Close your eyes and continue looking. There is a fluctuating monochrome, a view that is outward and inward at once. From within this space, try to summon an image - perhaps a place you’ve been. Where was it? When? Can you retrieve it quickly? For me, there is the turbulence of forming in a grayish field, the muck of memory. Like the advancement of any traveler - arrival is something to come, a promise.
Sharon Harper's photographic landscapes are inchoate documents of herself rapidly passing through Germany. Imagine her, looking through the lens of a camera pressed up to the window of a 200-mile per hour train, surrounded by commuters on their way to work. She cannot see what is approaching—a grove of trees, a strip of road, cloud formations. Often she is shooting into the sun, which reduces her vision of the passing countryside into patterns of brightness and shadow. Surely she can feel the passengers looking at her looking, as she attempts to capture on film what's coming before it has past.
Writer Quentin Crisp said that he traveled not to see, but to be seen. For Harper, travel is about hurtling through scene as a starting point, a way to collect the raw material that she will ultimately unpack through laboriously slow procedures in the darkroom. Both are isolating situations filled with anticipation, loneliness, boredom, and expectation. These feelings infuse her photos, which in velvety blacks, smudgy grays, and soft whites are fictions of place—the constructed combination of what is (the physical site), and how we feel about it (histories, projections, fantasies, fears).
Harper says that when she takes pictures "the environment around me disappears. I go into my head and it falls away," and that being on the train is "the physical manifestation of a process of finding…to feel yourself coming to yourself." Her project measures both physical and psychic distances and valorizes the ephemeral. Perhaps it is not surprising that she describes her printing process as "alchemical…drawing the image up from the paper itself. They don't look like the contact sheet. I lay as much light on as I can and still get an image… I attempt to pull them out of the paper." The finished prints possess the graphic qualities of exploratory charcoal drawings, with soft powder rubbed into the tooth of paper, dark lines suggesting a form, and crisp highlights picked out with an eraser. In this, Harper's work contains some of the gauzy melancholy of pictorialism, developed in the last decades of the 19th century and known for embracing mood and mystery. She achieves this by adding the element of super-speed (the train) to the history of photographic examinations of motion (primarily made by stopping it, as in the human and animal sequences of Eadweard Muybridge and the stroboscopic wizardry of Harold Edgerton), allowing her to partake of two distinct traditions. To these I would add a third, poetry - with its ability to illuminate inner and outer worlds.
With her Flug (Flight) series, Sharon Harper offers fragments of the fugitive - the artist in transit, alone but surrounded by a public, as she collects streaky evidence of places in time. Her landscapes are dense abstractions and porous representations; difficult to grasp and likely to change, disperse, or retreat into the unique combination of darkness and light from which they came. They remind us that to move is both to pass from one place to another in continuous motion, and to rouse up and stir emotions.
Stuart Horodner is the Director and Curator of the Bucknell art Gallery of Bucknell University, Lewisburg, PA. His current projects include a traveling exhibition of recent paintings by Leon Golub and Walking, a survey of contemporary art dealing with this theme. He is a frequent contributor to art magazines and journals in the United States.