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Everything old is new

Adair Oesterle's Montana Photographs shine a fresh light on worn subjects



For the next few weeks, Missoulians can dodge the shitty weather of mid-winter western Montana without missing the scenery. Photographer Adair L. Oesterle is showing a collection of prints at the Catalyst, a quiet, hipster coffee shop on Higgins Ave. Despite the humble title—Montana Photographs—the 14 pieces that make up the show are a spectacular contribution to Montana-themed photography, a body of art that often feels played out. Granted, if you take away the fields, farmers, mountains, horses, old trucks and hobos, Montana would likely cease to attract so many roving artists. But applying the lens to such overdone subjects absolutely necessitates a fresh take, which Oesterle’s show indisputably brings. The show is a spatial trip through Montana at a time of year when travel is an unwelcome nuisance. It is also a temporal journey, surveying the effects time has had both on Earth and on the stuff we’ve built on Earth over the years.

I’ve been a fan of Adair L. Oesterle’s photography since I saw her previous collection, Passage, at the Catalyst in May, 2002. Passage included portions of a larger series on tugboat operators working in San Francisco Bay. By the time the photos from Passage made it to Missoula, many of them had already graced a number of California venues, including UC- Berkeley’s Richardson Hall Gallery. While working on her tugboat series, which is collected in its entirety under the title Tug, Oesterle used a Russian-made Horizon 202, capturing panoramic images with full 120-degree views. “I was interested in trying to photograph subjects in their full context,” says Oesterle. The horizontal aspects of the Tug photographs stretch in an exaggerated, yawning arch, like the view of an ocean from a plane on a clear day. In some shots, Oesterle further exaggerated the panoramic effect by photographing the tugs as they passed beneath sets of scaffolding erected for maintenance work on the Bay Bridge. Her tugboat collection is a study of machines at work, but the all-encompassing photographs managed to illuminate surrounding details as well, ultimately providing an encapsulated view of a waterway, a city, and a way of life. (In the future, Oesterle plans to photograph tugs along the Pacific coast, from Baja to Alaska.)

Oesterle’s stylistic choices reflect her devotion to what she describes as a “more classic, traditional and truthful approach.” She tends to favor black and white, which I appreciate for its rawness, and which served Tug beautifully, but black and white has a manipulative effect that artists who deal in Americana and social antiquities often exploit; with the right light and the right film, an adept photographer could make an intercontinental ballistic missile look harmless and cute. With Montana Photographs, Oesterle has helped herself dodge such criticism by examining the Montana countryside with color film. In Tug we saw relatively new machinery made to look sort of old-timey with black and white techniques, but in Montana we have the opposite: the aged made to look new.

Adair Oesterle was born in Abilene, Texas, and grew up in southern California. She’s been a student of photography since she was 11, when she received a Kodak Instamatic camera as a gift and started climbing trees to get a better look at the ground. She earned a degree in biology and science history from Scripps College in Claremont, Calif. in 1985, then pursued graduate work at the University of California and San Francisco State University. For years, she has juggled her photography with various full-time science-related jobs. In 2001, she moved to Missoula and has since been exploring and photographing the countryside of Montana while working remotely for a small bio-tech company based in the Bay Area of California. Oesterle’s work with technical machines and equipment no doubt led her to working with a collection of dinosaur cameras.

“On my Montana work, and other projects, I was interested in the way history accumulates on items,” says Oesterle. “I took those photographs with non-programmable manual cameras from the 1950s and 1960s. Some of it was done with a 1950s Rolleiflex. The cameras are my working antiques. I guess my 35mm Leica M3 is a collector’s item, but I like to keep it circulating, you know, not setting on a shelf. I can do things with those old lenses that I can’t do with modern equipment.”

Oesterle’s belief that history accumulates on, rather than detracts from, the world (and cameras), is perhaps the key to the Montana Photographs series. At a glance, the collection might seem to be a comparison between geological time’s harsh effects on man-made goods, and its relative gentleness on the natural world. Many of Oesterle’s subjects are trashed out, rusted out, dinged up, faded, chipped, washed away. But Oesterle’s camera work has a way of re-defining her subjects, like they’ve been sitting out in the sun for a few decades just waiting to pose for her pictures.

The photograph that Oesterle titled “Sanforized” is of an old advertisement for Lee Riders blue jeans painted on an eroded red brick wall in Drummond, Mont. If it weren’t for the dented-up metal exhaust vent protruding from the wall in the middle of the deteriorated painting, one would think the photograph was just another modern marketing attempt at rustic cowboy quaintness. The piece called “1945 Sno-Cat,” a close-up of a diseased and screw-pocked sheet-metal sign for Montana Power, gives this “new oldness” effect a twist. The piece, at least to me, is a commentary on both aging and the ineptitude recently demonstrated by America’s utility peddlers. But whatever vividness time has worn away, Oesterle replaces with sharp, high-contrast natural light. The Montana Power logo is actually a painted decal on the door of a 1945 Sno-Cat parked in front of a café in Wise River, Mont. Interestingly, the owner of the Sno-Cat intends to get the machine back up and running.

My favorite piece in the collection is “Trailer,” a photo of an aluminum camper trailer parked on a bed of snow in Hall, Mont. The aluminum is a brushed and sand-blasted mosaic of white and metallic hues. An antique from another era peeks out from behind the trailer: a white satellite dish as tall as a man, aiming toward the sky in a desperate attempt at communication. The whole image is reminiscent of a lonely, domestic scene from a forgotten 1950s moonscape.

Plenty of the images in Montana Photographs will be familiar to anyone who’s spent time cruising around Montana in a car. To somewhat disappointing effect, Oesterle has also included a few of the classics. I don’t like to think of the artist waiting in line behind tourists to get her shots, so I quickly passed over a couple of prominent, monumental landscapes, such as Lake MacDonald. Other shots, though familiar, are revitalized by Oesterle’s skillful timing and framing. “Used Cow Lot,” a photo of that freakish Texas longhorn skull hanging along the main drag in Drummond, Mont., brought me back to the first time I saw the head, when I wondered if it was from a real animal (I’m betting that it ain’t). And then you’ve got grain towers emblazoned with the G.E. Mills logo along the tracks in Cascade County, a café in Wise River, a landscape of Bass Creek in the Bitterroot Valley, the Mission Mountains in Ravalli County, Jewel Basin in Bigfork, Mont. A couple of Oesterle’s landscapes would be better described as sky-scapes. In “Insular,” a lonely old farmhouse sits in a lonely old field beneath a layer of haze that could make Richard Simmons depressed. In “Vortex,” the clouds look as though they’ve suffered the forces of erosion, as if the sky is a gigantic field of blackened earth, plowed into furrows, awaiting winter freeze.

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