Book Review Cubic Feet/Sec. By Andrew Phelps Reviewed by Karen Jenkins Over a thirty-four year period beginning in 1979, Andrew Phelps, his father and assorted friends took nine trips together through the Grand Canyon, rafting along the Colorado River. A camera was essential gear on each journey; beginning with eleven-year old Andrew’s Kodak Instamatic 110, replaced through the years by other formats, all taken up in a desire to share the adventure.
Reviewed by Karen Jenkins
By Andrew Phelps
Fotohof, Salzburg, Austria, 2015. In English. 112 pp., 60 illustrations, 7x9".
Over a thirty-four year period beginning in 1979, Andrew Phelps, his father and assorted friends took nine trips together through the Grand Canyon, rafting along the Colorado River. A camera was essential gear on each journey; beginning with eleven-year old Andrew’s Kodak Instamatic 110, replaced through the years by other formats, all taken up in a desire to share the adventure. Yet the slide shows expectantly culled from each trip’s exposures fell short, as Phelps found himself disappointed by the photographs’ inability to faithfully conjure his experiences for his armchair travelers back home. Now, a few years after the final trip has ended, he’s thought back over these journeys and combed through their multitudinous photographs, in a reexamination of failure. This time around, Phelps rejects the singular in favor of the collective, and draws photographs from each trip’s cache, made by himself, his father and others. The reimagined adventure of Cubic Feet/Sec. collapses time and disregards contiguousness and even authorship in favor of crafting one last, essential show that finally gets the story right.
The big themes of Phelps’ story emerge easily and effortlessly draw you in. With his savvy as a now mature photographer and curator, he taps into that quality of vernacular photography that feels somewhat unrooted from a temporal context and populated by representative types — father and son, guide and explorer. Phelps and his fellow cast members are often shot from a distance, small in the epic landscape of canyon and river. The figures may be put in their (relative) place, but they do insistently belong — one shot is all shadowy silhouettes of each adventurer, dark against a bright rock face, embedded in its surface and integral to the scene. Phelps also comes in close; including many in-the-moment scenes of himself and others taking in the details and the simple pleasures of leaping off a ledge or cooling off under a waterfall. Yet belonging is not staying the same, and if part of the story draws on the idea of immutable forms and forces, Phelps’ tale doesn’t entirely camouflage the inevitable change. Within these images, he and his father grow older. A young boy matures, and his bearded dad also evolves through each iteration of the trip (despite the near-constancy of his cut-off jeans).
In the face of change, photography has long been asked to freeze time, to faithfully preserve the fleeting and ephemeral. Yet in those periods immediately following each Canyon trip, Phelps wasn’t thinking in terms of the past; with the adventure still fresh and front of mind, he was keen to share a contemporary story. In this, the photographs were a perennial disappointment. He writes: “Though I’m sure most people who saw our shows went away with a thrill, I could never help feeling that photography was never going to do what I wanted it to do. This failure, of course, is not photography’s, but mine and my lack of understanding what it can never do.” I’m reminded of what Sally Mann argued in her recent memoir — that photographs, rather than being an aid to recollection, actually overwrite our ‘real’ experiences, supplanting rather than enhancing an accurate conjuring. To the extent that Phelps’ is now guided by a similar determination, Cubic Feet/Sec. is a liberation. In creating a new cut, irrespective of time, order of events, and inclusivity, Phelps releases the photographs from his prior demands of fidelity to one true adventure. No one steps into the same river twice. Phelps taps into the latent power of these photographs to finally be good enough, to stand in for something over and gone, and instantly transformed — an evocation, not a documentation, a story of a trip of a lifetime.—KAREN JENKINS
KAREN JENKINS earned a Master's degree in Art History, specializing in the History of Photography from the University of Arizona. She has held curatorial positions at the Center for Creative Photography in Tucson, AZ and the Demuth Museum in Lancaster, PA. Most recently she helped to debut a new arts project, Art in the Open Philadelphia, that challenges contemporary artists to reimagine the tradition of creating works of art en plein air for the 21st century.
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