who failed to return, were it not for the weight of history, were it not for the failed revolution, were it not for the life of poverty, were it not for the media circus, were it not for the utter stupidity, were it not for the inadequate training, were it not for tripwires, were it not for the cowardice, were it not for the war after the war, were it not for the tragedy, were it not for the blind obedience – Ashkin goes on and on, the repeated patterns of words like a metronome or a pounding refrain. And then those same words swing back around, as we seemingly assign blame elsewhere and deflect responsibility for the grim conditions Ashkin shows us in his photographs.

Most of the images in Were It Not For are layered landscapes, with dirt, concrete, or untamed desert in the foreground, the built environment in the middle, and the featureless sky or the mountains in the distance. Ashkin uses this basic compositional structure almost like a template, switching out variations in the three sections and creating stacked light to dark contrasts. Many pictures are centered on faceless blocky buildings, surrounded by parking lots, chain link fencing, city streets with curbs, and cinderblock walls, and vertically interrupted by telephone poles and scraggly palm trees. In a few cases, Ashkin offers us a recognizable brand in the form of a commercial logo – Holiday Inn, Wells Fargo, McDonald’s, Jiffy Lube, Chevron – reminding us of the corporate incursion into even marginal places like these, but mostly his subjects are mutely anonymous. Self storage units, RV parks, eighteen wheeler trucks, factories and mines in the distance, they all decorate the essential fight between the roughness of the desert and the hard edges of human settlement, and in several cases, the desert is encroaching with so much momentum that the buildings look like they are literally drowning in crusty sand. In general, Ashkin has arranged the elements with a sense of messy elegance, the forms and lines overlapping with quiet precision.

With this stage set, Ashkin then begins a slow movement inward, toward more closely observed scenes and details, and as Ashkin’s framing gets more intimate, small discoveries begin to enliven the desolation. He finds abandoned mattresses, twisted hoses, broken plumbing pipes, furrows and tire tracks in the dirt, a half buried boat, and a several gestural tire skids, turning each into a careful study. He looks closely at a jumble of plastic garbage trapped near a chainlink fence, puzzles over a fire hydrant in the scrub and a tower of shoes tied to a hockey stick, sees lonely isolation in a chair in the desert and a sink mounted on a wall, and notices the white wrappings on palm tress that match the sky like something out of a John Pfahl landscape. These images offer mysterious artifacts of human touch, almost like Ashkin is making an archaeological dig.

Gritty textures are everywhere in these photographs, and many of Ashkin’s pictures focus our attention almost entirely on these surfaces. He narrows in on rubble piles and construction debris, thickets of leafless bushes and desert sticks, tangles of barbed wire, and numerous sandy wastes and scarred piles of dirt. He turns a rocky dry river bed into a visual echo of Roger Fenton’s skulls, sees a gathering of janitorial carts as a jumble of jutting lines and angles, and makes us look again at everything from car bumpers to paving stones. Ashkin then goes further, looking straight down at the discarded junk of the desert (like Baltz did), cropping his views down and turning the objects into found still lifes. He isolates ragged clothing, a crushed can, a buried running shoe, a smashed mirror, some desiccated fish bones, a few plastic water bottles and disposable forks, and two all over abstractions of strewn nails and screws, each view becoming sculptural.

The tension between ugliness and beauty seethes through almost all of Ashkin’s photographs – while the landscape visions he has presented are often despairing and somber, his photographic execution is consistently nuanced and surprisingly poetic. This dissonance further amplifies our unease, as seeing such beautiful photographs of desolate and wretched conditions confuses our instincts. The elegant, pared down design of Were It Not For keeps our attention on this friction, with large reproductions that fill generously sized pages and the drum beat of phrases running underneath as a constant reminder of broader legacies and consequences. And the images and text are in unusually potent synergy here, the combination enhancing the overall power and impact of Ashkin’s point of view.

The maturity and grace of Were It Not For make it stand out from the wash of other photobooks published of late – it is a piercingly refined package that knows exactly what it is doing. Following in the footsteps of photographic masters is never an easy path, but Ashkin has succeeded widely – in honoring the trail blazers, updating the discussion for contemporary times, and boldly making the subject his own.

Collector’s POV: Michael Ashkin does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely connect directly with the artist via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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